His two interceptions against the Gamecocks sparked the run to the program's first national championship
Clemson’s 1980 game against South Carolina is best remembered as the day Clemson’s famous Orange Pants were born. But what is often forgotten about is the day strong safety Willie Underwood had in his final game as a Clemson Tiger.
There were two plays Underwood made in the Tigers’ 27-6 victory that will forever keep him as one of the heroes of the South Carolina series.
Entering that year’s South Carolina game, then head coach Danny Ford found himself in a pinch. After stumbling and losing their last two games in 1979, and then falling to 5-5 through the first 10 weeks of the 1980 season, Clemson fans became restless and some were calling for Ford’s job.
“It did not look real good for us that week,” Ford said.
It looked even worse with No. 14 South Carolina coming to town. The 8-2 Gamecocks were already Gator Bowl bound and they featured the best running game in the country thanks to running back George Rogers, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy.
Things appeared bleak for Clemson late in the third quarter when the Gamecocks drove the football to the Clemson 16 and was in position to take their first lead of the day. But with 32 seconds remaining in the quarter, Underwood stepped in front of a Garry Harper pass and raced 64 yards down the sideline before stepping out of bounds at the USC 24.
Six plays later, quarterback Homer Jordan called his own number from the one-yard line as the Tigers took a 13-6 lead.
Though Rogers carried the ball 28 times for 168 yards, Clemson’s defense kept him at-bay, and more importantly out of the end zone.
“Our goal was to keep him from breaking the ball outside and make someone else beat us,” said Jeff Davis, Clemson’s former All-American linebacker and now Dabo Swinney’s Director for Player Relations for football.
There was no one else.
On South Carolina’s next possession, following the Jordan touchdown, Harper again tried to go outside with a pass, but the pass was again cut off by Underwood, who this time made sure he did not step out of bounds as he raced 37 yards down the sideline to give Clemson a 20-6 lead.
The two interceptions were the first of Underwood’s’ career, a span of 41 games.
Later on the Tigers got a 15-yard Jeff McCall touchdown to end the scoring in the 27-6 victory. Underwood finished his day with 101 return yards, which is still a Clemson record. He also recorded 17 tackles and was named the National Player of the Week by Sports Illustrated.
The win over the Gamecocks lifted Clemson to its perfect run in 1981, which ended with a 22-15 victory over Nebraska in the 1982 Orange Bowl, sealing the Tigers’ first national championship in football.
Clemson’s All-Rivalry Team vs. South Carolina
DE: Vic Beasley (2011-’14)
DT: Michael Dean Perry (1984-’87)
DT: William Perry (1981-’84)
DE: Jonathan Brooks (1975-’78)
LB: Levon Kirkland (1988-’91)
LB: Jeff Davis (1978-’81)
LB: Ben Boulware (2013-’16)
S: Willie Underwood (1977-’80)
S: Terry Kinard (1979-’82)
CB: Antwan Edwards (1995-’98)
CB: Donnell Woolford (1985-’88)
P: Chris Gardocki (1988-’90)
–Photo courtesy of Clemson Athletic Communications