Clemson Flashback: Tigers beat Nebraska to win first national championship

Clemson Flashback: Tigers beat Nebraska to win first national championship

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Clemson Flashback: Tigers beat Nebraska to win first national championship

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Clemson wraps up undefeated season with Orange Bowl victory

Clemson moved into the No. 1 spot a week after they concluded the 1981 regular season with a win over South Carolina. Penn State beat Dan Marino and previously No. 1 Pittsburgh, 42-14, propelling the Tigers to the top of the polls as they headed to play Nebraska in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day.

It marked the first time Clemson was ranked No. 1 in the polls in school history.

“We know we have one more thing to do,” head coach Danny Ford said. “I’m just like everybody else, I want to see how good Clemson is. We’ve proved already that we’re a great football team. The only thing that stands in our way now is Nebraska.

“Georgia can’t do nothing. Alabama can’t do nothing. And Penn State can’t do nothing. That’s the way it ought to be. This team has done its own business all year long. They just went ahead and did it all themselves. Now they have a chance to do it again.”

The 1982 Orange Bowl Classic was Clemson’s first Orange Bowl appearance in 25 years. Homer Jordan, the game’s Most Valuable Offensive Player, completed 11-of-22 passes and had 180 yards of total offense in leading the Tigers. Jeff Davis, the Defensive MVP, had 14 tackles.

Bill Smith, now on the Clemson Board of Trustees, had a career high 10 tackles in the Tigers’ 22-15 victory over No. 4 Nebraska.

“No matter what they say, nobody else in the country has done what we’ve done this year,” Ford said after the game. “We beat the No. 2 team (Georgia), the No. 4 team (Nebraska) and we beat the No. 8 team (North Carolina). We’ve beaten three teams in the top 10 and nobody else has beaten even two.

“We played 11 and whipped 11 to get to be No. 1. Now, we’ve played 12 and whipped 12.”

Nebraska took the opening kickoff, but three plays later, Clemson middle guard William Devane recovered a Mark Mauer fumble at the Nebraska 33.

Jordan drove Clemson to the Nebraska 24 before the drive stalled, and Donald Igwebuike drilled a 41-yard field goal to put the Tigers up, 3-0.

The Cornhuskers came right back, as the Big Eight Champions drove 69 yards in eight plays to score on a 25-yard halfback pass from Mike Rozier to Anthony Steels. Kevin Seibel’s extra point gave Nebraska the lead at 7-3 with 6:43 to go in the first quarter.

After an exchange of punts, the Clemson offense moved from the Nebraska 42 to the 21 to set up Igwebuike’s second field goal on the night. The 37-yard boot narrowed the score to 7-6.

Davis recovered a second-quarter Phil Bates fumble that gave Clemson the ball at the Nebraska 27. The running combination of Jordan, Kevin Mack, and Cliff Austin moved the ball to the Cornhuskers’ two.

Austin, who had been stuck in a hotel elevator for two hours earlier in the day, scampered in for the score that gave Clemson a 12-7 lead. The Tigers never trailed again.

On its second possession of the second half, Clemson drove 75 yards in 12 plays to score its final touchdown of the night, a 13-yard pass from Jordan to All-American receiver Perry Tuttle in the corner of the end zone. For Tuttle, it was his eighth touchdown grab of the season, which set a school record. Bob Paulling’s extra point put the Tigers ahead, 19-7.

Now in control of the game, Billy Davis returned a punt 47 yards to set Clemson up in great field position, again. Jordan moved the ball to the Nebraska 20, where Igwebuike kicked a 36-yard field goal, his third of the evening, to put Clemson ahead 22-7 with two-and-a half minutes left in the third quarter.

The Cornhuskers to rally, as Mauer engineered an eight-play, 69-yard drive that was capped with a 26-yard run by Roger Craig. After a penalty, Craig ran in the two-point conversion from eight yards out to close the gap to 22-15 with nine minutes to play.

“When Nebraska tried to come back, we had a little talk,” Clemson nose tackle William Perry said. “We had come too far, worked too hard and had too many people cheering for us.

“When we went out there in the fourth quarter, we just took it to them. There was too much riding on this for us to blow it.”

The Clemson defense shut down the Big Red offense on their final extended drive, then the Tigers’ offense held on to the ball for nearly five-and-a-half minutes to run the clock down to six seconds. Andy Headen deflected Mauer’s desperation pass at the end of the game to preserve the win and the 1981 National Championship.

“We earned that thing,” Davis said. “Not in a sense that we beat everybody or were more talented. We earned that thing on the practice field. That’s where we won our national championship.

“We didn’t win the national championship in the Orange Bowl in Miami. We won that thing on those practice fields. Coach Ford worked us. If I could say anything that could define us, I would say that was it. We knew how to work. When you know how to work, there is no give up and there is no satisfaction when you know how to work.

“The only thing you know is that I have to work until this last whistle and that’s the mindset,” Davis continued. “Hard work equals mental toughness. Mental toughness means you do the little things. Doing the little things means that you are detailed and anything that is excellent is detailed. That thing has marked us for the rest of our lives. I know it has for me, anyway. No matter what it is, the car business, the ministry, the fundraising … I expect to be the best at what I do. That is how you know it is real.”

Clemson began the 1981 season unranked and unproven, but when it was all said and done, the Tigers were the only undefeated and untied team in the country. They may not have looked perfect at times, but their 12-0 record said otherwise.

“They were a terrific group and they set out to accomplish one goal, and that was to be perfect,” Ford said.

–file photo courtesy of Clemson Athletic Communications 

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