When Clemson started the 1987 football season, it was considered a true contender for the national championship.
The Tigers returned a lot of star-power from the previous year when they won the ACC and went 8-2-2. With a favorable schedule, many thought they had a good chance go through the regular season undefeated.
However, they stubbed their toe at home against NC State and then were ambushed in Columbia in the regular-season finale against rival South Carolina. Clemson fans were not happy with the way they played in a 20-7 loss to the Gamecocks and at the center of the discussion was quarterback Rodney Williams, who had been criticized all year by the fans and the media.
But one guy who was not criticizing him was Penn State head coach Joe Paterno. His 20th-ranked Nittany Lions were taking on No. 14 Clemson in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day in Orlando.
In the week leading up to the game, Paterno said Williams was underrated and was a good college quarterback. Williams proved the Hall of Fame coach right.
In 1987, Clemson was one of the best rushing teams in the country. Thanks to Terry Allen, who set a freshman record for rushing yards in a season at the time with 973 yards, Clemson averaged 247.7 yards per game on the ground.
However, Williams came out throwing the ball against the Nittany Lions and he threw it often, mostly on first down. He completed 15 of 24 passes for 214 yards, surprising Penn State who came into the game focused on stacking the box and stopping the run.
“Our game plan coming into the game was to throw the ball on first down to keep Penn State off balance because they were so good against the run,” Williams said after the game. “We decided we were going to come in and throw the ball a lot more than we did in the regular season.”
The plan worked perfectly, as Clemson racked up 499 total yards in a 35-10 victory. Williams was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, the second straight year he was named the MVP of a bowl game.
“Clemson played a great football game and just kicked our rears,” Paterno said. “There was not any key. I just think Clemson played extremely well in every area.”
The loss was Penn State’s worse in a bowl game under Paterno. The Tigers finished the game with 25 first downs and rushed for 285 yards.
Fullback Tracy Johnson scored three touchdowns, while Allen darted for a 25-yard score on his way to a 105-yard afternoon. Johnson finished with 88 yards.
Backup tailback Joe Henderson added 54 yards and another touchdown. Wide receiver Keith Jennings caught seven passes for 110 yards in the game, both Clemson bowl records at the time.
On defense, the Tigers were led by cornerback James Lott’s eight tackles, while safety Richard Smith had seven. Fellow safety Gene Beasley and linebacker Doug Brewster both added six tackles. Linebacker Dorian Mariable, the defensive MVP, had five tackles and intercepted a third-quarter pass in the end zone and returned it 46 yards.
Overall, Clemson had two key defensive stops in the first and the second half that allowed it to take control of the game. Penn State finished the afternoon with 305 total yards.
The win was Ford’s fourth bowl victory at Clemson. Three of those wins came over Hall of Fame head coaches Woody Hayes, Tom Osborne and Paterno, all of which won multiple national championships.
The Tigers finished the year with a 10-2 record, just the fourth team in Clemson history to win at least 10 games in a season. They also finished No. 12 in the final AP Poll.
—file photo courtesy of Clemson Athletic Communications
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