After slipping up at Virginia in Week 2 of the 1990 season, Clemson got things going with four straight victories, including a 31-point win over Georgia in Week 6.
The Tigers were now 5-1, ranked 15th in the latest AP poll and still in the ACC Championship race when they headed to Atlanta to take on No. 18 Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were having their best season in over a decade. They closed the 1989 season with six wins in their last seven games and were 4-0 heading into this matchup.
It turned out to be another Clemson-Georgia Tech classic, as a long kickoff return did the Tigers in in the end. Chris Gardocki’s 60-yard field goal attempt as time expired fell five yards short as Georgia Tech edged the Tigers, 21-19.
For a second straight year, a loss to the Yellow Jackets eliminated Clemson from the conference championship race. At 5-2, the Tigers had to dig down and find that something extra to salvage the season.
“Hey, it’s good to lose every once in a while,” defensive end Vance Hammond said the week after the loss to Georgia Tech. “You get refocused when you lose. This is going to be a great week of practice because we won’t be lazy. We know our backs are against the wall.
“The last two years we have been in the same position of having to win the remaining games to get a good bowl bid and we are going to do it again.”
Hammond was right. The Tigers got on another roll. The following week they traveled to Raleigh, N.C., and beat a pretty good NC State team, 24-17. They ended a three-game road stand at Wake Forest the next Saturday, which they turned into a 24-6 victory.
Clemson was 7-2 and right where they wanted to be. They moved up to No. 18 in the AP poll and talk of another New Year’s Day bowl bid was in the discussions.
The Tigers returned to Death Valley where they would host an upstart North Carolina team with a young head coach in Mack Brown. In his third season, Brown was slowly building a power in Chapel Hill and the Tar Heels had moved into the top 25 in the coaches’ poll and were 5-2-1 when they traveled to Memorial Stadium on November 3, 1990.
“We felt that North Carolina presented a challenge,” linebacker Levon Kirkland said after the game. “When we saw what they had done to Maryland and then heard the polls, that is all we needed. We took this very seriously to a man.”
Clemson’s defense dominated the game. Kirkland, along with defensive tackle Chester McGlockton, combined to hit UNC quarterback Todd Burnett so hard, it knocked him out of the game on the fourth play of the third quarter.
The Tigers’ defense already scored a touchdown itself, as Dexter Davis intercepted a second-quarter pass and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown with 9:06 to play in the second quarter.
Clemson went on to win the game 20-3, as the defense held the Tar Heels to 78 yards on the ground and 197 overall.
“Clemson’s defense forces you to make something happen, and that plays right into their hands,” Brown said. “They really make a lot of big plays. And they are so quick at every position.”
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