Following a win over South Carolina to close the 1990 regular season, 14th-ranked Clemson accepted a bid to play in the Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa, Fla., on New Year’s Day. The Tigers’ opponent was from the Big Ten, as John Mackovic turned Illinois into a winner and the Illini ranked 16th in the country.
Mackovic was no stranger to Clemson head coach Ken Hatfield. The two were graduate assistant coaches at Army in 1968 and were good friends.
“We used to play basketball together almost every night in the summer at Army,” Hatfield recalled in the 1991 book Death Valley Days. “Those were some great times there because there were some great coaching minds there. Bob Knight was the basketball coach, Bill Parcells was on the football staff and even Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) was a point guard on the basketball team.”
The game was being built up as a defensive gem. Clemson led the nation in total defense in 1990, holding opponents to 219.2 yards per game. They also ranked second in scoring defense, yielding just 9.1 points per outing. Illinois was also very talented on defense and was one of the Big Ten’s best units.
The Illini was also very dynamic on offense, too. They had All-Big Ten quarterback Jason Verduzco, who helped Illinois lead the conference in scoring and passing offense. Given the pro-style system Illinois liked to run, this was supposed to be the toughest challenge all year for the Clemson defense.
During bowl prep, Clemson lost All-American defensive tackle Rob Bodine with a knee injury and starting center Curtis Whitley was suspended for the game due to a violation of team rules. However, none of it seemed to bother the Tigers.
Clemson scored 24 points in the first 22 minutes of the game. The Tigers took the opening kick and marched right down the field, as All-American kicker Chris Gardocki capped it with an 18-yard field goal.
It did not take long for the Clemson defense to make an impact. On Illinois’ first offensive play, defensive tackle Chester McGlockton forced a fumble and outside bandit end John Johnson recovered the football for the Tigers at the Illini 14-yard line.
On the next play, quarterback DeChane Cameron threw a touchdown pass to Doug Thomas and just like the Tigers were up 10-0 with 6:58 to play in the first quarter.
Cameron threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Howard Hall in the second quarter for a 17-0 lead and then Arlington Nunn snagged a Verduzco pass and raced 34 yards for a touchdown, giving Clemson a 24-0 lead with 9:39 to play in the opening half.
“The interception return was a special thrill for me,” Nunn said afterward. “I’m from Clearwater and played my last high school game in this stadium. Now I am playing my last college game, and who knows, it might be my last game…period. So, to score in my last game was just awesome.”
Gardocki kicked two more field goals with one in the third and one in the fourth quarter to give Clemson a 30-0 lead. The defense continued to harass Verduzco and the Illinois offense.
The Tigers recorded six sacks, two from Johnson, while the defense forced another fumble and linebacker Ed McDaniel had an interception.
The 30-0 victory was Clemson’s largest margin of victory in a bowl game at the time, while the shutout marked the third time in 1990 the Clemson defense kept its opponent scoreless. The Tigers held Illinois to 244 total yards, including just 59 on the ground.
“I don’t know if we have ever played a better defense, and certainly they are as talented as any team we have played at any time,” Mackovic said after the game. “Colorado [the AP National Champion] might have been more explosive on offense, but Clemson ranks above everyone on defense.”
Cameron was named the game’s Most Valuable player, as he completed 14-of-19 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
The win vaulted the Tigers to No. 9 in the final AP Poll, while the program recorded its fifth straight bowl victory and fourth straight 10-win season.
For the Clemson seniors, they finished their careers 40-8, which was an ACC record at the time and their four-year mark was the fourth best record in college football.
—photo Clemson Athletic Communications
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