Clemson came into the 1991 season as the favorite to win the ACC.
The Tigers returned stars such as quarterback DeChane Cameron, running back Ronald Williams and wide receiver Terry Smith from a team that went 10-2 in 1990 and finished No. 9 in the final AP Poll. They also had one of the best offensive lines in the country, which was led by All-American guard Jeb Flesch.
Clemson had the best offense in the ACC in 1991, including a rushing attack that averaged 251.6 yards per game. The Tigers averaged 403.0 yards overall, which ranked first in the conference.
But don’t be fooled. As good as the Tigers were on offense, defense was still their bread and butter and in 1991 they were just as good as they were the year before when they led the country in total defense. All-American linebackers Levon Kirkland and Ed McDaniel, teamed up with All-American nose guard Rob Bodine to form the best defensive unit in the ACC and the fourth best in the country. They also led the nation in rushing defense, giving up just 61.1 yards per game.
But to win the ACC, Clemson knew it had to knock off Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets were the defending national champions and returned quarterback Shawn Jones and a defense that was just as good as Clemson and ranked eighth nationally.
Georgia Tech also had a two-game winning streak on the Tigers and were the last team to beat Clemson at Death Valley. Clemson had a 10-game home winning streak when the 19th-ranked Yellow Jackets visited No. 7 Clemson on September 28, 1991. It was just the sixth game between top 20 teams in the 50-year history of Memorial Stadium.
After losing to Penn State in their season-opener, Tech bounced back with wins over Boston College and Virginia. The Tigers had a much easier path to this point, as they stomped App State 34-0 and then beat Temple, 34-7.
In no real surprise, it was the two defense that dominated the game, which was televised nationally by ABC. Clemson struggled to get its running attack going, while Jones was harassed all afternoon by the Clemson defense.
However, the Yellow Jackets struck first on the Tigers when Jones led his team on an 84-yard drive, which turned out to be the second longest drive of the season. Jones took the ball himself into the end zone from 10 yards out, after freshman running back Jimy Lincoln broke off a 59-yard run.
The run was the longest allowed by the Clemson defense in two seasons. Lincoln finished the day with 94 rushing yards, the most by an opposing running back in 36 games.
The Tigers did very little on offense in the opening half and did not get on the scoreboard until the last play when freshman kicker Nelson Welch was true on a 47-yard field goal.
Clemson stymied Tech’s offense after its first-quarter touchdown. The Yellow Jackets had just 198 yards of offense the rest of the game.
The Tigers finally grabbed the lead in the fourth quarter when they took over at the Georgia Tech 46-yard line with 4:30 to play. The good field position was set up thanks to a 23-yard Robert O’Neal punt return.
From there, Williams and the offensive line took over. The running back from Ninety-Six, S.C, gained all 46 yards, capping the six-play drive with a 2-yard run with 2:06 to play.
Unfortunately for Clemson, there was an issue with the snap on the extra point try, as its lead remained at two points, 9-7, opening the door for Tech to win the game with a field goal.
Jones, who had struggled all day passing the ball and was intercepted twice, quickly moved the Yellow Jackets into field goal position, driving the ball to the Clemson 27 with eight seconds to play. But Scott Session, who had kicked several game-winning field goals for the Yellow Jackets in the past and was considered one of the nation’s best kickers, pushed his 44-yard attempt to the right, sending the 83,194 fans packed into Death Valley into a frenzy.
The win moved the Tigers to 3-0 and up to No. 6 in the polls, their highest ranking in the AP Poll since 1988. Clemson fans again started thinking about another run at a national championship. However, that would all end the next week.
—photo courtesy of Clemson Athletic Communications
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