How would it have changed Clemson, Florida State and college football history?
On the last day of my vacation, I was cleaning up my office when I came across the tape of Florida State’s visit to Clemson in 1988. Of course, this is the infamous “Puntrooskie” game. It’s infamous only in Clemson history, of course, but it is considered one of the more memorable plays in the history of college football.
I don’t have to explain what happened on that wet afternoon at Death Valley because many of you reading this already know what took place and I will spare you the pain of reliving it again. However, the events that led to the Seminoles’ 24-21 victory over the Tigers that day did get me to thinking, “What if?”
What if Puntrooskie never happened? What if Clemson won the game? How would it have changed college football history?
Prior to LeRoy Butler’s 78-yard jaunt to the Tigers’ one-yard line, Clemson had an opportunity to possibly win the game. On third down, Florida State quarterback Chip Ferguson had the football slip out his hands, as he went to throw a pass. The ball fluttered towards a diving Vince Taylor.
It appeared the Clemson linebacker was going to have an interception that would have given the Tigers the football inside the Florida State 30-yard line with 1:33 to play. But Taylor could not hang on to the football, as it slipped through his arms and hit the ground.
What if Taylor had caught the ball and Clemson had a first down deep inside Seminoles’ territory? Granted, there was no guarantee the Tigers would have won the game, but they likely would not have lost the game. In 1988, there was no overtime in college football.
But if Taylor made the interception, I like to believe Clemson would have won the game. The Tigers scored with 2:32 to play to the tie game at 21, when fullback Tracy Johnson capped a long scoring drive with a 19-yard rumble into the FSU end zone. Just a few plays before, Johnson ran for a first down to the FSU 31 on fourth-and-short to keep the drive alive.
Clemson had all the momentum and Taylor’s interception would have ended the Seminoles’ will. The Tigers still had two timeouts to drive the ball closer for a possible field goal. Kicker Chris Gardocki, who had one of the more powerful legs in college football, likely would have made an easy attempt. He finished his Clemson career 24-of-25 on field goal attempts inside 30 yards.
What if Gardocki got his opportunity and Clemson won the game? What would have happened afterwards?
Remember, Clemson was ranked No. 3 in the country at the time of the Florida State game. A win would have moved the Tigers to 3-0 with only games against ranked teams Duke and South Carolina at home and a road to a top 25 NC State team remaining on the schedule.
Clemson easily crushed the Blue Devils and Gamecocks in 1988, but it did lose to NC State, 10-3. However, would it have happened had the Tigers been 6-0 and still ranked in the top 3 when they met?
In the week of the Clemson-Florida State game in 1988, Miami was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Poll and UCLA was No. 2. The Hurricanes eventually lost to eventual national champion Notre Dame, 31-30, on October 15, 1988, while the Bruins lost two weeks later to Washington State at home.
That means Clemson possibly could have been the top-ranked team in the country and likely would have played Notre Dame for the national championship.
Now, think about this. How would all of that changed what we know happened following Puntrooskie? Remember, 1988 was just FSU’s second year in which it compiled 14 straight top 5 finishes and 10-plus win seasons from 1987-2000.
Would the Seminoles go on that streak without Puntrooskie?
FSU joined the ACC in 1992 and started a run of dominance in the conference, winning at least a share of the league’s title for nine straight years. Would that have happened had Clemson won the 1988 game and went on to play for the national championship that year?
Would then Clemson President Max Lennon be able to force Danny Ford to resign in January of 1990 had Ford been a two-time national championship coach? Had there not been a Puntrooskie, Ford likely remains at Clemson for another decade or so, challenging the Seminoles every year for ACC supremacy and maybe winning another national championship or two along the way.
There are a lot of “What ifs” surrounding Puntrooskie and what it meant to the history of Clemson and Florida State football. And though it was a painful moment and then a painful two-plus decades that followed for the Tigers, everything worked out in the end.
It all came full circle in 2016 when Deshaun Watson led the Tigers on a last-minute drive to break the Seminoles’ hearts in Tallahassee. Since then, Clemson has won two more national championships and is in the middle of one of the greatest runs in the history of college football.
Now, will the Seminoles sit back and play the “What if?” game for the next two decades?
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