Clemson returns to Notre Dame 41 years after one of its greatest wins

Clemson returns to Notre Dame 41 years after one of its greatest wins

Football

Clemson returns to Notre Dame 41 years after one of its greatest wins

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‘You have about 75 guys who have that memory etched into their brain’

From the second the bus pulled up at the Holiday Inn in South Bend, Ind., Notre Dame was trying to get into Clemson’s head.

“Everything they did from the time we landed in South Bend, Indiana, was coordinated by Notre Dame,” former Clemson quarterback Billy Lott remembers about the Tigers’ last trip to South Bend in November of 1979.

Lott remembers how the smell of chlorine from the hotel’s inside pool permeated throughout the building. Then, when the Tigers got to the stadium on game day, the bus driver stopped right where the players could see Touchdown Jesus when they got off the bus.

“That was not by accident,” Lott recalled.

In 1979, like now, Notre Dame was one of the top programs in college football. With their traditions and great game day atmosphere, the Irish rarely lost a home game. In fact, at the time, Notre Dame had lost just twice on senior day since Notre Dame Stadium opened its doors in 1930.

But Clemson was not fazed by the Irish’s games. They came to South Bend with one thing on their mind, avenge their 1977 loss to Notre Dame at Death Valley.

“I don’t recall anyone having any doubts whatsoever,” Lott said.

Strange Circumstances

Tim Bourret was making his first trip to South Bend as an employee for Clemson Athletics in 1979. Bourret was an assistant sports information director at Clemson, just his second year on the job. Two years before, when Joe Montana led the Irish from 10-points down to beat the Tigers at Death Valley, he was working for Notre Dame, his alma mater, in its sports information office.

“It was really strange because I knew as many of the Notre Dame players as I knew the Clemson players,” said Bourret, who retired at Clemson after 40 years in the spring of 2018. “A lot of guys were still there. The quarterback in 1979 was Rusty Lisch, who lived in the same dormitory as me, and we were good friends. That was really strange.”

Forty-one years later, Bourret will make his first trip back to South Bend with the Clemson Football team, this time as a color analyst on the broadcast team. Clemson and Notre Dame have played two other times since 1979, both coming in the last five years.

The Tigers beat the Irish, 24-22, in Clemson in 2015, and two years ago they beat Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, 30-3, as part of the College Football Playoff. However, today’s game will mark the first time since Clemson’s 16-10 win over Notre Dame in 1979 it is returning to Notre Dame Stadium.

“This time, I don’t know any of the Notre Dame players. I don’t know Coach (Brian) Kelly,” he said. “The people in sports information are not even there anymore that worked with football, so I am with the Clemson Tigers the whole way.

“Now, I still watch Notre Dame and I still root for Notre Dame and follow the team. I tape their games and watch them. That is what makes this game fun for me to broadcast, because I know both of these teams so well.”

Setting The Scene

In 1979, Notre Dame was not having quite the season it had hoped for. By the time the Tigers rolled into town on November 17, 1979, the Irish was unranked and 6-3 overall.

Clemson on the other hand was having a good year under first-year head coach Danny Ford. The Tigers were 7-2 and ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press Poll. They were looking to go bowling for a third consecutive year.  They also were coming off a road win against a good North Carolina team.

“The other thing I remember about that trip was getting a call from the Gator Bowl just before we left that we could not go there,” Ford said on ClemsonTigers.com back in 2015. “It would have been our third straight and they didn’t want the same team three years in a row, even though we had brought great crowds.

“The players were excited about getting to a big bowl if we beat Notre Dame, and it was a motivating factor.”

But despite being winners in six of their last seven games and the Irish was coming off a loss to Southern Cal, the Tigers were still a six-point underdog.

“It was a huge game for Clemson, and I think there was certainly motivation for the Clemson players because of the close game that had taken place in 1977,” Bourret said. “Notre Dame won the national championship that year, but Clemson had them on the ropes, 17-7, going into the fourth quarter. So, there was some real motivation there from the Clemson guys who were on that ’77 team and had experienced that game.”

While Bourret and his boss, legendary Clemson Sports Information Director Bob Bradley, were making their way to the press box at Notre Dame Stadium, Lott and his teammates headed to the locker room. And because of the way everything had gone to that point, Lott was not surprised at all by what they walked into in the visiting locker room.

“You walk out of the bus and go into a locker room and this was literally a locker room that looked like something out of a Knute Rockne film,” Lott recalled. “It was dark. It was concrete. It smelled of mold. It had twenty-watt light bulbs in it. The showers did not work. The tunnel that goes down to the main area where you run out on the field was so narrow and dimly lit that we literally walked down the steps sideways, foot by foot. These are not coincidences.”

Early on, Notre Dame’s gamesmanship was working. The Irish came storming out of the gate, as they built a 10-0 lead. They racked up 295 yards of offense in the first half, more than Clemson had allowed in any game through the first nine games of the season.

“Just before the half they actually scored a touchdown that would have made the score 17-0, but a Notre Dame offensive lineman was called for holding and it wiped out the play and then Notre Dame missed the field goal at the end of the drive,” Bourret said.

28 Counter Option

Turnovers helped Clemson get back in the game in the third quarter and the Tigers cashed in with two Obed Ariri field goals to cut the Notre Dame lead to 10-6.

Clemson then got the ball back and from the Notre Dame 26, Lott kept the ball on an option to the right side and raced into the end zone for the Tigers’ only touchdown of the game.

“We were on the right hashmark and the play is what we called 28 counter option. It was a staple of our offense for years to come,” Lott said. “It is basically an option where I fake the ball to the left side to our fullback, turn around quickly, run down the line of scrimmage to the defensive end position and you make a read at that point. If the defensive end is crashing down, you have an opportunity to turn the ball up field. If the defensive end is moving in the quarterback’s face, you can pitch the ball out.

“In that situation their defensive end crashed hard and when I got to the end of the line scrimmage, I planted my right foot and started heading toward the end zone and there were three or four Notre Dame guys in the way and we had some good guys blocking down field. Chris Dolce, our pulling guard, actually made two blocks on that play and when I got to about the 10-yard line I remember pushing a little bit harder and ended up in the end zone with the ball over my head and Perry Tuttle standing in the end zone waiting for me.”

Lott’s touchdown run is synonymous with other legendary plays from the Danny Ford era, and it turned out to be the winning touchdown in one of the program’s all-time greatest wins.

“There is something about elation and euphoria that kind of erases the mind,” Lott said when he tried to think back to what it was like to score the winning touchdown at Notre Dame. “I do remember holding the ball up. I do remember jumping in the arms of a couple of guys. But once you get to the sideline and you sit on the bench, you start thinking about it and then you understand we have a chance.

“Years later, you look at the play and a lot of people had to do a lot of good things to make that run possible. And fortunately, I was able to be a part of it.”

Following Lott’s touchdown, Clemson got the ball back with 1:02 to play in the third quarter and went on a long, time consuming drive that took 7:32 off the clock. When the drive finally bogged down at the Notre Dame 20, Ariri booted a 37-yard field goal with 8:30 to play in the game for a 16-10 lead.

Kinard Leaves His Mark

After Lott’s touchdown, Notre Dame still had plenty of time to win the game. But what the Irish did not know was they were going to be introduced to one of the best safeties to ever play in college football.

Terry Kinard was a ball hawking safety for the Tigers from 1979-’82. It was the Notre Dame game in which the then redshirt freshman introduced himself to college football.

“For those of us that got to play and practice against Terry every day, we all knew this was a talent of freakish proportion. Terry Kinard was truly, in my mind, if not the greatest, in the top ten collegiate athletes that ever played a specific position,” Lott said. “He was a genius at reading the quarterback and reading where the receivers were.

“We saw him do it every day.”

Notre Dame drove the football to the Clemson 25-yard line following Lott’s touchdown, but Lisch’s pass was deflected and Kinard found his way to the football to end the drive. On the Irish’s next possession, Kinard intercepted an end-around pass from Pete Holohan and returned it 40 yards to the Notre Dame 19, which all but sealed the Tigers’ victory.

“The one thing he had a gift of doing was timing when to make a hit and when to go after an interception,” Lott said.

Peach Bowl Sours Tigers’ Celebration

Clemson did not score on the possession as it turned the ball over to the Irish at their own 16. However, Steve Durham sacked Lisch for a 14-yard loss and then Hollis Hall batted down his fourth-down pass to preserve the 16-10 victory.

“It did not hit us what we had just done until we got into the locker room,” Lott said. “You could not move in the locker room. There were so many reporters, fans that you have never seen before got access to the locker room. Mr. Bill McLellan was there with all of the AD staff.”

The Peach Bowl was there, too. It extended an invitation to the Tigers in the locker room in South Bend, which Ford accept on behalf of the team.

“We were not that pumped up about going to the Peach Bowl,” Lott said. “Being kids that like the beach and what have you, we were kind of spoiled going to two Gator Bowls. We were hoping to go to the Gator Bowl or the Citrus Bowl down in Orlando after beating Notre Dame.

“I can remember that disappointment and it was throughout a large group of our players. We were not really pumped up about the Peach Bowl.”

However, on the bus ride back to the airplane, what they just accomplished in beating Notre Dame in South Bend, hit the players.

“The bus was quiet. I think we were realizing what the heck we had done,” Lott recalled. “We didn’t realize it would be as memorable forty-one years later, but you have about 75 guys who have that memory etched into their brain.”

photo courtesy of Clemson Athletic Communications 

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