The offensive game plan for quarterback Homer Jordan and company was easy in 1981 – “don’t give the ball away deep in your own territory and you’ll be fine.”
So that’s what they did.
Though the Clemson offense had its moments during the Tigers’ run to the 1981 National Championship—like scoring 82 points against Wake Forest—for the most part they kept things pretty close to the vest.
“We weren’t flashy or this and that, but whatever we had to do to get the job done, we did it,” Jordan said, as Clemson celebrates the 40th anniversary of its first national championship this season.
Clemson begins the celebration of its first national championship against Georgia this Saturday in a top 5 matchup at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. The Tigers’ 13-3 victory over the then No. 4 Bulldogs catapulted them on a run in 1981 that shocked the college football world.
Prior to beating the defending national champions, Clemson was not ranked and opened the season with unimpressive victories over Wofford and Tulane. What happened on September 19, 1981, in Death Valley, no one saw coming, except the players and coaches on that Clemson team.
The Clemson defense allowed just 10 touchdowns all season in 1981, with only three teams—Wake Forest, South Carolina and Nebraska—scoring more than 10 points. And only Wake Forest scored more than 15 points in a game.
The Tigers led the ACC in total defense, scoring defense, rush defense and interceptions. They finished the year second in the nation in scoring defense, seventh in rushing defense and eighth in total defense. The most impressive and important stat of all, and it goes back to the offense’s job was – they finished seventh in the nation in turnover margin.
“I can remember, if the offense lost the ball, we would tell them that we are going to get the ball back,” said former linebacker Jeff Davis, who led Clemson in tackles and was an All-American in 1981. “I can remember that most of the time, that is exactly what happened.”
The Tigers forced 41 turnovers in 1981, which is still a school record for a single season.
“Our defense made plays,” Jordan said. “We had a solid defense. They made plays when they needed to.”
At no time in 1981 did the Tigers make more plays in one game than it did at home against defending national champion Georgia. The Clemson defense forced nine turnovers that afternoon, including five interceptions off Bulldogs’ quarterback Buck Belue.
It turned out to be the only regular season loss for 1982 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker.
“We knew Belue had a tendency to make the wrong decisions if pressured,” former Clemson safety and All-American Terry Kinard said. “We got a great pass rush, and he was throwing the ball high.”
In the second quarter, Belue threw high again, and strong safety Tim Childress intercepted the pass to set up the game’s only touchdown, an eight-yard pass from Jordan to wide receiver Perry Tuttle. Donald Igwebuike booted two field goals of 39 and 29 yards to counter Georgia kicker Kevin Butler’s 40-yard kick in the third quarter to cap the win.
Walker, who never scored a touchdown against Clemson, rushed for 111 yards that afternoon, but they did not come easy. Though he averaged nearly four yards a carry, he was surrounded by the Clemson defense all day. He fumbled the ball three times and lost two of them.
Arguably college football’s greatest running back said the 63,500 fans packed inside Memorial Stadium played a big part in why he played so bad. The noise inside Death Valley from that afternoon still haunts Walker to this day. It was the only time he played at Death Valley.
“I came in here knowing it would be loud and that Clemson would hit hard,” Walker said. “But to me, the noise was the biggest factor. I know I did not concentrate as well because of it.”
Clemson held Georgia’s powerful offense to 255 total yards, while Jordan and company did just enough on offense to get the job done. The Clemson quarterback led the Tigers with 59 yards rushing, while completing 11 of 18 passes for 135 yards. More importantly, he did not throw an interception.
“All I had to do was take care of the football and manage the game,” Jordan said.
He let the defense do the rest.
“This was probably the biggest game we are going to play this year,” Davis said afterwards. “When we lost to Georgia last year, we kind of lost our morale. It hurt us the rest of the season.
“We know the rest of the games are important, but we had to win this one.”
The win propelled the Tigers into the national rankings the next week at No. 19 in the Associated Press Poll and No. 18 in the Coaches’ Poll. From there, Clemson had the confidence it needed to make a run at a perfect season.
And though the Georgia victory had the Tigers flying high, Davis said, years later, if it wasn’t for head coach Danny Ford and his staff keeping the players grounded, things might have been different in 1981.
“The coaching staff did a good job of keeping us focused, keeping our goals out there and understanding that some great things can happen if we keep on playing the way we had been playing,” he said. “I think that’s why we won the national championship because we never really bought into the hype.
“We never bought into how great we were. It was more important for us to prove how great we were game in and game out.”
Clemson Variety & Frame is doing their part to help bring you some classic new barware and help one of the local businesses that helps make Clemson special.
Order your Nick’s barware and do your part to help. #SaveNicks