Clemson is a lot like a speeding Mack truck that flattens anything in its path as it tears on down the road. Eyewitnesses are left to wonder: Where did that come from? And where's it going? If you are Vince Dooley, coach at Georgia, and your Dawgs have just been run over, 21-20, by the Tigers, the answers to those questions would be something like "way over yonder" and "off our future schedule, if we're lucky." For the second year in a row, Georgia lost to Clemson in the final seconds, and this one, in the Tigers' Death Valley, ended with a mighty display of knock 'em down defensive ferocity by Clemson.
Two other pretty fair answers to those same interrogatories would be "every which way" and "to the Orange Bowl." While it may be too early for Tiger fans to begin making New Year's reservations for Miami, their prospects for such a trip are enhanced by the fact that Georgia was the closest that Clemson will come to serious competition until the Tigers meet South Carolina the last Saturday of the regular season. The Clemson schedule also consists of no fewer than eight games at home. And it surely doesn't hurt that when the Tigers are home, every game, with its hordes of orange-clad spectators and omnipresent orange paw prints, looks even oranger than the Orange Bowl.
Until the crushing finish, the Dawgs put up quite a fight. They came into the game featuring Lars Tate, the nation's leading rusher, who had averaged seven yards a carry in Georgia's wins over Virginia and Oregon State, and a freshman phenom named Rodney Hampton, who, in touching the ball 18 times, had gained 23.5 yards per reception, 10.1 per carry and 33 per kickoff return. Tate punched Clemson for 84 tough yards on 19 carries, and Hampton did a mean hesitation step during an eight-yard touchdown run that put Georgia ahead 20-16, with 8:59 to play. But, when you get down to it, all they really did was provide the buildup to a dramatic ending.
When, after Hampton's TD, Clemson sputtered on offense and punter Rusty Seyle nailed one on the one-yard line with 6:23 left, the big, fast, ill-natured Tiger defense took the field with a mission on its mind. Georgia's go-ahead touchdown was the first TD the Clemson defense had allowed in three games this season (the other Georgia six-pointer had come on Nathaniel Lewis's 76-yard punt return in the first half), and the Tiger line in particular was determined not to let it happen again.
September 27, 1987
The first play after the downed punt almost produced a safety when 300-pound noseguard Tony Stephens came close to taking the snap right out of Bulldog quarterback James Jackson's hands. On the next play Dooley ordered Jackson to try to turn the left corner on a keeper. Cornerback James Lott shucked Tate's block and stood Jackson up a yard deep in the end zone. Then safety Gene Beasley arrived in a very nasty mood, followed by linebacker Vince Taylor and some other guys in orange pants. In short, Jackson had no chance. Georgia's lead was cut to two points.
"It was obvious we couldn't get it out of there against them," said Dooley afterward. "It was my fault for making that call. They're great at the line of scrimmage. There's no question: We should've punted."
The rest seemed almost anticlimactic. Eschewing the pass, which they seem to do even when they run pass plays, Clemson took the ensuing free kick, knocked the tiring Bulldogs back off the ball and in nine bruising running plays—including a 16-yard third-and-seven cutback by tailback Terry Allen—swept to the Georgia five-yard line, where David Treadwell kicked a delirium-inducing field goal with two seconds left. This was old hat for Treadwell, who had kicked the winning field goal in the final seconds last year at Athens. But to most of the 82,500 assembled at Memorial Stadium, this was a new thing. They cheered as if Clemson had just won another national championship, which, in effect, it might have.
Clemson's Danny Ford is still the youngest coach to win the national title, an accomplishment he pulled off six years ago, at the age of 33. Ford has gone a little gray since those halcyon days of '81 and gotten a little testy and wary besides. The tough part, he has learned, ain't the gettin' there. It's the stayin' there.
Against Georgia, Ford used all three of his timeouts long before the game-winning drive. After one sideline session, junior quarterback Rodney Williams was starting out toward the huddle when Ford snatched him back by his collar and gave him a heart-to-heart while they stood nose-to-nose. "He told me to get 'em fired up, get 'em moving," said Williams.
But even now that his Tigers are off to a 3-0 start, with all but one of their remaining games against their brethren in the lightly regarded Atlantic Coast Conference, Ford just won't relax. "You can write about the schedule all you want, but you're wrong about that," Ford said after the game. Well, maybe so. But any Big Eight or Pac-10 coach would trade schedules with Ford quicker than you can say Michael Dean Perry.
If you do say Michael Dean Perry—that's the name of Clemson's starting right defensive tackle—you had better also say the names of Stephens, tackle Raymond Chavous, noseguard Mark Drag, tackle Otis Moore and tackle Richard McCullough. The Tigers always shuttle players along their three-man defensive front as if they were in a tag-team match, and they haven't had such a strong and lively group since 1981, when William Perry, Michael Dean's celebrated older brother, and a few other slabs of beef named Jeff Bryant (now with the Seahawks), Andy Headen (Giants), and William Devane were playing demolition derby with the rest of the college football world.
"Michael Dean's as good as any we've had play, even though he sometimes likes to play somebody else's position," says Ford. In the Tigers' second game of the season, a 22-10 win over Virginia Tech, Perry made an interception on the first play of the game. "He's supposed to be rushing," says defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Tom Harper, "but I guess I've learned more from Dean than Dean's learned from me. But Michael Dean isn't the only guy we've got. Tony Stephens can vertical jump 31 inches, bench press 450 pounds, go the 40 in 5.0. And he weighs 300 pounds. Rich McCullough is 6'5", 260, 4.8, and can reach over across this room. I can't take credit for that." One former Clemson recruiter describes Stephens as "the closest you can get to the Fridge and Devane."
"I guess there's no comparison between us and those guys," says Stephens. "Not yet, anyway. Look what they accomplished." Michael Dean, who weighs 280, isn't so sure. "Tony just took the ball from Jackson on the one," he said after the victory. "On the next play, we get the safety anyway. See, we knew if we wanted to win the football game, we'd better do something right then. There's no difference between us and the guys playing at Nebraska and Oklahoma. And as far as defensive line goes, we've got the best one overall. But, you know, Coach Ford hasn't said one word about the national championship."
That's because Ford knows that it has hardly gotten to that, even with those heavy hitters up front. "I don't know if I want to play either one of 'em," Ford had said of likely Orange Bowl foes Nebraska or Oklahoma. Of course, before the game, the ever-cautious Ford had said, "Yeah, home games are nice if you win 'em all. I don't know about our D, but I believe I'll know by suppertime."
By suppertime he was saying, "Yes, I believe we did wear 'em down." But he was quick to add, "We did some things right, but a lot wrong. It was not an error-free game, but then they never are."
Most of what Clemson did wrong was on offense. Williams completed but six of 16 passes for 76 yards and had an especially frustrating moment when the Tigers were at the Georgia 13 in the third quarter and Gary Cooper, a sophomore wide receiver who caught four of the six successful passes, was open in the end zone. So what did Williams do but, slip to one knee, losing six yards. Ford stood there with his hands on his hips, steaming. "Sometimes the receivers were breaking one way, and I was throwing another," said Williams. Just as often, however, the receivers were looking for stepladders so they could pull down his high throws.
If Clemson hopes to really impress the pollsters and bowl scouts, Williams has to get his passes—and his offense—under control. Even a Mack truck needs a skilled hand at the wheel.