Note: The following appears in the Florida Atlantic football gameday program.
Editor’s Note – For each program in 2023, Tim Bourret chronicles an epic game in the history of Memorial Stadium. Today is the second installment.
“I am anxious to go up against the top back in the nation,” said Clemson captain Jeff Davis the week of the 1981 game against defending national champion Georgia, a team that had not lost since Herschel Walker came to Athens.
“Last year (1980), Herschel was a freshman who played like a senior. But it’s going to be different when he comes to Death Valley. He’ll find that he won’t be able to do as well against this senior.”
If one of Tiger players said that in a pregame press conference today, I am not sure Head Coach Dabo Swinney would be pleased. But sometimes, strong statements are needed.
Davis showed his teammates he had the confidence to defeate the No. 4 ranked team in the nation. In fact, Clemson’s 13-3 victory that Sept. 19 afternoon was the only regular-season loss of Walker’s three-year career with the Bulldogs.
With Davis leading the way, it was the defense that carried the day. The Tigers forced nine turnovers (five interceptions, four fumbles), and 42 years later, that is still the Tiger record for turnovers forced in a game. The nine takeaways were registered by nine different players, the best stat that shows that this was an all-around team effort.
Combined with seven forced turnovers against Tulane in the Superdome the week before, it gave Clemson 16 forced turnovers in two games, the highest back-to-back takeaway total in school history.
Georgia quarterback Buck Belue threw five interceptions and lost a fumble for six of the nine turnovers. Walker had lost just one fumble his entire freshman season, when he gained over 1,600 yards, an NCAA freshman record. He had three fumbles in this game, two that were recovered by the Tiger defense, including one by William Perry when he seemingly shoved the powerful Walker aside with his brute strength to scoop up the ball.
Walker totaled 111 yards on 28 carries, but he never reached the endzone. In fact, he played three games against the Tigers in his career without scoring a touchdown, joining Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers of South Carolina with that career note against Clemson’s defense.
This was a true “rock-em-sock” game from the outset, as the two teams combined for only 491 total yards. Clemson had just 236 yards on the day, but still won by double-digits. Field position played a critical role in the contest, as Dale Hatcher was an unsung hero. He averaged 43 yards on seven punts.
Clemson scored 10 points in the second quarter, and they held up. An interception by Tim Childers set up the only touchdown of the day, an eight-yard pass from Homer Jordan to Perry Tuttle. Donald Igwebuike kicked two field goals, one in the second quarter and one in the fourth quarter. Georgia’s only points came on a Kevin Butler field goal on the Bulldogs’ first drive of the second half.
Georgia had won 15 straight games, the longest winning streak at the time. The No. 4 Bulldogs were the highest-ranked team Clemson defeated at home during the first 107 years of its football history, and it was only eclipsed when Tommy Bowden’s Tigers defeated No. 3 Florida State in 2003.
When Rod McSwain intercepted a pass in the endzone with 1:08 left to clinch the win, the defense came off the field whirling their index fingers. At the time, they were giving notice that they had beaten last year’s top-ranked team.
But as it turned out, that foreshadowed things to come.