Note: The following appears in the Wake Forest football gameday program.
Editor’s Note – This is the 40th anniversary of Clemson’s first national championship season in 1981. For each program in 2021, Tim Bourret takes us back to that season with features on players or games from the landmark year.
Our series on the 1981 national championship season concludes today with a rundown on the game that clinched the national title for the Tigers, the 22-15 win over Nebraska in the Jan. 1, 1982 Orange Bowl.
With today’s home finale against Wake Forest, it is fitting that one of the central figures of this landmark Tiger victory was wide receiver Perry Tuttle, a native of Winston-Salem, N.C., the home of the Demon Deacons.
Tuttle always played well against Wake Forest. His 22 career receptions for 379 yards and five touchdowns were his best stats against any opponent. He became the first Tiger with a receiving touchdown against the same opponent four years in a row.
The central theme of our program series on the 1981 season has been the records that have lasted until today, or unique firsts in Clemson history that took place during the 1981 season.
Most longtime Tiger fans know that Tuttle’s endzone reaction after scoring an important third-quarter touchdown in the Orange Bowl was depicted on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the first time any Clemson athlete was on the cover of the famous magazine.
Recent years have seen Tigers on the cover seven times, Deshaun Watson twice, Trevor Lawrence twice, Hunter Renfrow, Wayne Gallman and the group picture of Dexter Lawrence, Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins.
Some of you might remember that the following week, former Tiger Dwight Clark, a teammate of Tuttle at Clemson in 1978, was on the Sports Illustrated cover for his catch for the San Francisco 49ers against the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL playoffs. That is regarded as one of the most historic receptions in NFL history. The 49ers went on to win the Super Bowl.
Getting back to the Nebraska game…
Clemson had snuck up on everyone to become the nation’s top team entering the bowl games of 1981. It had been a crazy season in that seven different teams ascended to the No. 1 ranking at some point, still the most different teams ranked No. 1 in a season since the AP poll started in 1936.
Clemson became the seventh on the Tuesday (the poll came out on Tuesday in those days) after Thanksgiving when the idle Tigers watched Penn State and quarterback Todd Blackledge hammer top-ranked Pittsburgh and quarterback Dan Marino 48-14.
Whenever Blackledge comes to Clemson to call a game for ABC, all Tiger fans should applaud him, because if it had not been for him and the Nittany Lions, Clemson never would have gotten a chance to play for the national title.
While Clemson was 11-0 and ranked No. 1, Nebraska was 9-2 and ranked No. 4. The Cornhuskers were considered the favorite, because at the time, we were considered “Little Ole’ Clemson.” Nationally, fans did not even know what state Clemson was in, and during the broadcast, NBC actually showed a map documenting Clemson’s location.
Danny Ford’s Tigers got off to a good start, as Donald Igwebuike kicked a 41-yard field goal after Clemson recovered a Nebraska fumble, the 41st takeaway of the season by the defense, still a Tiger record.
Nebraska took a 7-3 lead on a trick play when Anthony Steels caught a 25-yard scoring pass from halfback Mike Rozier, a future Heisman Trophy winner. Nebraska was without starting quarterback Turner Gill for this game, as he had been injured late in the season.
Clemson then scored 19 points in a row. Cliff Austin, who had been trapped in an elevator at the Tiger team hotel for two hours earlier in the day, scored on a two-yard run. Tuttle then scored on a 13-yard pass from Homer Jordan at the 6:12 mark of the third quarter to put Clemson up 19-6.
The Cornhuskers scored a fourth-quarter touchdown on a 26-yard run by future All-Pro running back Roger Craig, who added a two-point conversion on a run from the eight-yard line. I cannot remember another time that a team scored on a two-point play against the Tigers after an offensive penalty.
There was still 9:15 left after Craig’s scores, but on two drives, Clemson was able to run the clock behind Jordan, who needed multiple IV bags after the game.
A desperation pass by Nebraska on the last play of the game was batted down by Andy Headen, and Clemson had its first national title in any sport.
The win was a huge building block for the Tiger program, a block that has allowed Clemson to win two more national championships in the last six years.