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1981 Revisited: Orange Bowl

1981 Revisited: Orange Bowl

Nov. 5, 2001

By David McGrew

Any Clemson football fan with a pulse on Jan. 1, 1982 remembers where they were when Clemson beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, 22-15. Climbing out onto the biggest stage in school history, the Tigers unceremoniously muscled past traditional national powers Nebraska, Georgia, Alabama, Pitt, Penn State and Texas to seize the 1981 National Championship.

However, the foundation of glory that memorable night was laid by a group of selfless student-athletes who were dedicated to the team concept. Such dedication is the calling card of champions.

“That Clemson team was the most special group of people I have ever been around, either before or since,” said Bill Smith, a starting defensive end against Nebraska. “There were a lot of talented athletes on that team, but we never singled out individuals. We were a motivated, confident group that believed in ourselves. We focused on team and winning.”

Smith’s career as a student-athlete at Clemson ended that night, but it was just the beginning of his commitment of the university. He serves on the Clemson Board of Trustees after recently being elected to a second term. He is the CEO of Holmes Smith Developments in Columbia, a high-profile South Carolina commercial real estate development firm that he founded in 1993.

In 1981, though, he and Andy Headen led a group of four defensive ends including Joe Glenn and Mark Richardson who were going to be a target of the Nebraska offense in the 1982 Orange Bowl. The Cornhusker offense was led by future NFL stars Roger Craig, Irving Fryar, Mike Rozier and Outland Trophy winner Dave Rimington who anchored a massive offensive line.

The Nebraska offense of 1981 ranked second in the nation in rushing, averaging 330 yards per game. Tom Osborne’s team was also sixth in total offense and eighth in scoring.

“Throughout our preparation for the game, the coaches made us very aware that Nebraska’s offense was going to put a lot of pressure on the defensive ends,” remembered Smith, who ended the season with 42 tackles and four sacks despite missing the first two games of the season because of an injury. “My job was to read the direction the Nebraska tight end. Nebraska usually followed where he went. There was nothing fancy about their offense. They were big and just came right at you on every play.”

Smith had endured an injury-plagued career and was a red-shirt senior in 1981. Yet, in his final game against Nebraska, he enjoyed perhaps his best career game with 10 tackles and batted down a Nebraska pass. Headen had five tackles and broke up Nebraska’s last-second desperation pass to end the game. The four defensive ends combined to record 21 tackles and broke up two passes.

“All of us took it upon ourselves to rise to the occasion,” said Smith. “I am really proud to have been a part of that group. We had a lot of big names that deserved recognition on defense and we kind of felt like unsung heroes. Against Nebraska, though, it was our day to shine.”

The Clemson defense limited Nebraska to just three plays on a staggering 8 of 12 possessions. The Cornhuskers managed to cross the 50-yard line only four times. In the first half, Nebraska went 19 minutes without a first down. In the third quarter, they went 14 minutes without a first down. Nebraska mustered only two scoring opportunities in the entire game.

Clemson’s defensive team speed was the difference.

“There is no doubt our quickness was superior,” said Smith. “Their center, Dave Rimington, had a difficult time containing William Perry and Williams Devane. Our defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage. Jeff Davis and our linebackers constantly beat Nebraska’s offensive lineman to the point of attack. The secondary did a great job of run support all night. From the outset, Nebraska was reaching and grabbing trying to keep up.”

On the very first Nebraska offensive series of the game, William Devane recovered a fumble at the Nebraska 28 that led to the first of three Donald Igwebuike field goals.

“It was big to force a fumble on the first series,” said Smith who grew up in Duncan and was one of 63 Clemson players from the Carolinas and Georgia on the 1981 team. “It was a great confidence builder for us to shut down their high powered offense. I think we were all aware of the Nebraska mystique, and being so young, we wondered if we could play with them. After that first series, there were no more doubts.”

However, Nebraska responded with a touchdown on the ensuing drive to take the lead, 7-3 with just under seven minutes left in the first quarter.

“That Nebraska drive was good new, bad news,” said Smith, who played at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds in 1981. “The bad news was they scored using a couple of big plays that included a halfback pass for the touchdown. The good news was we were stopping their base offense. From that point on, our confidence grew and we pretty much shut them down until their scoring drive in the fourth quarter.”

On the next Nebraska offensive series, a sack by blitzing Tim Childers at the Nebraska five-yard line forced a punt from the end zone. The opportunistic Clemson offense capitalized on the ensuing field position to record Igwebuike’s second field goal.

The next time Clemson got the ball, it marched 66 yards to the Nebraska 10-yard line before suffering its lone turnover of the game. A Nebraska defensive back wrestled Homer Jordan’s pass away from Perry Tuttle in the end zone.

It was a momentary setback. By the end of the game, Clemson would be in Cornhusker territory on eight out of 12 possessions and convert on five of seven scoring opportunities. The interception and a 58-yar field goal attempt on the last play of the first half were the only misfires.

After the interception, the Tiger offense quickly got another chance when Davis, Clemson’s leading tackler in the game with 14 and during the season with 175, recovered a fumble and Clemson led 12-7 at halftime.

“I will never forget our locker room at halftime,” said Smith. “It was so emotionally high-charged. Everyone was excited. We had the lead, we were having fun, and we knew we could win the national championship. There was no tension.”

The third quarter belonged to the Tigers.

In the sweltering Miami heat, Clemson’s defense stopped Nebraska cold on its first two possessions. With Chuck McSwain and Jeff McCall carrying the ball and the passing combination of Jordan and Tuttle hooking up for 41 yards, Clemson embarked on a 12-play, 75-yard drive. On third-and-goal, Jordan connected with Perry Tuttle on a 13-yard touchdown pass. Bob Pauling’s extra point gave the Tigers a 19-7 lead.

Throughout the game, the Clemson special teams performed flawlessly. On change of possessions, they bottled up Nebraska and protected the football for Clemson. Dale Hatcher’s punting, Igwebuike’s kickoffs, plus swarming coverage, gave Nebraska an average starting field position of its own 25. Nebraska never began a single offensive possession in Clemson territory.

The special teams put the Clemson offense back in business after another three-and-out defensive stand. Billy Davis, led by an Orange shield of blockers, returned the Cornhusker punt 47-yard the 22. The offense delivered another field goal that pushed the Clemson lead to 22-7.

Then, as the Orange Bowl entered the fourth quarter, #2 Georgia lost to Pittsburgh in the Sugar Bowl. Earlier in the day, #3 Alabama had also lost. Suddenly, #1 Clemson and #4 Nebraska were both playing for the national championship. Some thought the announced scores would motivate the Cornhuskers.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Cornhuskers marched 75-yards and scored on a 26-yard run by Roger Craig. His ensuing two-point conversion cut the Clemson lead to 22-15 with 9:15 left in the game. Nebraska got the ball back at its own 37 with 7:49 left.

“Despite our confidence, we were realistic enough to know that we weren’t going to stop a team like Nebraska forever with their caliber of players,” said Smith. “After the touchdown, Jeff Davis made sure everyone kept their head up. All season, we had been very business-like in our approach and there wasn’t a lot of rah-rah stuff. We could tell Nebraska was recharged. It was man against man again and both teams knew the national championship was at stake.” It was the Clemson defense that responded.

The Tigers forced a Nebraska punt after only three plays. The Clemson offense slammed the door on any national championship suspense by keeping the ball until just six seconds remained. If you think Woodrow Dantzler has running ability today, you should have seen Jordan scramble with the National Championship on the line in the fourth quarter.

“Although I know it isn’t true, it seemed like Homer Jordan ran down the clock all by himself,” chuckled Smith. “The offensive line pushed Nebraska backwards and we kept the ball. I will always remember how exhausted and dehydrated Homer was after the game.” Jordan had to receive an IV in the locker room after the game and was not available for interviews that night.

Bill Smith now lives in Columbia with his wife Beth and their two children, Catherine, age eight, and Cannon who is six. He has a successful business career and family life plus contributes his talent and energy to the future of Clemson University. Yet, even today, he proudly admits periodically stealing a moment from 20 years ago.

“Once in awhile, I’ll find time to watch the tape from the game,” he said. “Today, I think I appreciate what we accomplished even more than I did as a young kid. Our sense of pride grows even stronger as the years pass. Now that I fully understand how difficult it is to win a national championship, I have an even greater respect for what an amazing group of guys accomplished for themselves and Clemson University.”

“I remember distinctly standing on the field right after the game was over, looking around the Orange Bowl and taking it all in,” Smith continued. “I was feeling so many emotionsŠsatisfaction, amazement, joy and a little sadness that my career at Clemson was over.” “It was a special day for me, for the defensive ends, for our defense, the entire team and Clemson people everywhere.” Every now and again, such memories deserve to be relived.

David McGrew was student assistant in the Clemson sports information office from 1976-81. He is now president of his own marketing agency in Akron, OH.