Note: The following appears in the Florida State 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 third installment.
In 45 years of covering Clemson football, the 2003 victory over Florida State in Memorial Stadium is the most unlikely of results. The week prior to the game, Florida State defeated Notre Dame in South Bend by a score of 37-0, the second-worst margin of defeat at home in Fighting Irish history. The victory elevated the Seminoles to No. 3 in the AP poll.
That same Saturday, Clemson played at Wake Forest. The 4-4 Demon Deacons, led by Jim Grobe, had not beaten Clemson in Winston-Salem since 1992.
Wake Forest scored 28 points in the second quarter and led 35-0 at halftime, then led 45-0 entering the fourth quarter. Clemson won the fourth quarter 17-0, but the 28-point loss was startling.
In the locker room after the game, Head Coach Tommy Bowden told his team, “I fully expect us to beat Florida State next Saturday.”
I think the players were just as startled by that message from their head coach as they were with the outcome of the game.
However, Bowden knew he needed to show some confidence in his team as they prepared for next week’s contest.
The Tigers had not beaten Florida State since the Seminoles joined the ACC in 1992. Additionally, Clemson had never beaten a top-three ranked team.
The Monday following the Wake Forest contest, I was given a list of five coaches to do research on. I assumed these were five coaches Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips planned to contact when Bowden was replaced at some point the following week or month.
On top of all that, the game was being played on Nov. 8, Head Coach Bobby Bowden’s birthday.
If I was a betting man, I would have lost a lot of money.
As expected, the game was not close, except the 5-4 team that had been embarrassed the previous week won the game over the 8-1 team with a Hall of Fame head coach.
Clemson held a 3-0 lead at the end of the first quarter and added a field goal on the first play of the second quarter.
With three minutes left in the first half, Charlie Whitehurst drove the Tigers 65 yards for a touchdown. The big play was a 51-yard completion to Kevin Youngblood on third and 10. Three plays later and with just 15 seconds left in the first half, Whitehurst scored from the one. That drive gave Clemson all the momentum entering the second half.
The defense continued to play “lights out” in the third quarter behind Leroy Hill and Travis Pugh, who finished with 10 tackles apiece. A freshman named Gaines Adams had two tackles for loss and the Tiger defense totaled 15 quarterback pressures. That relentless pressure led to Florida State gaining just 11 rushing yards, the fewest in the Bobby Bowden era to that point.
Florida State kicked a field goal near the end of the third quarter, but Whitehurst came back and hit Derrick Hamilton on a 58-yard passing touchdown to give Clemson a 23-3 lead.
The Seminoles scored a meaningless touchdown with 2:14 left to make the final margin 26-10 in the Tigers’ favor.
Whitehurst finished the day 17-27 passing for 272 yards and a touchdown. Clemson finished with 425 yards to 369 yards for the Seminoles, who held the ball for just 23:32. Hill and Tye Hill both had interceptions, as Clemson won the turnover margin 3-1.
That victory was the start of a four-game winning streak to end the season. There was a 63-17 win at South Carolina that all Tiger fans enjoyed, and a 27-14 win over No. 6 Tennessee in the Peach Bowl. The Volunteers had won six games in a row, including a win over No. 6 Miami (Fla.). That impressive bowl victory brought Clemson to a final top-25 ranking in both polls.
At the end of the year, Bowden not only continued as head coach, he was named ACC Coach-of-the-Year.
And to show how crazy college football can be from week to week, Wake Forest did not win a game the rest of the year after beating Clemson with that impressive performance on Nov. 1.
After the victory over Tennessee, I walked up from the postgame interviews with then Charlotte Observer writer Ron Green Jr., who said, “If we had a college football playoff today, Clemson would be the No. 4 seed in the West Regional, and no one would want to play you.”