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Nov 16, 2023

Clemson’s Best Performances Off The Bench

By: Tim Bourret

Note: The following appears in the North Carolina football gameday program.

After Cade Klubnik’s MVP performance off the bench in the ACC Championship Game against North Carolina last year, I reflected on the great Tiger performances off the bench during my career at Clemson. It is a long period of time, as I saw my first Clemson game in 1977 as a graduate assistant in the sports information department at Notre Dame. It is fitting that I am authoring this piece for the North Carolina game, because three of my top examples have been against the Tar Heels. The following list is written in chronological order.

1978 Gator Bowl vs. Ohio State

One of the games that put Clemson football on the map was the 1978 Gator Bowl victory over Ohio State. The Buckeyes were coached by the legendary Woody Hayes in his last game, and this was Danny Ford’s first game as a head coach.

The contest was close throughout and a defensive struggle. Late in the third quarter with Clemson leading 10-9, the Tigers had the ball on the Ohio State one. Two runs by Warren Ratchford were stopped, so Ford put in a fresh running back, first-year freshman Cliff Austin.

Austin had played just six games all year and had only 36 carries to that point. But Austin took the ball from Steve Fuller and went over the top and into the endzone to give Clemson a 17-9 lead in the fourth quarter. The Tigers won the game over the No. 20 Buckeyes 17-15, so Austin’s score was in effect the winning touchdown.

1980 North Carolina Game

Wilbur Bullard played just three games in 1980 and carried the ball from his running back position only 11 times for 47 yards. But 10 of those carries and 44 of those yards took place in the fourth quarter against No. 14 North Carolina, led by Lawrence Taylor.

The Tigers were trailing 24-6 entering the fourth quarter but made a strong comeback. First, quarterback Homer Jordan scored from four yards out. Running back Chuck McSwain had gained 116 yards in the game, but was injured.

On the next drive, Ford turned to Bullard, who was a big factor in Clemson driving for a second touchdown in the fourth quarter. His one-yard run made the score 24-19. The Clemson defense stiffened and Bullard and the Tigers drove the ball to the North Carolina one. But on fourth down, Taylor broke through to sack Jordan and end the Tigers’ threat.

It was a heartbreaking five-point loss to the eventual ACC champion, but Bullard’s performance was more than noteworthy. He would end his career with just 84 rushing yards. Forty-four of them came in that one quarter against Taylor and the Tar Heels.

1981 Wake Forest Game

Craig Crawford makes the list for a game in which he had just two carries. But those two rushes went for 78 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown. He accomplished this as a reserve during the 1981 Wake Forest game, a contest that ended in an 82-24 Clemson victory, still the most points scored in an ACC game in school history.

Not only were those the only two carries in the game for Crawford, they were the only two carries of his career. The next season, he moved to defensive end. As a result, his 39-yards-per-carry average stands as a Clemson record if you do not consider a minimum number of carries.

What was memorable about Crawford’s performance on this day is personal to me. When Crawford scored on his 72-yard run in the fourth quarter wearing jersey #44, no one knew who it was. That jersey number on the roster was also assigned to linebacker Otis Lindsey, and we knew it was not him. It is the only time in 45 years in the Clemson press box that a Tiger scored a touchdown and we did not immediately know who scored.

1981 South Carolina Game

Clemson had a deep roster of running backs in 1981, a prime reason the Tigers won the national championship. Chuck McSwain was an off-and-on starter in 1981, but for the game against South Carolina in the regular-season finale, he came off the bench.

The Tigers were attempting to close their first perfect regular season since 1948 at South Carolina. The Gamecocks took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter. When the Gamecocks were forced to punt later in the game, reserve defensive back Rod McSwain blocked a punt. Johnny Rembert picked up the ball and raced in for a touchdown. A few years later, McSwain and Rembert would be teammates with the New England Patriots.

Clemson held a 15-13 lead entering the fourth quarter. This time, Chuck McSwain, Rod’s brother, scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to secure a 29-13 victory. McSwain had a career-high 151 yards on 25 carries and was named player-of-the-game by ESPN.

1988 Citrus Bowl vs. Penn State

Clemson had a dominant performance against Penn State in the Citrus Bowl at the end of the 1987 season, giving the Tigers a 10-win season. Clemson defeated Joe Paterno’s team 35-10, and that would be one of the largest margins of defeat in Paterno’s long career with the Nittany Lions.

One of the keys to Clemson holding Penn State to only 10 points was the performance of reserve linebacker Dorian Mariable. The Spartanburg, S.C. native started three games in 1987, but not this contest. He came off the bench to record five tackles, including a tackle for loss. However, it was his 46-yard interception return, from the endzone to the Clemson 46, that swayed the momentum of the game.

After the third-quarter interception, Clemson outscored Penn State 14-0 in the fourth quarter to register the decisive victory. Mariable was named defensive MVP, still the only time a Tiger has come off the bench to earn MVP honors in a Tiger bowl victory.

1999 Georgia Tech Game

Georgia Tech defeated Clemson in 1999, an important performance for senior quarterback Joe Hamilton in his drive for the Heisman Trophy. He would finish second that year, and he had a remarkable game against the Tigers with 322 passing yards and 88 rushing yards.

The Tigers began the game with Brandon Streeter at quarterback, but he suffered an injury early in the contest.

Trailing 21-0 in the first quarter, sophomore Woodrow Dantzler came off the bench. He rushed 26 times for 120 yards and a touchdown, and he completed 13-24 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns in just over three quarters. He brought the Tigers all the way back, but Georgia Tech came out on top 45-42, the first of three high-scoring games in a row between the two schools during the Dantzler era.

2000 North Carolina Game

One year later, the circumstances were in reverse. It was Dantzler who started the game at North Carolina, but he suffered a first-half injury. Trailing 17-0, Head Coach Tommy Bowden went to his bench and redshirt freshman Willie Simmons.

Clemson’s offense changed in that Simmons was not the runner that Dantzler was, but he was a great downfield passer. Offensive Coordinator Rich Rodriguez took advantage of that ability. Three times in the game, Simmons threw touchdown passes to All-American Rod Gardner, who was a master of catching a 50/50 ball.

Simmons completed 10-18 passes for 228 yards and four touchdowns in the game. It is still tied for the most passing touchdowns by a Tiger non-starter. The Tigers were victorious 38-24.

2006 Georgia Tech Game

Last week, I wrote about Clemson’s “epic” win over Georgia Tech in 2006, a battle of top-12 teams. In that game, C.J. Spiller had a record-setting performance.

Spiller came off the bench, as James Davis got the start against the team from his hometown. All Davis did was rush for a career-high 216 yards and two touchdowns.

But Spiller had a highlight-film day as well. First, he scored on a 50-yard run up the middle that gave Clemson a 17-0 lead in the third quarter. Then in the fourth quarter, he took a swing pass from Will Proctor, faked out three Georgia Tech defenders near the sideline and raced 50 yards for a touchdown.

Spiller became the first Tiger in history to score on a run of 50+ yards and a reception of 50+ yards in the same game. He finished with 116 yards on 16 carries and 166 yards from scrimmage.

2018 Syracuse Game

Freshman Chase Brice entered the 2018 season as Clemson’ third-string quarterback. When Kelly Bryant decided to sit out the rest of the season after the fourth game so he could transfer with eligibility to another school, Brice moved up to the backup role at quarterback. When Trevor Lawrence was injured in the first half against Syracuse, he entered the game.

Brice got off to a slow start. The Orange took a 16-7 lead at halftime and maintained a 23-13 lead in the fourth quarter. But Brice and Travis Etienne led the Tigers back. After Etienne scored on a 26-yard run with 11:08 left, the Tigers eventually got the ball back for one final drive.

Clemson took over at its own six. During the drive, Brice completed a fourth-down pass to Tee Higgins that kept the drive alive. Etienne eventually scored with 41 seconds left.

Had they lost that game, the Tigers would not have even played for the ACC championship, and their path to a national championship would have been in jeopardy.

2018 CFP Games vs. Notre Dame & Alabama

Justyn Ross had the top back-to-back receiving games by a Clemson reserve in history, and they took place in the College Football Playoff.

First, the freshman from Alabama came off the bench against Notre Dame and had six receptions for 148 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-3 win over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.

Ross then had six catches for 153 yards and a touchdown in the 44-16 national championship win over Alabama in California. His game against the Crimson Tide included one of the most remarkable catches, a one-handed grab, by a Tiger.

2022 ACCCG vs. North Carolina

Cade Klubnik is the only Tiger to come off the bench in a league title game to earn MVP honors. DJ Uiagalelei got off to a tough start, so Swinney went to his bullpen.

With the Tigers trailing 7-0, the Texas native entered the game on Clemson’s third possession and hit Davis Allen for a one-yard touchdown pass to tie the score. It was the start of a 39-3 run for the Tigers. Klubnik led Clemson on scoring drives in five of the first six possessions he directed.

Klubnik finished the game 20-24 passing for 268 yards, and he was the leading rusher with 30 yards and another touchdown. The win gave Clemson its seventh ACC championship in eight years and a bid to the Orange Bowl.