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Clemson Football Game Program Feature: The Last Word – National Championship Visitors to Death Valley…Then & Now

Sept. 16, 2011

In many ways, Saturday’s game against Auburn reminds me of the 1981 game against Georgia. With this being the 30-year anniversary of that epic season for Clemson, it seems like a good time to reflect on that September 19, 1981 contest.

The 1981 Bulldogs were coming off of a perfect, National Championship season thanks to the play of All-American Herschel Walker, a future Heisman Trophy winner who had become the biggest personality in college football in just one year.

Georgia came to Clemson on the third Saturday of September with a 15-game winning streak and had narrowly beaten Clemson at its home stadium the year before. That 20-16 Bulldog victory would be one of the closest contests Vince Dooley’s team came to a loss in its 1980 National Championship season (that was one of the most bizarre games I have seen, as Clemson had a 256-10 advantage in total offense at halftime, yet trailed 14-10).

The 2011 Auburn Tigers (Dooley’s alma mater by the way) come to Clemson on the third Saturday of September after a 14-0 record and National Championship season that featured Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. Newton, like Walker, had become the biggest name in college football in just one year (we won’t count his backup duty at Florida).

Auburn’s 2010 season included a 27-24 overtime triumph over Clemson in the third week of September, the only overtime game for Gene Chizik’s squad and thus the closest Auburn came to a defeat. The SEC Tigers come to Memorial Stadium this year brandishing a 17-game winning streak.

The biggest difference today is that Auburn’s 2010 Heisman Trophy winner is not returning for Saturday’s game. Walker still was on the Georgia roster in 1981 and 1982. He had not won the Heisman Trophy in 1980, but he was the big reason Georgia went from a six-win team in 1979 to a National Championship squad in 1980.

Clemson fans are certainly fired up for this game, but the rivalry with Auburn is not as fervent as the Georgia rivalry was in the late 1970s and 1980s. The Clemson vs. Georgia series was one of the most competitive in college football from 1977-87. In those 11 games, the two teams were 5-5-1 against each other and the points scored were separated by just 12 points (171-159 in Clemson’s favor).

The close outcome in Athens in 1980 motivated the Tigers for the 1981 rematch, just as I am sure the 2010 Auburn outcome will motivate Clemson on Saturday.

“We felt we should have beaten them in Athens in 1980,” said Jeff Davis, the captain of the 1981 defense who is now an assistant athletic director at Clemson. “We dominated the game, especially in the first half, but they had a punt return and an interception return that made the difference. But that game gave us confidence that we could beat them in 1981.”

As had been the case during the entire 1981 season, the Clemson defense was dominant. The Tigers forced nine turnovers and the Bulldogs had nine possessions in which they totaled three plays or less. That turnover figure stands as a record for miscues forced by the Clemson defense.

While Davis and fellow linebacker Danny Triplett were the ringleaders with a team-high 11 tackles apiece, it was a balanced performance by Tom Harper’s Tiger defense. The nine takeaways, five interceptions and four recovered fumbles, were recorded by nine different Tigers.

“We always yelled, `Roll call to the ball,’ and that was never more the case in that Georgia game,” recalled Davis. “We were swarming. We came at Georgia from every direction.”

Homer Jordan, a native of Athens, GA, rushed for 59 yards and completed 11-18 passes for 135 yards to pace Clemson’s offense. He completed five of those passes to Perry Tuttle, who scored the game’s only touchdown on an eight-yard catch from Jordan.

Walker had 111 yards on 28 carries, but he lost two fumbles and never reached paydirt.

“If you watch the tape of that game today, we always had four or five guys tackling Walker,” said Davis. “It was an intimidating atmosphere in Death Valley that day, the best I experienced as a player.”

It was a huge win for the Tigers. Georgia was ranked #4 in the nation entering the game and it remains the second-highest ranked team Clemson has beaten in Death Valley (Florida State was #3 in 2003). The win vaulted the Tigers into the top 20 (#14) for the first time in 1981.

Davis remembered the importance of that contest. “After we won that game, we started to think about what we could accomplish in 1981. We were good about taking it one game at a time, but in the back of our minds, we were now thinking about a big bowl and winning some championships.”

Perhaps a win on Saturday over Auburn can have the same affect for Clemson’s 2011 team.