This is the 125th season of Clemson football so I thought it would be a good year to author a weekly article about the history of the game in Tigertown. The articles will range from articles about key events in history to top 10 lists of important plays.
This week’s article is a chronological rundown of the top 10 special teams plays of the first 125 years of Clemson football. This list does not include kick returns, as those will have a separate list. If I left anything out, comments are welcome.
Clemson’s first ever pass came on a fake punt against John Heisman’s Georgia Tech team in Atlanta in 1906. The forward pass was first used by St. Louis University in a game against Carroll College in September of 1906, so it took to November 29 for Clemson to first use it. We doubt coaches film made the rounds among coaches in 1906.
The Tigers first pass came on a fake punt by Powell Lykes, who completed a 30-yard pass to George Warren. The Tigers went on to a 10-0 win over Heisman’s Tech team, Clemson’s first win over a Heisman coached team after he had been Clemson’s head coach from 1900-03. The win also completed an unbeaten (4-0-3) season for Bob Williams’s first Clemson team. The Tigers tied for first in the SIAA, Clemson’s fourth conference championship in its first 11 seasons playing the game.
He went on to be president of the university, but longtime Clemson fans of an earlier era might best remember Phil Prince as the captain of Clemson’s 1948 team that finished with a perfect 11-0 record. And one play in that season stands out.
Clemson was ranked 14th in the nation, but trailed South Carolina 7-6 with just over four minutes left in the game. The Clemson defense, thanks in part to Prince’s play on the defensive line, held the Gamecocks and forced a punt.
With the line of scrimmage the South Carolina 28, Prince broke through the line and blocked the punt, deflecting the ball back to the 11-yard-line. Teammate Oscar Thompson scooped up the ball and sprinted to the endzone for the touchdown. It gave the Tigers a 13-7 advantage that they would not relinquish, allowing Clemson to keep its perfect record. The Tigers finished the season ranked 11th in the nation.
It is unknown as to whether or not the play helped Prince when he was considered for the Clemson presidency, but we are sure it didn’t hurt.
As we look at the history of Clemson football most of the outstanding seasons included close victories that made the difference between a good season and a great one. Clemson’s 2016 team had seven wins by a touchdown or less, most in a season in school history, and the 1948 team had six wins (out of 11) by a touchdown or less.
That was the case in 1950, a season that finished with a 9-0-1 record and Clemson’s first final top 10 ranking. The Tigers tied South Carolina 14-14 as the Clemson defense blocked a late field goal attempt to preserve the tie. The Gamecocks Steve Wadiak had 256 yards rushing in just 18 carries, still the most rushing yards against Clemson in a season.
The following week after that 14-14 tie, Clemson traveled to Wake Forest to face a 17th ranked Demon Deacons team coached by Peahead Walker. Walker had been a thorn in Frank Howard’s side, posting a 4-0 record against Howard in games in Death Valley, still the only opposing coach with a perfect record against Clemson in Memorial Stadium, minimum of four games.
But in games at Wake Forest, Howard more than held his own, winning over top 20 Demon Deacon teams in 1948 and 1950 by seven points or less, important wins in undefeated seasons.
This game was a low scoring competitive game. The Tigers had the upper hand most of the contest, but had five turnovers on offense, including four in their own territory. Wake Forest turned one of those turnovers into a touchdown inside the last minute of the game to make the score 13-12 in favor of the Tigers before a conversion attempt.
College teams could not go for a two-point conversion until 1958, so the Demon Deacons lined up to attempt a tying PAT kick. But Clemson lineman Bob Patton charged through and blocked the attempt, preserving Clemson’s 13-12 victory and undefeated season.
Clemson finished the season with a 15-14 win in the Orange Bowl over Miami (FL) when the Tigers Sterling Smith tackled a Miami player in the endzone for a safety with just four minutes left. But, had it not been for Patton’s play at Wake Forest, the Tigers might not have gotten the Orange Bowl.
For those of you who believe history repeats itself, reread the entry for Phil Prince’s blocked punt in 1948.
Second-ranked Clemson had a perfect 10-0 record heading to Columbia for the final regular season game of 1981 against the Gamecocks. The South Carolina crowd was in a frenzy from the opening kickoff as they envisioned ruining Clemson’s dream season. After driving for an opening touchdown by running back Johnnie Wright, the Gamecock faithful was even more ebullient.
But later in the quarter the momentum changed on one play. With the line of scrimmage the South Carolina 28, Gamecocks punter Chris Norman dropped back to punt. But, the Tigers put on a strong rush and Rod McSwain blocked the punt with such force that the ball bounced backwards all the way to the endzone where junior linebacker Johnny Rembert recovered for a touchdown.
Incredibly, the line of scrimmage was the exact same in the same stadium on the same hashmark as the punt Prince had blocked 33 years earlier. The other oddity is the Rembert and McSwain would go on to be defensive teammates in the NFL with the New England Patriots for six years and 90 games.
Clemson went on a 23-6 run from there, thanks in part to McSwain’s brother Chuck, who finished the game with 151 yards rushing in 25 attempts.
The Tigers defeated Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to win its first national championship and finish with a 12-0 record, the Tigers first perfect season since, you guessed it, 1948.
Chinedu Ohan was an athletic fullback/tight end at 240 pounds who came to Clemson with much fanfare. He could run a 4.6 in the 40, had a 35.5 inch vertical jump, bench pressed almost 400 pounds and once did 81 sit-ups in 60 seconds. But the junior college transfer from Nevada never could quite break into the starting lineup. But, he had an impact on special teams.
That was never more the case than in the 1987 Georgia game at Death Valley. Clemson trailed Georgia 20-16 with about seven minutes left when Rusty Seyle dropped back to punt with the line of scrimmage the Georgia 44. His boot bounced inside the 10 and was headed to the endzone when Ohan made a diving save to keep the ball in play and the ball was downed at the one-yard-line by freshman John Johnson, whose decision out of high school was between Clemson and Georgia.
A review of the TV tape shows that announcers Brent Musburger and Pat Haden never acknowledged that Ohan had saved the ball from going into the endzone. They apparently were confused because Ohan wore #2 and Johnson wore #12, and both wore a white horse collar so they did look alike from the press box. They only talked about Johnson downing the ball inside the one.
Two plays later the Clemson defense led by James Lott, Gene Beasley and Vince Taylor, chased down Georgia quarterback James Jackson in the endzone for a safety, cutting Georgia’s lead to 20-18.
Clemson took over the ball with 5:38 left after the ensuing free kick and behind the running of freshman back Terry Allen (35 total yards), drove 53 yards to the four yard line. With Clemson out of timeouts and the clock running, David Treadwell came on the field and kicked the winning field goal with just two seconds left for a 21-20 win.
It was another thrilling game in the history of the Georgia vs. Clemson rivalry, a seriesthat saw the teams go 5-5-1 against each other between 1977-87. There had been many big plays in this final game of the era, but the Tigers would not have won without the top play of Ohan’s career.
Clemson dominated the series with Virginia like no other between 1955-89 winning 29 consecutive games, a record for one Power 5 Conference school over another at the time. But, in 1990 the Cavaliers finally broke through with a 20-7 win in Charlottesville. Ironically, that was the score of Clemson’s first win in the series in 1955.
Virginia was a much improved program under George Welsh. After the Cavaliers beat Clemson in 1990, they kept winning and actually reached a #1 national ranking in November.
So when Virginia came to Clemson in mid-October of 1991, most felt this would be a game that would have a huge impact on the ACC Championship race.
Clemson was dominant offensively in this game, gaining 511 yards of total offense, including 242 yards from scrimmage by Ronald Williams. But quarterback Matt Blundin kept Virginia in the game by throwing for 241 yards and two scores.
The Tigers tied the game in the fourth quarter with just 46 seconds left on a 40-yard field goal by then freshman Nelson Welch. But, Virginia would not give up and drove deep into Clemson territory on the next possession. All they needed to do was kick a 34-yard field goal with a second left.
But, Michael Husted’s kick was blocked by future first-round draft choice Wayne Simmons and the game ended in a tie. It was the last tie in Clemson football history as the overtime rule came into play with bowl games of 1995.
I remember going in the locker room to get a quote from Simmons about the play. “I just barely got a piece of the ball with a finger, maybe just a nail, but it was just enough,” he said with a smile.
Clemson ran the table the rest of the regular season and won the ACC title.
Fifteenth-ranked Clemson was trailing Georgia Tech 31-30 in the fourth quarter in the sixth game of the 2012 season. Tajh Boyd led the Tigers down field and connected with future All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins on a 35-yard touchdown. The play ended an eight play 75-yard drive with 10:29 left.
With it being a high scoring game at 36-31, Dabo Swinney thought it might be time for a two-point play to make the advantage seven instead of six. So Swinney and then second year offensive coordinator Chad Morris went deep into their bag of two-point plays.
The call was for the “Clemson Special”. The Tigers lined up with running back Andre Ellington behind center and quarterback Tajh Boyd off to the right. The ball was snapped to Ellington, who rolled to his left. He then pitched the ball to Hopkins, who was running to his right. Instead of running the ball, he threw to a wide open Boyd, who had drifted unsuspectingly into the right corner of the endzone.
The eight points broke Georgia Tech’s back and the Tigers went on to score nine more points in the fourth quarter and win, 47-31. The talk after the game was the ingenuity of the two-point play.
Fast forward to the 2017 NFL season and Super Bowl LII matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots. The Eagles ran the same play on the way to their 41-33 victory. Nick Foles received all kinds of attention by becoming the first player to throw a touchdown pass and catch one in a Super Bowl.
After the game Eagles players referred to the play as the “Philly Special”. Eagles coaches said that the Chicago Bears ran the play in 2016, but the Bears had seen Clemson run the play in 2012. Eventually the Tigers, Swinney and Morris got proper credit.
Notre Dame came to Death Valley ranked sixth in the nation and the Tigers were rated number-11. It was among the most anticipated games in the history of Memorial Stadium, as it was the first appearance at Clemson for the Irish since 1977 when Joe Montana quarterbacked the Irish to a victory on the way to winning the National Championship.
On top of all that, this 2015 game was played in hurricane conditions, which only added to the legendary status of this game for the ages.
Clemson opened strong and had a 14-3 lead at halftime. But, the Tigers had to kickoff to start the third period and Notre Dame had gained some momentum at the end of the second period. The Irish had an outstanding kick returner in C.J. Sanders, who would finish his college career with five kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Sanders took Lakip’s kickoff at the four yard line and had a good return going, gaining 25 yards to the 29. But at that yardline, Lakip stuck Sanders with a text book tackle and jarred the ball loose. It was recovered by D.J. Greenlee. Two plays later Deshaun Watson broke loose on a 21-yard touchdown run, giving Clemson a 21-3 lead 46 seconds into the second half.
While it was a surprise at the time, Lakip would go on to make seven tackles in 2015, including six first hits.
I must admit it is odd to have two special teams plays ranked in the top 10 from the same game. But, have there been two bigger plays in a huge game in Clemson history?
Clemson took a 21-3 lead over Notre Dame on this horrible weather night. But the Irish are famous for their comebacks (google “Win one for the Gipper” and “Joe Montana vs. Houston, 1978 Cotton Bowl”)
Notre Dame quarterback Deshone Kizer completed 19-35 passes for 321 yards on the night, far more than Deshaun Watson’s 84 passing yards. Kizer completed four passes for 100 yards to future NFL player C.J. Procise, including a 56-yard scoring pass that brought the Irish to within 21-9. Despite the poor weather, Procise would be the first Notre Dame running back to gain 100 yards receiving since 1970.
The Irish got the ball back twice more and scored twice, including a one-yard pass from Kiser to Torii Hunter, Jr, the son of the longtime Major League Baseball star, with just seven seconds left.
With the score 24-22 in favor of the Tigers, Notre Dame obviously was going to two. Kiser had scored a touchdown on a running play to the right earlier in the game and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly decided to run the same play. It was a logical call because Notre Dame had three future NFL top 10 draft choices on its offensive line roster in Ronnie Stanley, Quinten Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. Plus Nick Martin, ironically a lineman for Deshaun Watson with the Houston Texans today, was also a starter.
But, if you look at the film, for some reason, Nelson, now ranked as the top offensive lineman in the NFL by the NFL Network top 100 players countdown, was not in the game. Kiser ran the play and was stopped short of the goal by Ben Boulware and Carlos Watkins. Clemson recovered the ensuing onside kick and had a victory that was the beginning of this current unprecedented era of excellence in Clemson’s 125 years on the gridiron.
There weren’t many close games in Clemson’s drive to the National Championship game at the end of the 2019 season. The Tigers won 11 games by at least 35 points.
But, there was one game in September in Chapel Hill that kept Clemson fans on the edge of their seats. Clemson entered the game on a 19-game winning streak and ranked number-one in the nation, but the 2-2 Tar Heels under Mack Brown’s second stint as Tar Heels coach, played outstanding defense and had just enough offense to stay with the Tigers.
Clemson scored the lead touchdown (21-14) with 9:38 left on a 38-yard scoring pass from Trevor Lawrence to Tee Higgins. A couple of possessions later the Tar Heels methodically drove down field and scored on a short run with 1:17 left.
Brown was the underdog and thought his best chance to win was to go for a two-point conversion to take the lead. He had freshman quarterback Sam Howell run to his right, but Clemson pressure forced him to go wider than he wanted, and he was hit by Nolan Turner, Chad Smith and Xavier Thomas and fumbled the ball. A teammate recovered, but he was shoved out of bounds short of the goal line.
Clemson ran the table all the way to the national championship game after that close call. It obviously taught the Tigers a lot of lessons.