Note: The following appears in the Charlotte gameday football program.
Editor’s Note – This is the 150th season of college football. The author of this article, Tim Bourret, is one of 150 college football historians on a committee formed by ESPN that is selecting the top teams, games, players and programs during the first 150 years. In conjunction with that, Bourret is writing articles this year on the great moments in Clemson football history. Below is the third installment of the series.
When I was trying to determine the seven biggest moments in Clemson football history for this series, I remembered a book written in 1977 by former Clemson Sports Information Director Joe Sherman. In it, he had many stories that quoted the legendary Frank Howard, with whom Sherman worked from 1934-48.
One of the excerpts quoted Howard as saying that his most memorable play as Clemson’s head coach was a fourth-down run by Fred Cone late in the 1949 Gator Bowl victory over Missouri, a game Clemson won 24-23 at the end of the 1948 season.
If a hall of fame coach who served in that capacity for 30 years singles out one most-important play, it has to be one of the top moments in Tiger history.
The 1948 season was a significant landmark in Clemson history. Believe it or not, Howard was on the “hot seat” entering the season. The Tigers were coming off back-to-back 4-5 seasons.
But a class of sophomores, led by Cone, made a huge difference in 1948, and the Tigers had a remarkable season. Howard’s team had a 10-0 record in the regular season, with five of the wins by seven points or less.
Bobby Gage had a 90-yard punt return for the only score in a 6-0 win over NC State. Phil Prince blocked a punt that led to a touchdown in a 13-7 win over South Carolina. A 21-14 win at No. 19 Wake Forest on Nov. 13 moved the Tigers into the top 10 for the first time.
As Southern Conference champions for the first time since 1940, the Tigers were selected to meet Missouri in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1, 1949. This was a big deal because it was only Clemson’s second bowl appearance and there were only 11 FBS bowls in existence at the time. Missouri was 8-2 and was led by Hall of Fame Head Coach Don Faurot.
Clemson jumped to a 14-0 advantage in the first quarter on two Cone touchdowns, but Missouri answered in the second quarter to tie the score at halftime 14-14.
Clemson took a 21-14 lead in the third quarter on what I believe is the only “flea-flicker” passing touchdown in school history. The play, which was just nine yards, went from Cone to quarterback Bobby Gage, then to John Poulos.
Missouri scored a safety late in the third quarter when Gage was called for intentional grounding in the endzone. Clemson responded with an 11-play drive that led to a Jim Miller 32-yard field goal to put Clemson up 24-16.
Missouri drove for a touchdown with five minutes left in the game to make the score 24-23. Missouri did not have the option to go for two points because the rule did not come into existence until 1958.
On the next drive with just three minutes left, Clemson faced a fourth-and-three at the Missouri 45. It was either gamble for the first down or punt to Missouri and give it a chance to kick a field goal and win the game.
“We hadn’t stopped them all day, so I took my chances,” said Howard after the game to the media in attendance.
Howard called a running play for Cone. He ran over left tackle and hit a stone wall, but he kept digging, slid off to the outside and found some wiggle room. He turned a “nothing” play into a six-yard gain and a first down at the Missouri 39. The Tigers ran out the remaining time and had the victory and the school’s first perfect season since 1900.
That 24-23 win was the sixth by seven points or less, the most in a season until the 2016 Tigers broke the record with seven.
Cone led the Tigers to a 9-0-1 record in 1950 as a senior, giving the program two undefeated seasons in a three-year period, the only time that has happened in Clemson history.