Note: The following appears in the Notre Dame gameday football program. To purchase a copy of the program while supplies last, send a check for $6 to Clemson Athletic Communications; P.O. Box 31; Clemson, S.C. 29633 with your return address.
By Tim Bourret // Athletic Communications
When the Notre Dame team bus pulled into Memorial Stadium adjacent to the visiting locker room at 11 a.m., on Nov. 12, 1977, the Hill at the east end of Frank Howard Field was already packed with Clemson fans.
My boss, Roger Valdiserri, turned to me, then a graduate assistant in the Notre Dame sports information office, and said, “What are we doing here?” In other words, what kind of den are the No. 5 Fighting Irish with national championship hopes walking into?
This would be an epic day in the history of Death Valley for many reasons. Clemson was 7-1-1 and ranked No. 15 in the nation entering the game in what would be a resurgent season for the program. Clemson had not been to a bowl game in 18 years and first-year head coach Charley Pell had brought renewed enthusiasm to the program.
This day would see the greatest collection of players on the Memorial Stadium turf in the history of the facility. A look back at the rosters of the two teams shows that 36 players went on to play in the NFL and they combined to collect 14 Super Bowl championship rings. Seven players between the two teams would be first-round draft picks and 18 players would go on to be selected as All-Americans by the end of their careers. Nineteen of Notre Dame’s 22 starters were eventually drafted by the NFL. Nine of Clemson’s starters played at least five years in the NFL.
The list of players from Clemson included Jeff and Joe Bostic, who went on to play a combined 24 years and 316 games in the NFL. Jeff is on the ballot for the NFL Hall of Fame this year. Clemson Ring of Honor inductees Jerry Butler and Steve Fuller were keys to the Tiger offense.
Fuller won a Super Bowl championship ring with the Chicago Bears and Butler went on to a Pro Bowl career with the Buffalo Bills. Dwight Clark was the “other” Clemson receiver. He had his number retired by the San Francisco 49ers and is the only former Tiger to be named NFL MVP (1982).
Notre Dame featured tight end Ken MacAfee and defensive end Ross Browner, who are now in the College Football Hall of Fame, All-America linebacker Bob Golic (brother of current ESPN commentator Mike Golic) and a junior quarterback named Joe Montana.
Montana went on to win four Super Bowls with the 49ers and was a seven-time All-Pro selection. Many of his professional completions went to Clark, with the most famous coming in the NFC Championship Game at the end of the 1981 season against the Dallas Cowboys.
“When Notre Dame came into our stadium on Friday to do a walkthrough, we were just finishing ours,” recalled then Clemson offensive line coach Danny Ford. “It was the greatest collection of athletes I had seen on a college team.”
The media interest in the game was like no other at Clemson at the time and is topped only by the 1999 Bowden Bowl when the Tigers hosted college football’s first Division I meeting of father and son coaches. Forty-five different newspapers had media members covering the 1977 contest, including Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer. There were 13 scouts from eight different bowls as well.
Notre Dame was ranked No. 5 in both polls but had a loss on its resumé at Mississippi in the second game of the year. However, the Fighting Irish were on a hot streak coming to Death Valley, having beaten No. 5 Southern California 49-19 and Georgia Tech 69-13 in its last two games. Georgia Tech’s loss was its worst since a 73-0 setback to Clemson and head coach John Heisman in 1903.
The record crowd of 54,189 fans would be treated to a classic on this perfect day for football.
Clemson held a 10-7 lead at halftime, and the lead could have been larger. The Tigers held a 213-101 advantage in total offense and Fuller was on fire, completing 9-12 passes for 124 yards, while Montana was held to 3-9 passing for 53 yards by the Clemson defense.
The third quarter was more Clemson. On the Tigers’ first possession, Fuller hit Warren Ratchford for a 35-yard completion. Four plays later, Lester Brown scored around left end from two yards, a play that drew the ire of Notre Dame head coach Dan Devine.
Brown received some “assistance” when referee W.R. Cummings stopped for some reason in his pursuit of the play and blocked out defensive back Ted Burgmeier. It was one of just two opponent touchdowns that made Notre Dame’s highlight film at season’s end.
It was still 17-7 in favor of Clemson entering the fourth quarter when Montana led Notre Dame on one of his famous comebacks. On the last drive of the third quarter, which continued into the fourth quarter, Montana led the Fighting Irish on a drive that actually gained 119 yards of total offense.
Devine picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when he went on the field and picked up a flag that negated a 30-yard run by Vagas Ferguson. It set up a second-and-31, but Montana overcame his coach’s tirade, hitting MacAfee for 27 yards, then 16 yards on fourth-and-two. Montana finished off the drive with a one-yard run to make it 17-14.
After a Tiger turnover, Notre Dame got the ball back at midfield. Montana had been saving a screen pass for a special occasion and connected with Ferguson for 36 yards, bringing the ball to the Clemson 14. Montana scored later in the possession to make the score 21-17 in the Fighting Irish’s favor.
Clemson, who was going for its 100th win at Memorial Stadium, had two more possessions but could not get a first down, and the Fighting Irish escaped Death Valley with a four-point victory.
Despite the loss, Clemson gained more national respect for its overall program than any of its previous seven wins. The national media was impressed with Clemson’s ability to compete with the team that would go on to win the national title.
The following Tuesday when the polls came out, Clemson remained ranked No. 15, still the only time in history the Tigers lost a game but did not drop in the polls.
In fact, the only close game Notre Dame had over its last eight games was at Clemson. Notre Dame beat the Tigers by four points and the other seven opponents by an average of 36.7 points per game, including previous No. 1 Texas (38-10) in the Cotton Bowl.
The 1977 game also had a positive effect on Clemson’s recruiting. Terry Kinard and Jeff Davis, who are now both in the College Football Hall of Fame, were on official visits for that game, as was future All-American Perry Tuttle.
“That atmosphere for the Notre Dame game in Death Valley clinched my decision to come to Clemson,” said Davis, now an administrator in the Tiger football office.
Two years later when the teams met again in Indiana, I was in my second year at Clemson, so I was with the visiting team again. Clemson was ranked No. 14 in the nation entering the game with a 7-2 record, while Notre Dame was unranked and 6-3, but had earlier won at Michigan and beaten South Carolina in Notre Dame Stadium in a thrilling 18-17 win over George Rodgers and the Gamecocks.
Ford was now in his first full year as Clemson’s head coach after Pell had left for Florida, where he believed he had a better chance of winning the national championship. (Clemson would prove him wrong two years later.)
Despite Notre Dame’s 6-3 record at the time, the Fighting Irish still had a chance to make a major bowl. It would be quite a resumé builder for Ford’s program if the Tigers could register a win in their first game in Notre Dame Stadium, something only six other schools had done since the stadium opened in 1930. Plus, it was Senior Day at Notre Dame and the Fighting Irish had lost just twice on Senior Day since 1940.
The 1977 and 1979 Clemson vs. Notre Dame games were absolute opposites. While Clemson had a 112-yard edge in total offense and the lead at halftime in the 1977 game at Clemson, Notre Dame dominated the first half statistically in 1979 with 295 yards of total offense compared to just 108 for Clemson in gaining a 10-0 lead.
Putting that total offense number in perspective, Clemson’s defense was second in the nation in scoring defense and sixth in total defense entering the game. Clemson had not given up 293 yards in a game prior to the Notre Dame contest, then gave up 295 yards in the first half.
Just as Pell must have felt at halftime two years earlier, Devine believed his team’s 10-0 halftime lead should have been bigger.
It actually was for a split second. The Fighting Irish were up 10-0 in the second quarter when Notre Dame scored on a 10-yard run to make it 16-0. But a holding call was made on a lineman and the score was nullified.
The Fighting Irish could not get the first down and Chuck Male, who had won the Michigan game in the season opener, missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt, so the score remained 10-0 in favor of Notre Dame.
Ford said many times that the first five minutes of the second half are the most important in a game. That was certainly the case this November 16 day.
Clemson had to punt on its first possession of the second half. Notre Dame’s Ty Dickerson fumbled David Sims’ punt at his own 21 and Chuck Rose recovered. It was the last time Dickerson would touch the ball in a Notre Dame uniform. Clemson drove to the Notre Dame four, but the drive stalled and Obed Ariri kicked the first of his three field goals on the day.
The momentum had totally changed. Notre Dame failed to move the ball and Dick Boushka punted to Hollis Hall. The Clemson defensive back tried to return the favor and fumbled, but he recovered the ball at the Tiger 18. Clemson’s ability to recover both of the fumbled punts just minutes apart was a huge difference in the game.
Clemson then drove for another field goal by Ariri. On the next Notre Dame possession, Ferguson, who would break George Gipp’s 59-year Notre Dame record for 100-yard rushing games in a season on this day, fumbled on the first play after being hit by Bubba Brown, and Davis recovered for the Tigers.
Four plays later, Billy Lott, who had a team-high 73 rushing yards on the day, kept the ball around right end on a play called “Counter 28 Option” and raced 26 yards for a touchdown. It was Clemson’s third score in its last three possessions, as the Tigers took the lead 13-10. Clemson scored on a fourth straight possession after a 15-play drive that culminated with a 37-yard field goal by Ariri to up its lead to 16-10.
There was still 8:30 left in the game, so Notre Dame had plenty of time. But just as turnovers had hurt Clemson in the game in Death Valley two years earlier, turnovers were the difference for Notre Dame in this game in the “House that Rockne built” in 1930.
The Fighting Irish drove to the Clemson 25 and faced a third-and-nine, but a pass was deflected by Notre Dame’s Tony Hunter and then intercepted by Kinard.
Clemson could not move the ball and Notre Dame got it back at its own 16 with 2:34 left. This time, Devine went to some trickery and called an end-round pass by Pete Holohan, who had been a high school quarterback. His long pass was intercepted by Kinard and he returned it 40 yards to the Notre Dame 19.
But the game was still not over. On Clemson’s second play, Lott fumbled the snap and freshman Mark Zavagnin recovered with 2:02 left. It was Clemson’s only turnover of the game.
On Notre Dame’s next play, Steve Durham sacked Rusty Lisch at the Notre Dame two. Three more passes were incomplete and Clemson ran out the clock for the 16-10 victory.
Clemson had gained 241 yards on the ground on 74 carries, still the most carries by a Fighting Irish opponent in Notre Dame Stadium and the most against the Fighting Irish in any game since 1922 (Nebraska, 76). Clemson controlled the clock for 37:20, including 21:39 in the second half.
Looking back, this game was an indicator of future greatness for some young Tigers and the program in general. Clemson’s defense forced five turnovers, three of which were collected by future Hall of Fame players. Davis had a recovered fumble and Kinard had two interceptions, both in the fourth quarter. It is still the last time a Tiger had two fourth quarter interceptions in a game Clemson won by a touchdown or less. And or course, Clemson would win the national title two years later.
So, two games into this series, it is tied 1-1, with the Tigers holding a 33-31 advantage in cumulative points. The winning team has had a 5-1 advantage in forcing turnovers. Uncharacteristically, the home team has lost a second-half, double-digit lead in both games.
What will happen in Saturday night’s game is anyone’s guess, but chances are it will be close and something memorable will happen. A look to the final book of stats and quotes from the 1979 game has this quote from Lott.
“This was a chance to beat a team with great tradition. When I am 40 or 50 years old, I am going to remember this game.”
On Saturday night, the 58-year-old Lott will be one of Clemson’s honorary captains. We still remember that 26-yard touchdown run in Notre Dame Stadium in 1979.
March 14, 2019