"The Catch II"

In a rivalry packed with big plays, stunning finishes and unbelievable endings, this might be the one that tops them all.

Next to Jerry Butler's "The Catch," a play that lifted Clemson to a 31-27 come-from-behind win in 1977, Rod Gardner's 50-yard reception on a frigid evening in Death Valley might be the biggest play in the history of the 104-year old rivalry.

* Clemson University Photo
* GoUpstate.com Photo
* The State Photo

The powerful receiver's catch of Woodrow Dantzler's pass setup Aaron Hunt's 25-yard field goal with three seconds left to lift 16th-ranked Clemson to an improbable 16-14 victory over No. 25 South Carolina.

To Clemson fans, the 50-yard reception will always be known as "The Catch II."

To South Carolina fans it will always be known as "The Push off."

Regardless of what the 85,500 fans in Death Valley or the millions on television at home called it – the November 18, 2000 match up was a classic.

The Tigers entered the game struggling after suffering back-to-back defeats to Georgia Tech and Florida State into an off-week. Remember, Tommy Bowden's second Clemson team started the year 8-0 and peaked at No. 3 in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches' poll before the two setbacks.

South Carolina was also coming of a loss, to Florida, but the Gamecocks were riding high with a 7-3 record under head coach Lou Holtz.

It was an unbelievable mark considering the team was a year removed from an 0-11 mark, not to mention a 21-game losing streak.

Late in the fourth quarter it appeared South Carolina had done the unthinkable when tight end Tommy Hill fell on a Derek Watson fumble in the Clemson end zone with 59 second left. The recovery gave the Gamecocks a 14-13 lead and left the thousands jubilant USC supporters in the stands cheering while the rest of the stadium stood in silence.

But Hill's fumble recovery was the beginning of the jaw-dropping moments.

"I knew I had to make a play to win the game," Gardner said afterwards. "We didn't want to lose the last game like that."

Clemson took the ensuing kickoff and moved the ball out to its own 42-yard line when it called a timeout with 19 seconds left, facing a third down-and-12. When the Tigers broke the huddle, Dantzler received the shotgun snap, rolled to his left and then threw deep to Gardner, who was running a "go" route down the right sideline.

South Carolina cornerback Andre Goodman was trailing Gardner underneath and safety Deandre Eiland was over the top providing support. But Dantzler's roll to his left brought Eiland up just enough to where it came left Gardner 1-on-1 deep downfield.

As the ball approached the two, both tussled with each other until Gardner extended his left arm to create just separation from Goodmanbefore leaping up to snatch the Dantzler aerial and falling backwards at the USC 8 yard line.

Former Clemson wide receiver Rod Gardner was known for making his share of big plays during his time in Tigertown- like this touchdown catch in a come-from-behind win at North Carolina in 2000. (Getty Images)
"It was in slow motion," Gardner said. "I wasn't even thinking about the defender. I just knew I had to make a play. And when it dropped in my hands, oh man."

It was the second straight year the 6-foot-3 wide receiver broke the hearts of the Gamecocks. In 1999, he snatched a 29-yard touchdown pass on fourth down late to seal a 31-21 Clemson victory.

"I was looking for one-on-one (coverage)," Gardner said. "I didn't touch him. I was playing the ball."

Goodman, of course, had a different view.

"I looked at the ref and I knew he was going to pull the flag," he said. "He looked at me and smiled. I said, ‘You had to see that.' He just smiled and shook his head.

"That rule is so funny. Sometimes it's called and sometimes it isn't."

And it wasn't as Hunt's field goal lifted the Tigers to its fourth straight victory over the Gamecocks and started a debate that still lives on today.

"I'm still trying to figure out what happened," Dantzler said.

So are fans.

The Clemson contingent claims to this day there was no push off by Gardner, who was known for his physical style of play anyway.

South Carolina fans insist there should have been a penalty called to nullify what turned out to be one of the most controversial plays in the history of the rivalry.

At the end of the night the scoreboard told the story of the evening: Clemson 16 South Carolina 14.

But the final two plays will live on forever.

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