#5: 1988 Florida State 24 Clemson 21
It was a game that has gone down in the history of college football as one of the greatest games ever played. Florida State had entered the season ranked #1 in the nation but took a 31-0 whipping at the hands of Miami in the first week of the season. Clemson had whipped Furman and Virginia Tech to start the season and the Tigers has moved up to #3 in the nation.
Deion Sanders had one of the most electrifying punt returns in Death Valley history to give the Seminoles the lead. Rodney Williams led Clemson back into a 21-21 tie and the Clemson defense got their stop and was on the precipice of giving the football back to the Clemson offense with less than 2 minutes to go.
Then the infamous Puntrooksie stunned the Tiger nation as Leroy Butler scampered 70 yards without hardly anybody noticing him before being pushed out at the one yard line. And that is where this game became controversial.
The Clemson defense bowed up and FSU could not score on 1st or 2nd down. The Seminoles tried again on 3rd down only to be stopped again. With 35 seconds on the clock and facing 4th down, FSU called timeout to bring their field goal unit on the field. Problem was, the Seminoles did not have a timeout to give and a confused group of officials huddled at the center of the field to discuss the situation. While the clock stood, stopped, at 35 seconds and with Danny Ford screaming at them, the officials talked. And talked. And talked. FSU, which had been 0-3 on the year in field goal attempts, finally ran a play on 4th down which resulted in a touchdown. Still confused, the officials called the touchdown back and Florida State decided to kick the field goal. It was good, and Clemson fans were left furious and utterly confused at what had transpired.
The Puntrooskie, maybe rightfully so, has overshadowed a great football game that had a spectacular punt return for a touchdown by Neon Deion. And the Puntrooskie absolutely overshadowed a controversial end to the game. Could FSU have trotted out the kicker with the time running down and connected on the field goal? We'll never know. We'll also never know exactly what the penalty was for FSU calling a timeout when they did not have one. All in all, it was a confusing and controversial ending to one of the greatest games in college football history.
#4: 1998 Virginia 20 Clemson 18
Clemson entered this 1998 game versus the Cavaliers 1-1 a week removed from a crushing defeat to Virginia Tech (37-0) at home. Led by quarterback Aaron Brooks, the Cavaliers entered the game ranked #10 in the nation on their way to a 9-3 season.
Virginia quickly jumped out to a 17-3 lead on the Tigers, but a rash of penalties and two fumbles allowed the Tigers to hang in the game and eventually take a 18-17 lead in the 4th quarter. One of those fumbles, a 93 yard return by Antwan Edwards, tied a school record for fumble returns and is a lasting image of the 1998 team.
The Cavaliers took over procession late in the 4th quarter they faced a critical 3rd down with less than 3 minutes to go. On 3rd and 6 from the Cavalier 36, Brooks threw incomplete but the Tigers were called for pass interference by Alex Ardley.
Given a first down, the Cavaliers once ran two more plays and once again were faced with a 3rd down at their own 46. The 3rd and 10 pass from Brooks again fell incomplete, but Antwan Edwards this time was flagged for pass interference on Kevin Coffey.
A stunned Clemson defense and furious Tommy West watched helplessly as Virginia drove in range for a Todd Braverman field goal, which he drilled with 49 seconds left to give the Cavaliers the win.
"I feel like we got lucky," said Virginia quarterback Aaron Brooks, who was 21-for-34 for 310 yards and one touchdown. "The ref made a good call on the pass interference, but he could have easily kept it in his pocket."
"All good teams get breaks, and I think we got some today," Anthony Poindexter said. "We got some breaks, but we made some plays, too."
That may be the understatement of the century. While the 93 yard fumble return was certainly a good break for Clemson, being given 1st downs on back to back 3rd down incompletions is almost unheard of in college football. But this loss was one of several heartbreakers in 1998 that eventually led to Tommy West's firing in November.
#3: 1984 Georgia 26 Clemson 23
Clemson came into the 1984 season as the preseason #4 ranked team in the country, and the Tigers had moved up to #2 in week 3 after wins over Appalachian State and Virginia.
Georgia was also ranked, sitting at #20 when this September 22 game between the hedges in Athens kicked off.
This game is often called one of the greatest games in Georgia's history, and some of that has to do with the fact that they upset the #2 team in the country. Some of that legend has to do with the fact that Georgia overcame a 20-6 halftime deficit. But most of that lore rests with the foot of Kevin Butler.
Lining up for a 60 yard field goal with 16 seconds left in the game, most Clemson fans were dumbfounded Butler would even attempt the kick giving the good possibility he would miss and give Clemson a chance to run a play or two and set up for their own field goal by Donald Igwebuike (who led the nation in field goal percentage in 1984).
But to the shock and dismay of Clemson fans, Butler drilled the kick with yards to spare, marking one of the great Charlie Munson calls of all time. While the Georgia crowd went bonkers, Clemson lined up to return the kick with 11 seconds left. Butler, maybe extending his celebration too long after the 60-yard kick, booted a ball that was returnable.
And return it Clemson did, all the way into Georgia territory at the 42 yard line. In addition, Georgia was flagged for a late hit out of bounds on the Tigers. 15 yards tacked onto the return would have the Tigers down at the Bulldog 27 yard line, and well within the range of Igwebuike.
There was one small problem. There was no time on the clock. Coach Ford, realizing play cannot end on a defensive penalty, argued that the flag should be walked off and a kick attempt should be allowed for the Tigers. The officials, huddled in the middle of the field, talked for what seemed like 15 minutes. Their decision was that the penalty had occurred after the game clock had expired; meaning Clemson was not due the penalty and the attempt.
Ford, understandably, was furious. The 1984 team swears to this day that the penalty occurred before time had expired because the clock kept ticking after the play had been blown dead. In fact, regardless of the penalty, the players felt like there were 2 seconds on the clock and that Igwebuike should have been able to attempt his own 60 yard field goal.
But in the end, the game was ruled over and Georgia had a big win. And it marks a very controversial end to a great defensive struggle in Athens.
#2: 1985 Maryland 34 Clemson 31
Clemson entered the 1985 season with high hopes, but the year ended up being a major rebuilding campaign that would fuel the 1986-1990 seasons. The Tigers had lost 3 games in a row to Georgia, Georgia Tech and Kentucky back in late September the Tigers had lost a heartbreaker in Chapel Hill the week before the Maryland game to slip to 5-4 on the year. After winning 37 games in the previous 4 seasons, the Tigers were stuck at mediocrity and the frustration was building.
Maryland, under head coach Bobby Ross, was in the midst of some of its most successful seasons. The 1985 Terrapin team would go on to finish 9-3 on the season and post a #18 national ranking. But on this day, the paths of these two programs were about to collide in an ugly affair for both sides.
The first hiccup to this game was the start time. CBS pushed this ACC match up back to 4:00 start time, which forced Clemson University to scramble around looking for more adequate lighting. While Clemson's Death Valley had lighting suitable for night games, it was not enough for television. The late start time, this late in the football season, would mean most of the 2nd half would be played with the sun set. This did not make Danny Ford, or the Clemson faithful, happy. In this day and age a night game is accepted as common practice in Clemson, but in 1985 it was despised.
Up until late in the 4th quarter, the game was well played and exciting. Earlier in the 4th quarter, Bobby Ross had come onto the field to argue some questionable calls (presumably holding on Clemson) that the officials were not seeing. This got under Coach Ford's skin, especially since he was at home and expected to be in control of everything…including the officials.
With the score knotted at 31 late in the 4th quarter, Clemson was flagged for a late hit that kept the Maryland drive alive. Furious with the call, Ford did just as Bobby Ross had done earlier in the game and walked onto Frank Howard Field to voice his displeasure with the call. To the dismay of millions of viewers watching nation wide, the head official had not turned off his microphone. What the 80,000 fans in Death Valley, along with the millions watching on television, got was an earful of classic Danny Ford. He verbally berated the official using plenty of words that would not be allowed on even some cable channels, much less a major network. When he was done, the nation was stunned and Clemson had an embarrassing situation on their hands. Little did anyone know at the time, but it was about to get worse.
After a Maryland field goal with less than 10 seconds basically sealed the win, the Terrapins lined up to kick off to the Tigers. The squib kick was eventually hauled in by the Tigers and run out of bounds on the Clemson side of the field directly in front of the student section. What started as a few pushes between the players turned into a near brawl as the Clemson bench converged on the scene. Maryland players ran across the field and also joined in the action, which took over 10 minutes to clear. And all of it was caught by television cameras (one perched on the sideline with a clear view to all the nasty action).
Clemson was obviously embarrassed considering the image problems of the NCAA probation earlier in the decade. The ACC, predictably, was also un-amused. In addition to several high level meetings, Coach Ford and Coach Ross were reprimanded by the league and forced to sit in the press box the following year in Baltimore.
It remains, to this day, one of the true black eyes on the Danny Ford on the field play by his teams. While many hail it as a man standing up for his team, that argument would have held up had the team not overreacted on the sideline. The frustration of losing the game coupled with the frustration of an average season had resulted in a moment most Clemson fans would like to forget.
#1: 2000 Clemson 16 South Carolina 14
It is hard to imagine a game in Clemson football history that has been, at least locally, talked about, argued about and reveled in more than the 2000 game between the Tigers and the Gamecocks.
|A late 4th quarter fumble by Derek Watson was recovered in the endzone for a Gamecock touchdown, but it wouldn't be enough to secure the win.|
The game had controversial calls throughout the game. Rod Gardner hauled in a 40 yard pass from Woodrow Dantzler late in the first half after a ton of contact. After discussing the situation, the officials determined the ball had been tipped at the line of scrimmage, therefore making the contact legal. Aaron Hunt would nail a field goal to give the Tigers the lead 10-7 at halftime. Also in the first half, a pass interference call went against Clemson on a ball that replays showed was uncatchable.
If the first half ended with controversy, it was just the beginning of a very long night for the officials. Questionable pass interference calls and no calls continued into the 2nd half creating an increase in the electricity in the stands.
In the 4th quarter, another questionable pass interference call went against Clemson, giving the Gamecocks a first down inside the Clemson 5 yard line with less than 2 minutes remaining. South Carolina running back Derek Watson then took a Phil Petty handoff and dove over the pile, but was met head on by Clemson linebacker Keith Adams forcing Watson to fumble the football before crossing the plane. Backup tight end Thomas Hill fell on the ball in the end zone, giving South Carolina a touchdown and a 14-13 lead with 59 seconds left in the game.
South Carolina fans in Death Valley were ecstatic. Clemson fans stood stunned. After a decent kick return and a couple of Dantzler scrambles, the Tigers were quickly running out of time and still were well outside of Aaron Hunt's range. On a 3rd and 12, Dantzler rolled left (taking with him the Gamecock safeties) before pulling up and heaving a 49 yard pass towards the right sidelie to Rod Gardner at the South Carolina 13. Gardner and Gamecock cornerback Andre Goodman were jostling for position from almost the time the ball went into the air. Mike Washington, the infamous official standing just feet from the action, started to pull at his back pocket to throw a flag (on whom we will never know). Washington relented and left the flag in his pocket as the 80,000 Clemson fans in Death Valley roared with life.
After a South Carolina timeout, Aaron Hunt calmly walked up and nailed the 25 yard field goal that caused arguably the loudest eruption of emotion in Death Valley history.
In the Sunday morning sports section of The State newspaper out of Columbia, a full page photo of Gardner (with arm extended) resting on Goodman's shoulder was distributed. With the possible exception of the photo of Jerry Butler's catch in 1977, this picture would be viewed more than any other in the history of the 100 year rivalry.
The SEC crew that officiated the game would be reprimanded for the poor calls throughout the game. And ultimately, I guess it depends on who you pull for in how you view the Gardner catch. Clemson fans say it was a great athlete making a huge play against single coverage. South Carolina fans will always call it "The Push". Regardless, it was a Clemson 16-14 win and it is by far the most controversial game in the past 25 years of Clemson football.
Even to this day.