The Greatest Win by a USC Football Team?
What is the "greatest" win ever by a USC football squad? Some fans will say pick the upset of 12th ranked Florida or the win over #23 Tennessee in 2005. Others will say either of the Outback Bowl wins over (#22 and #19) Ohio State, still others the 1987 win over 8th ranked Clemson – or any win over Clemson. Older fans may mention beating #17 Michigan in 1980, #11 Florida State in 1984, or Notre Dame in 1984. The 1957 win at # 20 Texas could come up, and now Thursday's win over 8th ranked Kentucky has to be up there too.
But the "greatest" win, as in a triumph over the highest ranked opponent ever, was over the Tar Heels, number three ranked North Carolina in Chapel Hill, October 24, 1981.
Victory was a heady thought. South Carolina was limping along at 4-3, and North Carolina was 6-0. The ride to Chapel Hill the day before was a trip from late summer heat in Columbia to fall's cool crispness, and the walk the next day down toward the stadium in the middle of a beautiful campus reminded me of a movie. The stadium is set in the center of campus with curving roads and tree lined streets all leading to the stadium. There was already talk of basketball in the town, as always happens in Chapel Hill in October, but football was still the main attraction in October 1981. The atmosphere made one excited to be there and everyone walking toward the game was looking forward to the game. But even Gordon Beckham didn't know history was about to be written.
One year removed from the George Rogers' era and the Heisman Trophy he brought back to Columbia, the Gamecocks were looking for an identity. Gone were Rogers, fellow first round draft pick tight end Willie Scott, and most of the offensive line that helped win him the Heisman. The 1981 USC Media Guide devoted just one page – page 38 – to Rogers winning the Heisman and it was all pictures. The Guide had a one page re-cap of the 1980 season, a second straight 8 win season for the first time in Carolina school history, as well as USC's first back to back bowl games.
Head Coach Jim Carlen had shifted from the two tight end offense to an I-set, featuring senior Johnny Wright, the injury slowed tailback-turned-fullback, and then back to tailback, who was thought to be the equal of Rogers, until a season ending injury as a sophomore. Freshman Kent Hagood and Todd Berry were getting into the mix, but it was still not a settled offense.
The Media Guide listed Gordon Beckham as "the most experienced quarterback candidate" on the team, but he was nowhere in the USC records – yet. Beckham initially sat behind fellow junior Terry Bishop, whose running ability had led to a 23-6 road win over Wake Forest in the season opener. Tight end Dwayne Chivers, seeking to replace Willie Scott and tight end Ben Cornett, caught a touchdown pass, but hurt his ankle in the opener and was a sporadic performer after that.
The Gamecocks were already 3-0 versus old ACC foes, beating Duke 17-3 and Virginia 21-3 at home, but home losses to Ole' Miss and the Dan Marino-led Pitt Panthers on national television, plus a 24-0 thrashing by Georgia in Athens, were not quite offset by a second road win, at 28-14 Kentucky. I remember Coach Carlen remarking at length in that post game press conference what a fine coach Kentucky had in Fran Curci, who was battling to save his job. Two weeks later, Carlen gave another memorable post-game talk after another road win after a remarkable performance by Beckham.
The junior quarterback from Atlanta, Georgia, became the starter in the Georgia loss. He could throw deep to the streaking Horace Smith, hand off to senior Johnny Wright, flashy freshman Kent Hagood, bruising Dominique Blasingame, or the shifty freshman Todd Berry. Or he could be replaced by Bishop if the offense did not click. Beckham's identity was a soft spoken but tough college quarterback. The junior from Georgia played almost two seasons with ruptured discs before he said anything to the coaching staff.
He missed the 1981 spring practice recovering from the back operation. "It's hard to throw the ball when you have two ruptured discs, and he had ‘em for two years," marveled Coach Carlen. USC's 17-14 win at "The Big House" in Ann Arbor the previous fall, plus 2 wins in 3 road games so far that season gave room for hope, but Gamecock fans knew that 3rd ranked UNC was coming off an 11-1 season, a number nine ranking, and at number 3 was looking to move even higher. A national title contender's showdown with unbeaten Clemson loomed two weeks ahead for North Carolina, so could UNC take the 4-3 Gamecocks lightly? Who and what was there to fear?
All four Gamecock staffers chose UNC in the weekly college football "pick 'em" section that week. Only the guest picker, former Tar Heel soccer standout – and the USC soccer coach – Mark Berson picked the visiting Gamecocks to win. He should have bet the house.
The game program read "Carolina vs. South Carolina," and the reverse would have been true in Columbia. In his preview story, Tar Heel Sports Information Director Rick Brewer kindly praised the tough Gamecock rush defense, headed by future NFL'ers Andrew Provence and Emanuel Weaver, and aided by Mike Vargo. Brewer noted that the Gamecocks had scored more points against Pittsburgh (28) in a loss than the rest of the Panthers' opponents combined.
He forgot to mention that Dick Crum's UNC squad had not given up more than 14 points all season, and averaged 43 per game on offense, including 56 against both Boston College and East Carolina. He had something to say later after a memorable Tar Heel touchdown.
Gordon Beckham proved to be the difference in the game. He completed a school record 11 straight passes in the first half, his first 14 overall, and finished 16-17 for 195 yards against the vaunted Tar Heel defense, led by William Fuller and Mike Wilcher. Two Tar Heel turnovers stopped drives deep in USC territory, and three UNC turnovers led to 17 Carolina points in an improbable 31-13 victory that led to - nothing.
USC took the opening kickoff, and just over three minutes later Hagood scored for a 7-0 lead. North Carolina quarterback Rod Elkins was then intercepted by USC's Chuck Finney inside the Carolina 30. On the next series, linebacker James Seawright forced a fumble at the UNC 45, that led to a short Todd Berry TD run and the Gamecocks were up 14-0 early in the second quarter. Scott Stankavage replaced an injured Elkins at quarterback and led UNC on a 16 play, 93 yard drive for a TD with :57 left in the first half, to cut the USC lead to 14-7. Uh-oh. Comeback time?
Tar Heel linebacker Mike Wilcher said of Beckham, "He got hit a lot of times – good – out there, (but) he hung in."
On USC's opening possession of the second half came perhaps the key play of the game that led Carolina to victory. Facing third and three at its own 42, Beckham hit the streaking Smith down the right sideline for a 53 yard gain to the Tar Heel 5. Beckham then hit Chivers on a 3 yard TD pass for a 21-7 lead. Chivers caught a then career high seven tosses.
The game was in doubt, and there was excitement still ahead, especially in the press box. Late in the third quarter, UNC's punter Jeff Hayes raced 70 yards for a TD on his second successful fake punt of the game, and the Tar Heels were down just 21-13, after he missed the PAT, with :35 left in the third quarter. During the run, two UNC student assistants in the press box were so excited they began jumping up and down and yelling as Hayes raced toward the goal line for what they thought would be a memorable part of a great UNC comeback victory. For those who don't know, members of the press are not allowed to cheer or comment in the press box. Brewer, a distinguished and award wining SID, was visibly shaken. He grabbed the press box microphone and begged for forgiveness from the working media for the conduct of his student assistants. "I apologize, I apologize, I apologize," was all he could say for a few moments. "This is a working facility!" he finally continued, looking sternly in the students' direction.
The comeback seemed to be rolling along. The ‘Heels stopped USC on its next possession, but then UNC fumbled the punt at their own 21. Mark Fleetwood soon added a 33 yard field goal for a 24-13 lead, with more than 12:30 left in the game. The game was ready to be decided, and it was the Gamecocks who decided to win.
On the next possession, Seawright picked off a Stankavage pass and returned it to the UNC 29. Four plays later, Kendrick Stafford scored from five yards out for a 31-13 lead, with 10:09 left. Only history awaited the outcome. The Gamecock's win over 3rd ranked UNC would be the highest ranked team ever conquered by Carolina, and it is still the mark to beat.
Wright finished with 115 yards on 27 carries but no TD's, while Beckham's 195 passing yards seem slight compared to today's quarterback statistics. I can remember Beckham's one incompletion, a pass toward the right sideline and Smith that was a little too high and wide. But near perfection was enough for victory that day.
After the game, I ran to the USC locker room in a small brick building in the end zone to talk to Horace Smith about his key catch, but the speedy senior was gone before anyone could talk to him. In a "Sport World Christmas Wishes" column later that fall, I wished for Smith a stop watch to time how fast it took him to shower and leave the USC locker room after a game. No one could ever get there fast enough to interview him.
That night, I did some other interviews and then wandered outside among the Gamecock fans celebrating a football win in Chapel Hill for the first time since 1970. I encountered the strangest scene I have ever witnessed in a post game atmosphere. Fresh off a road win over the highest ranked opponent USC had ever beaten in football, Coach Carlen was "talking" to The Gamecock Sports Editor Tracy Helms. Arms folded and jaw set firmly, Carlen was lecturing Helms, whose dad was the Sports Editor of The State newspaper in Columbia, and had recently become critical of Carlen and the program during the most successful span ever in Gamecock football history. All I heard Tracy say was, "Uh huh. Uh huh," as Carlen gave his lecture about rumors and things that hurt the program. I was too stunned to ask Carlen any questions.
Tracy later wrote that "Carlen dispelled any rumors of him leaving USC by either force or choice, calling them ‘sick.' ‘I hate rumors and I wish they would stop,'" he quoted Carlen as saying.
Events would soon unfold and tell the real tale of the conflict in and around the program, but to a junior in college who just witnessed a win that might top the win over Michigan the year before, I was stunned. It was as if the game was secondary. It wasn't just Gordon Beckham who came of age that day.
The season continued with a win over NC State, and then a stunning 23-21 loss to Pacific, played without Seawright, Chivers, and two others starters, and then the loss of Weaver for the season on the game's eighth play. Pacific Coach Bob Toledo called that win, "The biggest in Pacific football history." USC knew what he meant. Second ranked Clemson swept to a 29-13 win in Columbia, thanks to a key blocked punt for a score; and then came the uninspired 33-10 loss to 9-2 Hawaii, complete with six turnovers. Carlen was fired one week after that loss dropped Carolina to 6-6. Beckham started the next season, but eventually saw sophomore Bill Bradshaw gain playing time at quarterback as the 4-7 1983 season progressed. Carlen never coached collegiately again. Clemson beat North Carolina two weeks after the Gamecock win, to take the ACC title. Crum never had another team ranked as high as #3.
The Gamecocks have come close to beating number 2, most recently a 21-14 loss to Auburn in 2006, but have never done it. Beckham has proudly watched his son Gordon Beckham, Jr., become a top notch SEC baseball player as a shortstop – for Georgia, not Carolina. And Coach Berson may have retired as a football "pick ‘em's" guest, having predicted USC's "greatest" football upset, or at least the win over the highest ranked team ever.
USC has played UNC five times since 1981, winning three times including a 27-20 win in 1989, and a 21-17 loss in 1991 in Chapel Hill, both under Sparky Woods. But the 1981 game against UNC stands out even more than the 1968 "miracle comeback" led by a sophomore quarterback named Tommy Suggs. But that's another story.
There are strange games, memorable moments, and unlikely heroes in college sports. Just ask Tar Heel football fans about a certain Saturday afternoon in October, 1981 when Gordon Beckham was perfect for as long as he needed to be. Gamecock fans just hope that turnabout does not happen to them 26 years after the "greatest" win in USC football history. The goal Saturday? No surprises. The greatest upset in Chapel Hill has already happened in the minds of Gamecock fans.
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