The Danny Ford era is revered in Clemson football history. After all, winning the ACC, winning bowl games, and being a top 15 squad were the norm in those days. To top it off, Ford's 1981 squad cemented immortality with the national title. However, the program was not immune to several WTF moments during the Ford era. Perhaps the most confusing of them all was the three game losing streak to Dick Sheridan's NCST Wolfpack program from 1986 to 1988. Only the 1986 game featured a relatively even matchup (Clemson had an overall edge in talent then, but it was young and the game was in Raleigh). The 87 and 88 losses that followed have to be considered major upsets as both of those Clemson teams were very strong, while only the 88 NCST team was pretty good. The Rodney Williams reign at quarterback was mostly a great success, but the 87 coot game and these NCST games probably stick in his craw like no other.
1986: Clemson was still coming back around from the probation that the NCAA (and the effing ACC) handed down in the early 80s. The Tigers had finally returned to a bowl at the end of 85 after Ford switched from Randy Anderson and a more pass friendly offense to freshman Rodney Williams and the traditional power run/option offense synonymous with the Ford era. The defensive book for NCST was pretty simple; they were going to load up with run blitzes and do whatever they could to stop the Tiger run game. The opportunities to throw it over the top on NCST were plentiful, but Williams had a terrible day the few times they tried to throw the ball. Mostly the Tigers stubbornly ran it into the teeth of the NCST defense. This happened from time to time in those days, but usually the Tiger defense could be counted on to stuff the opposition until the offense could wear down the defense and bust out some big runs. But in 86, NCST was ready to attack the Tiger defense through the air with quarterback Erik Kramer and a pretty good group of WR's like Danny Peebles and Haywood Jeffries. NCST played well and the Tigers played terribly, so it was what it was...until...
1987: There is really no rhyme or reason to what occurred in Death Valley on October 24th, 1987. NCST was having a terrible season (ending up at 4-7), Clemson was steamrolling after beating UGA on yet another David Treadwell field goal in week 2. The defense had only allowed two opponents to score more than 19 points (UGA had 20 and UVA had 21) while entering the contest 6-0. Clemson boasted a running attack of Terry Allen, Wes McFadden, Joe Henderson, and Tracy Johnson. Gary Cooper had become the vertical threat the passing game desperately needed. Considering what had occurred the year before, Clemson fans were convinced that revenge was all the motivation this team needed to throttle the Pack and keep rolling towards a second Orange Bowl in the 80s. Usually if a team managed to beat Clemson the year before, they had the full attention of the team in the next matchup and would pay dearly. Despite all of this, the Tigers played like they were in a sleep apnea study while the Pack threw it and ran it all over the place. The run blitz heavy scheme from 86 was back in play and the Tigers again couldn't get the run game going. Death Valley featured some of the biggest boos I had heard at the time as the team went into the locker room down 30-0. Yes, it was 30-0 and NCST was a 2-4 football team which hadn't scored more than 17 points in 5 of those 6 games coming in. I'm not sure what went on in the Tiger locker room at the half, but I'm sure it was as profanity laced as the commentary in the stands. The Tigers came out and just decided to let Williams throw the ball on nearly every down. NCST's scheme wasn't ready for that and the Tigers clawed back to 30-28 before the time ran out on them. Many of us wondered what if we'd attacked them with the pass more in the early stages of the game. Regardless, it was a horrible loss that blew Clemson out of the top 10 and the national title hunt.
1988: The veteran, loaded 1988 Tigers had the heartbreaker against FSU in week 2 that likely meant the national title was off the table. However, the team rebounded from that to win the next 3 games before facing the NCST Wolfpack in Raleigh. Surely after the events of the previous two seasons the Tigers would look to put an emphatic stomping on the Pack. The 88 Pack team was much stronger than the 87 group and closely resembled its 1986 team, so they were not to be taken lightly. However, there was NO WAY the Tigers were going to take them lightly after dropping 2 straight in very embarrassing fashion. My father and I were convinced the lessons learned in the second half of the 87 game would be all Clemson needed to rip the NCST defensive scheme. Unfortunately , the Tigers must have only looked at the 86 game film because it was like a virtual replay from an offensive standpoint. Clemson's run game continued to flounder facing multiple run blitzes and a loaded box on just about every down. Rodney Williams' passes were doing more damage to the Carter-Finley Stadium turf than they were to the State secondary. The Tiger defense played well, allowing only 10 points, but a measly 3 spot was all the Tigers mustered as they dropped the third game in a row to the Pack.
Fortunately Ford was able to finally break the streak against Sheridan in his final season in 1989, but there was no doubt that Sheridan had gotten the best of the coaching matchup and likely cost the Tigers a shot at the title in 1987. The 87 team lost to the coots at the end of the year, but it would have been interesting to have seen that game played out with an unbeaten Tiger team coming into it. The 87 Tigers already had the ACC clinched and the Citrus Bowl locked up by the time the coot game came around and were frankly beaten by a team that wanted it more that night. The 3 game losing streak to NCST definitely deserves a W-T-F!