It is difficult for many fans, including this one, to avoid the land of what-if's. Many of the WTF moments in Clemson history can take you to this land of better execution, decision making, or ball bounces. A lot of national champions require at least one or two moments of very good fortune, no matter how good their team is. Clemson was clutch in the fourth quarter of pivotal games in 1981, specifically against UGA and UNC, on the way to the title. However, it is highly likely the 1981 team, as talented as it was, was not the most talented Clemson team ever. The teams of the late 1980s and especially the 1990 team could make a major argument of being even more loaded than the 81 team was. However, at least one WTF game kept those teams from getting to the elusive mountaintop.
As a fan in those days, I would often point to the early "test" game as the one that would determine Clemson's title chances. This usually came in the form of the Georgia Bulldogs, but they were traded out for the pre-ACC Florida State Seminoles in 1988 and 1989. Despite the historical precedence of losing 1 or 2 league games, I never took the other ACC teams at the time very seriously. Clemson should have beaten all of them every year the way FSU did when they got to the ACC in 1992 through 1995. Those FSU teams usually killed their ACC opposition, but the few competitive games that came around were pulled out by somebody just making a key play in the later stages. I have always blamed the lack of balance in the Clemson offense for this not occurring. I would rank Danny Ford among the very best big game coaches ever and the Tigers won more of these than they lost and when they did lose, they usually were in very tight games that could have gone the other way. However, sometimes the Tigers of that time would just provide a very flat performance for whatever reason. A tremendous example of this was the game that in my opinion wrecked what could/should have been a magical 1989: the Duke game.
The Tigers were absolutely rolling in the first weeks of 1989. They had blown out their first four opponents, including the massive 34-23 beating of FSU covered in last week's TGIF Triumphs. After pummeling Maryland 31-7, the Tigers traveled to pitiful little Wallace Wade Stadium to take on the Duke Blue Devils, coached by an upstart guy named Steve Spurrier. Spurrier had already made a few waves with his pass happy offense in 1988, and it was like BYU had migrated to the southeast. However, this mattered little in 1988 when Clemson manhandled the Devils 49-17 and put a beating on their quarterback. Duke entered this game 1-3 and was of very minor concern when the Tigers took the field that fateful (and rainy) day. Clemson was ranked 7th, and there was little to fear outside of the pesky NCST Wolfpack who had managed a 3 game win streak against the Tigers heading into 1989. The way this game would play out reminded me of the classic Nintendo game Tecmo Super Bowl when it decided you were not going to have an undefeated season playing against the computer.
The term we applied to this was "Getting Tecmo'd". For example, if I was dominating a season as the L.A. Raiders with Bo Jackson, there would come the week against, say, the Buffalo Bills, when it seemed all forces conspired against me. My guys would fumble, the defense would routinely guess my play call (which would result in about 7-8 guys coming unblocked into the backfield to blow up the play), wideouts would drop wide open passes or the quarterback would make a terrible throw, and Bo Jackson would get hurt. Meanwhile, Thurman Thomas would flat run over half my defense, Andre Reed would make ridiculous catches over double coverage, and Bruce Smith would be sure to pick up a fumble and look like Christian Okoye on steroids plowing his way to a touchdown return. You could feel the forces working against you and only a few times was I able to escape a loss in those days.
Such was the case that day in Durham. The opening drive of the game looked promising until Chris Morocco decided to force a deep ball into triple coverage and got picked off. The Tiger defense looked a bit flat footed on the ensuing Duke drive, but Arlington Nunn (who would flat knock your teeth out) helped break up a pass over the middle. Levon Kirkland then got an interception (on a beneficial call) and you had to think the Tigers had awoken. However, the next drive ended when Terry Allen couldn't pull down a mediocre throw from Morocco on what would have been a sure first down catch. The next thing you know, the Tigers were fumbling away an interception back to Duke (a rare play to see...until this day). Robert O'Neal had gone about 15 yards on his return when he just flat out dropped the ball in front of a Duke OL, netting Duke about 10 yards on the play. Despite all of this, the Tigers got out to a 14-0 lead behind over 100 yards rushing and two TD's by Terry Allen. The reality is the Tigers should have been up by three scores or more, but the turnovers (especially the turnover after the interception) just killed that.
The second half was a very difficult one to watch, and in turn, it is a very difficult one to explain here. The Tigers dropped Duke for a sack by Chester McGlockton, setting up a third and long. Duke QB Billy Ray decided to go deep and threw it right into the waiting arms of cornerback Dexter Davis. As Davis looked to make a big return on the pick, like O'Neal earlier in the game, he inexplicably fumbled the ball without being touched and the Devils ended up netting over 50 yards on the play. They would then unleash backup (yes, I said backup) fullback Randy Cuthbert who somehow appeared to morph into John Riggins circa 1983 and plow the Tiger defense for a TD, getting Duke back into the game. Meanwhile, Clemson's offense ground to a halt and was only able to produce a 49 yard field goal from Chris Gardocki. The Duke defense was not very good, but somehow the Tigers made it look that way. Even when the Tigers were able to get into Duke territory, they flubbed away chances with very poor fourth down plays. The first was when Gary Cooper ran a pattern short of the sticks (which always angers me to no end) and was tackled. Duke took advantage and drove the ball for the go ahead touchdown. This drive was made possible when Duke pulled off a masterful throw and catch on third and long against double coverage on the sideline. It was just uncanny execution against pretty good defense and yet another sign that the football gods were not on the Tigers' side.
Somehow the Tiger defense squandered a two touchdown lead, fumbled away 2 interceptions when no contact was even made on the returns, failed miserably on fourth down, and allowed Billy Ray, Clarkston Hines, and Randy Cuthbert to look like superhumans in the rain. The Tiger offense couldn't get out of its own way in the second half and the major promise of the 1989 season being super special was flushed down the toilet. Duke needed all kinds of help from Clemson and they got it. W-T-F.
Note: The ACC Vault has this game so I was able to go back and review it for this. If you want to subject yourself to the visuals, click this link.
Hopefully these WTF articles help grant some perspective to the current state of affairs in Tigertown. Even the glorious Ford years were not void of these atrocious losses. I can only imagine what a film review of a game like this would have produced had the internet been around back then. Cherish the victories and take nothing for granted!