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Historical Eye of the Tiger: Clemson vs. Notre Dame

It’s Elementary My Dear Watson—Tigers Look to School the Irish in All-Time Series Rubber Match

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As we approach the twenty-four hour mark before Saturday night's kickoff between the #11 Clemson Tigers and the #6 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, it's beginning to feel as though the Lord Himself has a stake in the outcome. Rain forecasts for Saturday have reached what ESPN Gameday host Rece Davis has labeled "Biblical proportions," and seemingly every game involving Notre Dame and its penchant for religious imagery ("Touchdown Jesus" and this scene from "Rudy" especially) becomes somewhat of a "great crusade." Dabo acknowledged as much in his pre-game press conference when he bemoaned the unfair advantage Notre Dame had sought to gain from the Pope's recent American tour, before countering that the Tigers had their own "higher power" in the statistical genius of Notre Dame alum-turned-Clemson SID Tim Bourret. Swinney went on to declare that he "couldn't get Jesus tickets" due to almost unprecedented demand. Whether Providence will guide the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame University or the Fighting Tigers of Clemson University to gridiron victory is anything but predestined; faith in each other, belief in the game plan, and the will to win on the field will ultimately determine which side earns Divine sanction in victory and which is damned to defeat. One thing, however, the prophets of old have foretold: the 2015 battle between Clemson and Notre Dame promises to continue a tradition of close, hard-fought battles for on-field supremacy and poll prestige.

Dan Devine 1977

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Devine Intervention in 1977

On November 12, 1977 the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame made their inaugural trip to Clemson, SC to take on the Tigers in a much smaller (53,467 was a sellout crowd due to the lack of upper decks) though no less intimidating Death Valley. The Irish entered that first contest ranked #5 in the nation at 7-1, and were led by future NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterback Joe Montana, stud running back Vagas Ferguson, and head coach Dan Devine. The 15th-ranked Tigers were 7-1-1 and led by first-year head coach Charley Pell, future Clemson Ring-of-Honor quarterback Steve Fuller, and future NFL receivers Jerry Butler and Dwight Clark. Both Montana (1981, 1984, 1989, 1990 with the San Francisco 49ers) and Fuller (1985 with the Chicago Bears) went on to win Super Bowls in the NFL. A total of thirty-six players from both squads went on to NFL careers. The first half was close on the scoreboard, ending with a 10-7 Tiger advantage. But after Notre Dame scored the game's first points with a first-quarter touchdown, the Tigers fairly dominated into the break, racking up 213 yards to Notre Dame's 101. The Tigers picked up where they left off in the third quarter, with Fuller orchestrating a five-play touchdown drive highlighted by a 35-yd completion from Fuller to fullback Warren Ratchford and a two-yard touchdown run by running back Lester Brown to go up 17-7.

It was at this point, however, when "Devine Intervention" turned the tide. Devine unleashed a tirade against the officials after Lester Brown's touchdown scamper, accusing the side judge of obstructing his defenders from making the tackle. Once his dander was up, Devine, who was prone to verbal outbursts and histrionic displays anyway, continued his sideline theatrics for the remainder of the game. He drew two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, once even tramping onto the field to pick up an official's flag, drawing a chorus of boos from a riled Death Valley crowd throughout. Despite Devine's intervention and the penalty setbacks they incurred, Montana seemed to be Divinely inspired, directing a touchdown-scoring drive to trim the Tiger lead to just 17-14 early in the fourth. Another Clemson turnover (one of five on the afternoon) set Montana and the Irish offense up at midfield, and they capitalized with another touchdown drive to go up 21-17, a lead they would hold despite two more Tiger offensive possessions.

Notre Dame went on to win the 1977 national championship, finishing the year 11-1 with a 39-10 average score in their other ten victories (the lone loss coming at the hands of Ole Miss 20-13 in Oxford, MS in the second week of the season). The Tigers compiled an 8-3 overall record, earning the program's first bowl bid in nearly twenty years (1959 Bluebonnet Bowl) initiating a resurgence of Clemson football onto the national stage that would continue through the end of the 1980s.

Billy Lott

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Lott's Escape in 1979

Danny Ford's first Tiger team ventured into uncharted territory when it made the trek to South Bend, Indiana for a road bout with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on November 17, 1979. Led by quarterback Billy Lott, the #14, 7-2 Tigers took on an unranked, 6-3 Irish squad still led by head coach Dan Devine and running back Vagas Ferguson. The Irish dominated the first half, racking up 295 yards en route to a 10-0 lead at intermission. But the Tigers stiffened on defense in the second half to shut out the Irish offense, while Lott and the Tiger offense got the running game untracked to put up sixteen second-half points and claim a 16-10 victory to spoil Notre Dame's senior day. In a story reminiscent of the Biblical Lot and his escape from Sodom & Gomorrah, the Irish's own blunders brought down the wrath of the football gods, as five Irish turnovers and numerous costly penalties kept the Tigers in the game until into the second half when they turned turnovers into enough points to claim victory.

The Tigers would end the year unranked at 8-4 after losing 24-18 to Baylor in the Peach Bowl to close out the season. The Irish finished unranked as well at 7-4, having failed to earn a bowl bid as an independent.

In corroboration of Dabo Swinney's assertion that "we've got Tim Bourret" to offset the "Papal power" claimed by the Irish, treat yourself to the odyssey-of-statistical-oddities-that-is this week's "Game Notes." Perhaps the "something in these hills" is the statistical mastermind Tim Bourret, and perhaps Swinney is implying that the orange blood that unites all members of the Clemson Family is thicker than the "Holy Water" Notre Dame has brought to South Carolina in the wake of the Papal visit. Here's hoping that Watson and company have been well-schooled from Sunday to Saturday and are primed and ready to give the visiting Irish a primetime "study in orange" domination come Saturday night. May our Tigers reign supreme in the autumn rain, converting the impending deluge into a flood of Irish tears and a fount of Tiger blessings!