Back in the early 2000s, Thursday night football was one of the more fabled banes for Clemson football. By 2005, it had gotten to the point where most fans dreaded seeing a Thursday night game on the schedule and chalked up a loss. Due to Clemson’s preferences not to play at home on a Thursday, these games were almost always on the road. Maybe the worst Thursday night moment was the one Thursday home game Clemson did have back when Philip Rivers and NCSU embarrassed the Tigers in 2002, 38-6. However, on October 13th 2005 in Raleigh, North Carolina, the 2005 team led by senior Charlie Whitehurst and a feisty true freshman running back named James Davis flipped the script.
The Wolfpack came into that game boasting one of the most talented defenses in college football, highlighted by future #1 overall draft pick Mario Williams up front. He was flanked by future pros Manny Lawson and John McCargo, and had Stephen Tulloch and Oliver Hoyt behind him. In all, that Pack defense featured 6 future NFL players on defense.
Meanwhile, Clemson was in year one of another offensive system overhaul under Tommy Bowden. Rob Spence was now the fourth offensive coordinator for Bowden since he took over in 1999. Spence was hired to revamp the running game, which had largely floundered since the graduation of Woody Dantzler. Whitehurst had been good enough to carry the team in 2003 with adequate outside skill, but that WR talent wasn’t good enough in 2005 as they relied upon converted quarterback Chansi Stuckey, freshman Aaron Kelly, and lightly regarded Curtis Baham as the primary WRs in the early part of the season.
After starting the 2005 season with wins over Texas A&M and #25 Maryland, Clemson was just 2-3 when October 13th rolled around, having lost 3 straight heartbreaking games. First was a loss to Miami in triple overtime, then to Matt Ryan’s Boston College in overtime, and naturally another defeat at the hands of Jim Grobe and Wake Forest, 31-27.
Rob Spence’s offense showed some promise, mostly due to having one of the best offensive recruits in some time in James Davis at his disposal. Davis, along with 2004 leading rusher Reggie Merriweather, featured behind an emerging offensive line of Marion Dukes, Nathan Bennett, Dustin Fry, Roman Fry, and Barry Richardson. This zone running scheme was deadly with Davis’ patience and strength, though Spence also famously made heavy uses of shifts, motions, and multiple tight end sets (and, yes, bubble screens). Despite that, after three straight losses where the Tigers had struggled to run the ball, most fans braced for another miserable Thursday night road game against a loaded NCSU defense.
Clemson had a little luck in the very early going when what was nearly a pick six on a throwback screen to Stuckey somehow found its way to him for a big gain, but shortly after that, James Davis began to explode on the Wolfpack. While the Tiger defense was stuffing the NCSU offense, Clemson ran out to a 21-0 lead midway into the second quarter. The Wolfpack scratched out a touchdown to try to make it a game, but then Davis ripped off a couple of big runs before scoring his second touchdown of the day from 6 yards out. One lasting memory was a big run on a trap play where guard Roman Fry just ruined star DT John McCargo, eliciting heavy praise from color analyst Kirk Herbstreit.
Davis seemed unstoppable and racked up 143 yards on just 12 carries by the half. Had it not been for a broken wrist Davis suffered late in the half, he probably would have eclipsed 200 yards. Clemson cruised to a 31-10 win and (in classic Tommy Bowden era fashion) finished the season winning six out of the final seven games (with the lone loss coming at GT when Davis couldn’t play due to the wrist).
At the time, Davis’s 143 yards was the best game by a Clemson running back since Raymond Priester was toting the rock in the mid 1990s. Davis would go on to have some bigger games during his great career, but that Thursday night in Raleigh really announced his presence to the college football world.
I couldn’t find a copy of that game on YouTube beyond some highlights in a 2005 season video, but here is a nice James Davis highlight reel to honor “Thunder.” It’s a little old and grainy but still a nice watch.