This week is another reason why I prefer college football to the NFL. It's rivalry week. Auburn-Alabama have the Iron Bowl, Ole Miss-Mississippi State the Egg Bowl, my favorite name is Bedlam when Oklahoma-Oklahoma State mix it up. Washington-Washington State play in the Apple Cup and Oregon-Oregon State play the Civil War.
Here in the Palmetto State, we don't have a catchy name that has stuck nationally. Oh we have tried. There's the Palmetto Bowl or the Hardee's Cup. Most people I know either call it the Carolina-Clemson game or Clemson-Carolina game depending on which side of the ledger you stand. The brawl of 2004 not withstanding, I'd argue that the intensity of this game is as strong as any in the country. Especially among the fanbases. Family, co-workers, friends and sometimes even spouses from the other side, see each other on a daily basis. And yes for the record, Clemson holds a commanding 70-42-4 series lead.
For this column, I have enlisted the help of my friend Brian Katonak. Brian is an avid Clemson supporter and we both are in our early 50's. He has picked four Clemson victories through the years to briefly comment on and I'll give my Gamecock fan reaction. I will comment on four Gamecock victories that I personally attended and get his Tiger fan reaction.
There is so much fascinating information about the history of this rivalry. I strongly suggest doing some research. For example, JFK's assassination caused the game to be moved and played for only the second time on Thanksgiving Day. And of course, until 1960, the game was always played in Columbia during the State Fair on Big Thursday. However, Brian and I decided to start our games with 1977.
1977 is important on a couple of fronts. It was the first time the game was televised. And even then, it was on ABC regional television. 1977 was such a different time. You either had to be physically in the stadium or listen to the magical radio voices of Bob Fulton (Gamecocks) or Jim Phillips (Tigers). And if you lived outside of the radio signal? In the words of Ted Knight from Caddyshack, "You'll get nothing and like it!" That is why I'm so thankful that I had Fulton, Phillips, and Georgia's Larry Munson growing up. It is also why I still prefer to listen to a game on the radio from time to time.
The 1977 game lived up to the billing. The Gamecocks came storming back from a 24-0 second half deficit to take a 27-24 lead on Phillip Logan's 40 yard TD on 4th and 10 with only 1:48 left on the clock. When Logan scored, he raised his jersey up to reveal a garnet t-shirt with white letters that read, "No Cigars Today." Clemson entered the game on a seven game winning streak that started with a win over Georgia in Athens. According to lore, on the short bus ride home from Athens, Tiger coach Charley "Give Em Hell" Pell had the bus stop at a backwoods gas station and purchased a winning cigar for each player. They continued to do that during the winning streak. In response, the entire Gamecock team were wearing the same t-shirt that Logan revealed with 1:48 to go in the game. After Logan broke the seal, the entire Carolina sideline erupted with players showing off their new shirts.
They should have waited. Lead by three future NFL players, Clemson came storming down the field. QB Steve Fuller hit WR Dwight Clark for 18 yards to the Gamecock twenty yard line. That set up the original "Catch" when Fuller hit WR Jerry Butler for the winning score. An amazing leaping catch that won the game 31-27. Four years later, Clark would make the NFL version of the "Catch" from Joe Montana in the 49ers NFC Championship victory over Dallas.
1979: South Carolina 13 Clemson 9
This was my first Carolina-Clemson game in person. My dad took his thirteen year old sports junkie son to Williams-Brice stadium. I remember it was a beautiful cloudless day. Both teams were very good. The 8-2 Tigers versus the 7-3 Gamecocks. But the play I remember is a punt. A punt! With roughly two and a half minutes to play and Carolina leading by four points, punter Jay Feltz receives the snap on his two yard line and hits a rocket. Further aided by the roll of the green cement field (that thankfully was replaced by natural sod in 1983), the ball would remarkably be downed at the Clemson 1-yard line. The Gamecocks needed all of those yards. Clemson QB Billy Lott would lead the Tigers on a frantic drive that ended inside the Carolina five yard line. I don't remember if time ran out or if they were stopped on downs. But I do remember my 44 year old father looking like he might have a heart attack.
Clemson response: "I had only gotten into football seriously in 1977 at the age of 10, so I only knew victory against the Cocks. Going into the '79 game, it didn't occur to me that we could actually lose. Like the majority of those games into the mid '80's, it was not on television, so I had to listen to Jim Phillips. As the game crept on, I just knew that we would somehow figure out a way to win. Clemson finally got the ball inside the 10 late in the game with a chance to win but couldn't score. It was my first feeling of heartache by my team losing, something that I would have to get used to (especially as I am also a Braves and Browns fan)."
1980: Clemson 27 South Carolina 6
"This was my first chance to experience this game in person. It was a scary proposition for us, as Carolina came into Death Valley at 8-2 and had the eventual Heisman winner. Danny Ford was on the hot seat, as he was only 5-5 in his second season and some thought he might be too young for the job. I sat on the Hill watching the team warm up in their normal uniforms of orange shirts and white pants. However, all of us went crazy when the team came off the buses and ran down the Hill with orange pants (britches) for the first time ever. The crowd stayed loud the entire game and was elated with the 27-6 win. This game was the springboard for the Natty the next season."
Carolina response: Real simple, "Willie Underwood! Willie Underwood!" That was the radio call of Jim Phillips that I had to endure. I wasn't watching the game on television because it wasn't on television. I was at my friend Lowrie Wilson's house playing basketball. Because the Wilson's were Clemson fans at the time, they had the Clemson radio call playing. I just knew Carolina would win the game with ease. We were 8-2 and had beaten Michigan in the Big House. We had eventual Heisman winner George Rogers (who did gain 168 yards that day. To hear Clemson people talk, you'd think he was a non-factor because he didn't score). Underwood had two interceptions. He returned them for a record 101 yards including one for a 37-yard touchdown. I also learned that he had 17 tackles that day. Willie Underwood.
1992: South Carolina 24 Clemson 13
I don't remember many details about this game. It was my first ever Carolina-Clemson game in Memorial Stadium. I witnessed Carolina victories both times I went to the respective venues for the first time. I probably should have stopped going. Of course I remember Carolina winning and I remember QB Steve Taneyhill "signing" the Tiger Paw. But my memories of this game are personal. My late wife Stephanie was pregnant with our first child (as I'm writing this, today is Dylan's 27th birthday). He would be born four days after the game. Many people, including my father in law, thought we were insane to attend the game. I didn't care and, as usual, she had my back. I will always associate this game and Thanksgiving with the birth of my oldest son.
Clemson response: "I wasn't really that excited about going to the Carolina game that year. We had lost three of our last four games that season going into the game. However, they had only beaten us twice since the '79 fiasco. Late in the first half, we picked off Taneyhill and scored to take a halftime lead. It appeared we would be on to another rivalry victory. However, Clemson didn't score in the second half and I left early hearing the worst thing that I could possibly hear, the sound of the Carolina crowd celebrating in our stadium."
2006: South Carolina 31 Clemson 28
This was just a fun game for me. Dylan and I drove to Clemson early for the noon kick-off. Weather was perfect. This was early in the Spurrier era. Gamecocks weren't that good but were fun to watch. I remember that every time Tiger RB CJ Spiller touched the ball, I literally held my breath. He was so damn fast. With less than 20 seconds before the half and the game tied at 14, Carolina was driving for the go ahead score. A Clemson player intercepted Blake Mitchell and rambled 82 yards for a touchdown. I think he was a lineman because it took him forever to score. I remember the late great Gaines Adams running interference for him. Adams wasn't going to let a Gamecock defender touch the runner. Normally, a team doesn't recover from that kind of play. It was at least a 10 point play. Carolina was in FG range. But they recovered with 17 unanswered points and held on to win by three.
Clemson response: "We came into the game having beaten Carolina eight out of nine times and just knew that we would win. Spurrier had come to Carolina with a lot of fanfare but our thoughts was that he was a bit overrated. It was a crazy back and forth game and I went from convinced that we were going to win to fear of losing. Clemson got the ball for its last drive and got inside the 10. I just knew that we would break Carolina's hearts. On third down, Carolina sent what seemed to be all 11 defenders on a blitz, and simply getting the pass away would be a touchdown. However, the Cocks got the sack and we had a short field goal to tie. My buddy, Elliott, turned to me and reminded me that we had missed from the same spot on the field in the '96 game to tie against Carolina and thought it would happen again. Unfortunately, lightning struck twice."
2008: Clemson 31 South Carolina 14
"The season had been a debacle, as Clemson started out ranked in the Top Ten and got smoked by Bama in the opener. After an embarrassing 12-7 loss to Wake after game six, Tommy Bowden was gone and an unknown assistant named Dabo was the interim coach. He immediately brought enthusiasm and energy but was only 3-2 coming into the Carolina game. USC was probably a favorite for the first time in the Valley since 1980 under the same circumstances of Clemson needing to win to save the coach his job. It happened again and all in the stadium knew that Dabo had won the job by the time of the final gun."
Carolina response: Dylan and I were joined by his eight year old brother Austin. It was Austin's first Carolina-Clemson game in either venue. We left Aiken at 6 am. It was a cold, rainy dreary morning. Definitely a precursor to what was going to happen between noon and 3 pm. For some reason, QB Stephen Garcia didn't play. Perhaps he was hurt. Team said he was sick. I suspect he might have been hung over. Enter Chris Smelley and his "cannon" arm. Those balls leaving Smelley's hand in the cold, wet weather, looked like wiffle balls fluttering through the air. I also knew Dabo Swinney would become the full time coach after the game. Just had no idea of the ramifications of that decision to the future of college football.
2012: South Carolina 27 Clemson 17
Probably the happiest I have been as a Gamecock fan. Dylan, Austin, and I made our first trip to Memorial Stadium since the 2008 game. When I literally learned from the PA announcer during warm-ups that starting QB Connor Shaw would not be starting for the Gamecocks, I thought we were doomed. Dylan Thompson was a more than capable back-up but lacked Shaw's mobility. Furthermore, the game was in Clemson and this was a lethal Clemson team that was determined to snap Carolina's three game rivalry winning streak. It wasn't going to happen. After giving up 14 quick points to the Tigers, the Cocks' defense stiffened and only allowed three points the rest of the way. Jadeveon Clowney had the most complete game of his career, including 4 1/2 sacks. Thompson threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns. Perhaps the greatest thing about this game, and the five game Carolina winning series streak (after 2013), was the caliber of the Clemson teams and the margin of victory. It's easy as a supporter of either program to always pull against the rival in every contest. However, I can unequivocally say that beating your rival when they are elite is so much sweeter. Clemson's record during Carolina's five game rivalry winning streak was 47-20. Carolina won all five contests by double figures.
"Carolina had won three in a row and enough was enough. I was convinced we were the better team. When it was announced just before the game that Connor Shaw was out, I was sure that victory was in hand. With Carolina up 3 points in the 4th Quarter and facing a third and 17, I knew we had the game. Didn't work like that. "
2014: Clemson 35 South Carolina 17
After a five game win streak, the Cocks were clearly messing with our minds. I am still convinced we had the better teams in ’12 and ’13, but Spurrier had outfoxed us in both games. The atmosphere at the Death Valley pre-game wasn’t so much excitement as nervousness, as we were afraid of doing something to give the game away and lose our sixth. Even in the last minute of the game with victory clearly at hand, we were all fearing some last second collapse. It didn’t happen, and a half decade of frustration was lifted for all in attendance as the clock hit 0:00.
Carolina response: In spite of winning five straight over the Tigers heading into the 2014 game, I didn’t have a good feeling heading into the game. The Gamecocks had a very good offense but Lorenzo Ward’s defense was hideous. However, when Pharoh Cooper scored on a 20 yard run to put Carolina up 7-0 early, I briefly had hope. It was short lived. Behind freshman QB Deshaun Watson, Clemson quickly scored 21 unanswered points and the game was all but over. My other memory of that game was the black shirt that Spurrier was wearing. It looked like he stole it from Sparky Woods’ 1989 wardrobe.
2015: Clemson 35 South Carolina 17
With Clemson at 11-0 and Carolina 3-8, I decided to take the family to see Mickey Mouse instead of going to the game. We were at Epcot at kickoff, and I watched the first half on my phone while having lunch. While we didn’t have the game in hand, I felt confidant as I boardedSoarin’ with a 28-10 late in the third quarter. I checked my phone when I got off of the ride and my hands began shaking as the score was now 28-25. As bad as Carolina’s season had been, it could be fully redeemed by ending our perfect one. I immediately told the family to go off on their own as I watched the remainder of the game, and saw us hang on for a victory.
Carolina response: So many similarities to this Saturday’s game. Clemson was competing to qualify in the College Football Playoff. Carolina was reeling. Spurrier had quit earlier in the year. Interim coach Sean Elliott was almost definitely not going to be retained. Especially, after losing to The Citadel the previous week. A noon kickoff in Columbia with a fear of the stadium turning orange. This year we have a coach on the hot seat, a 4-7 record and a noon kickoff in Columbia. I had more optimism in 2015. At least that team could score points and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had never won in Williams-Brice Stadium. The Gamecocks left it all on the field that day. It was Deebo Samuel’s introduction to big time football. Most honest Gamecock supporters would admit to being happy with the 37-32 “moral victory” loss. In fact, I witnessed something I had never seen before after a Carolina-Clemson game. Both fan bases were happy at the same time.
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