Art Schlichter, Ohio State's enorously gifts freshman quarterback, was having a golden night. He had completed 16 of 20 passes for 205 yards and rushed for two touchdowns. Then he threw the interception that ruined it all and sent his coach, Woody Hayes, exploding all over the Gator Bowl.
With 1:59 left in a wild and woolly fourth quarter that was about to become even wilder and woolier, Schilchter underthrew tailback Ron Springs on a little pass over the middle. The ball was picked off by Clemson sophomore middle guard Charlie Bauman at the Clemson 18-yard line.
That choked Ohio State's final drive and left seventh-ranked Clemson, the Atlantic Coast Conference champion who had something to prove after being humiliated here last year, with a 17-15 victory in tonight's 34th Gator Bowl football game.
The interception also touched off a melee on the field as Hayes, Ohio State's cantankerous 65-year-old relic of a coach, ran off the sideline and grabbed Bauman around the back of the neck. They exchanged words and Hayes, who in the past has punched photographers and others in his uncontrolled ire, apparently took a swing at the Clemson player.
Both benches emptied, mass confusion ensued and Ohio State was assessed a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Hayes, who has suffered a heart attack in 1974 but has not mellowed an iota, jumped up and down furiously, screaming with rage, and seemed to want to fight everyone in sight. He was hit with another 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after ranting at an official on thenex play.
Hayes -- whose 33-year record of 238-72-10 makes him the second winningest active coach in colege football, behind Alabama's Paul (Bear) Bryant -- stormed off the field after the loss that mirrored the manifold frustrations of Ohio State's 7-4-1 season.
Long an adversary of the press, whom he had characterized as "nosy pipsqueaks" in a pregame luncheon Thursday, Hayes closed his dressing room to reporters and sent an assistant coach George Hill, to speak for him.
"I honestly can't say what happened," Hill said of the fracas on the field. "I was there but I couldn't see. I can't comment on something I didn't see. Whatever it was, it was certainly unfortunate."
Hayes' display of distemper put an ugly ending on what otherwisse would have been recalled as a good, rugged football game in which both quarterbacks, Schlichter and Clemson's Steve Fuller, excelled.
Fuller, who completed nine of 20 passes for 120 yards and ran for Clemson's first touchdown, was voted the outstanding player -- an honor that Schlichter surely would have received except for his fateful interception.
The victory was Clemson's first in a postseason game since the Bluebonnet Bowl of December, 1959. Last year, in its first bowl appearance since then, the Tigers were trounced by Pittsburgh, 34-3.
"We were anxious to win this because we messed up so bad last year," said Danny Ford, 30, who took over as Clemson head coach on Dec. 5, the day after Charley Pell -- who had earned ACC coach-of-the-year honors for leading the Tigers to a 10-1 record and their first conference title in 11 years -- resigned to go to the University of Florida.
Two substitute running backs -- juniors Warren Ratchford and Tracy Perry -- were the leading rushers as Clemson ground out 235 yerds after being stymied in the screless first quarter.
Ratchford gained 54 yards in 10 carries and Perry 54in 14 carries after Lester Brown, Clemson's leading runner with 1,006 yards during the regular season, was sidelined with two broken bones in his reight hand. He had sprained the hand in practice at Daytona Beach last week but missed no workouts.
Ratchford's 14-yard sprint-on-a-tight-rope down the left sideline, and a later five-yard dash around right end, were dey plays in the 84-yard, 19-play drive that gave Clemson its second touchdown and a 17-9 lead with 2:16 left in the third quarter.
Two freshmen who weren't even listed on Clemson's "two-deep" roster for the game also contributed to this winning score. Split end Ferry Tuttle caught a 10-yard pass from Fuller and tailback Cliff Austin dived up the middle for final yard after Ratchford had twice been stopped for no gain at the one. Fuller had gotten the Tigers to the threshold with a 10-yard run out of the pocket.
The game was especially sweet vindication for the flashy Ratchford, a star running back last season until being suspended for disciplinary reasons the week before the Gator Bowl. This season he lost his job to Brown and had gained only 98 yards on 35 carries for the season.
Ford thought that the biggest play of the game for Clemson was defensive right end Steve Gibbs' block of Vlade Janakievski's conversion keck after Schlichter swept to the left on a "keeper" and scored his first touchdown from four yards out with 1:21 left in the half.
That made it 9-7, Ohio State, but Clemson came right back, Fuller initiating an airborn "two-minute drill" with a 17-yard completion to All-American split end Jerry Butler (four receptions, 44 yards). A 39-yard pass to flanker Kwight Clark was nullified by an offensive interference penalty against Butler, but Fuller promptly hit Clark for 28 yards and Ratchford, who came in when Clark was shaken up, for 10.
Two more passes fell incomplete, but fullback Marvin Sims rft tackle to the 35 and soccer-style place-kicker Obed Ariri, a 5-9, 145-pound Nigerian, booted a 47-yard field goal.
Fuller Clemson's all-time leading total offensive leader and the ACC player-of-the-year, scored the Tigers' first touchdown. He was one of 26 seniors playing their last game for Clemson, but nearly turned from hero to goat, making an errant pitch out to Ratchford with 4:23 remaining that Ohio State recovered on the Clemson 44.
After a clipping penalty, Schlichter drove the Buckeyes to the Clemson 24, completing passes for 14 yards to Rod Gerald and 12 yards to Chuck Hunter and running for seven yards himself.
But then came the most heartbreaking of the 21 interceptions that marred his otherwise spectacular freshman year, and the unsightly scuffling that left a bad aftertaste to an otherwise splendid game.