After Clemson had defeated South Carolina, 29-13, today to complete an 11-0 regular season and earn an Orange Bowl bid, Tiger Coach Danny Ford could hold back no longer.
"This isn't just a good team, this is a great team," he said. "And I mean to emphasize the word 'great.' There's only two teams that are perfect and right now we're the only one 11-0. We're through, we're there. No one else can say that."
The Tigers are ranked No. 2 in the country behind Pittsburgh, 10-0 with one regular-season game remaining. Clemson will play Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and, if Penn State beats Pitt next week, the Tigers would go into the bowl ranked No. 1 in the nation.
The Tigers did have a few scary moments today. This game is always a grudge match and has a history of upsets, including last year when a 5-5 Clemson team defeated 8-2 South Carolina.
Today, in front of a crowd of 56,971, South Carolina started out as if it intended to add to that tradition, driving 52 yards to a touchdown on its first possession.
That touchdown, on a one-yard dive by Johnnie Wright, made it 7-0 with 9:05 to go in the first quarter. It also had several Orange Bowl officials in the press box huddling nervously, since they were committed to Clemson regardless of the outcome.
But on the Clemson sideline, there was little sign of panic. "We just looked at each other and said, 'Okay, it's going to be a fight then,' " said wide receiver Perry Tuttle. "We knew we would come up with the big play. We always do."
It didn't take long. Two possessions after the South Carolina touchdown, punter Chris Norman, who had already had four punts blocked this season, dropped to kick from his 28.
The alignment he saw was different from the one Clemson had used all season. After watching film this week, the Clemson coaching staff had taken Rod McSwain, who usually lines up inside, and moved him wide left.
"They saw that they went with straight man-to-man blocking, which meant with a 10-man line one guy would be unblocked," McSwain said. "They thought with my speed I could get to the ball."
They were right. McSwain broke in untouched and blocked the ball so cleanly it looked as if it would bounce out of the end zone. But when it crossed the goal line, the ball struck the turf like a golf ball hit by a pitching wedge and Johnny Rembert fell on it for a touchdown.
The Clemson fans, most of them sitting at that end of the field, immediately began pelting the end zone with oranges. That delay threw kicker Bob Paulling off just enough so that he missed his first extra point in 37 tries over two seasons. It was 7-6 South Carolina with 5:28 left in the first quarter.
"But you could see some of the fire go out of them," Davis said. "They came out so psyched up. Then, when we made that play, it all changed."
Clemson dominated the remainder of the half. The Tigers took a 9-7 lead on a 23-yard field goal by Donald Igwebuike with 12:10 left and stretched the lead to 15-7 when an interception by Hollis Hall set up a 28-yard drive for a second touchdown. The score came when quarterback Homer Jordan rolled left, faked a pass, pulled the ball down, cut back and raced 11 yards into the end zone with 4:39 left.
Ford went for two points -- "I had just decided to do that after we missed the kick" -- and when the effort failed, South Carolina was within eight at the half.
Quickly, the Gamecocks acted as if they were going to make it a game. They took the second-half kickoff and moved 67 yards in 12 plays for a touchdown. Coach Jim Carlen gambled on fourth and two and quarterback Gordon Beckham, who had an otherwise miserable day (five sacks, nine of 28 passes for 100 yards) picked up 10 yards on an option run.
Beckham then got the touchdown, finding flanker Horace Smith on a nicely executed delay pass over the middle on third and five from the 10, Smith catching the ball at the five and going in untouched to make it 15-13. The Gamecocks went for two, but Beckham was sacked by Jeff Suttle and Clemson retained the lead.
Then came the key series of the game. On the ensuing kickoff, Clemson drove 86 yards in 18 plays, making repeated big plays and converting five third downs.
The most important was the most controversial. The Tigers had third and 15 at the South Carolina 26. Jordan wanted to throw a quick slant to Frank Magwood. "I went down about 10 yards and cut," Magwood said. "When I cut, we got tangled, he tripped me."
He was cornerback Troy Thomas. He appeared to break up the play cleanly to most, including Jordan. "I thought it was a great defensive play," Jordan said.
Long after the players had gone down, the flag came out: pass interference. "Awfully late flag," Carlen said.
"Bad call," said Thomas.
"Could have gone either way," Magwood said.
It went Clemson's way, though, and five plays later, tailback Chuck McSwain, older brother of early hero Rod, went over the line from the one and the Tigers led, 22-13, with 4:07 left in the third quarter.
Chuck McSwain, a part-time tailback who had 151 yards on 25 carries, then ran 30 yards to the touchdown with 9:32 left for the clinching touchdown.
The oranges flew again after McSwain's score and all the frustrated South Carolina players could do was futilely throw them back into the stands. For Clemson, all that was left was officially accepting the bid, which University President Bill L. Atchley did.
The players could hardly hear his speech, but it didn't matter. They already knew where they would be New Year's Day and they wanted to revel in the school's first perfect regular season since 1948.