In August, they hoped for an Atlantic Coast Conference title. In November, they began fantasizing about the impossible: a national championship. Tonight, Clemson's fantasy became almost tangible as it beat Nebraska, 22-15, to win the 48th Orange Bowl game.
On a warm, humid night, the Tigers became the only major college team to finish the 1981 season with a 12-0 record. They used the same formula that has worked throughout this unlikely season: a superb defense, an offense that did just enough and the reliable field goal kicking of Donald Igwebuike.
And when it was over, Danny Ford, the 33-year-old tobacco chewing, aw-shucks coach who put the impossible dream together, finally held nothing back. "We beat the second-ranked team, the fourth-ranked team and the sixth-ranked team," he said. "No one else even beat two top 10 teams. We're not just in the big time, we're past the big time."
When the final polls come out Sunday evening, Clemson can become the first ACC team since Maryland 28 years ago to win a national title. "I don't think people will refer to the ACC as a basketball conference anymore," Ford said.
From the beginning, Clemson, proved it belonged on the field with a Big Eight power. It controlled the line of scrimmage against the Cornhuskers (9-3) all night. Its defense shut down Nebraska's running game most of the evening. And, in the second half, when it had to move the football, its offense did just that.
Igwebuike kicked field goals of 41, 37 and 36 yards, Cliff Austin, who spent 2 1/2 hours stuck in an elevator this afternoon, scored from two yards out, and quarterback Homer Jordan threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Perry Tuttle. That was plenty of scoring for the Tigers, who gave up 20 points once this season, in an 82-24 victory over Wake Forest.
"They certainly proved themselves to be a great team tonight," Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne said. "We hurt ourselves with mistakes, but they took advantage of them. That's the mark of a good team."
Without quarterback Turner Gill, Nebraska is not the same team. His backup, Mark Mauer is not as fast or as clever running the option that is the Cornhuskers' basic play. But Mauer's presence had little to do with Nebraska's two first-half fumbles and four major penalties.
The first fumble, less than two minutes into the game, came when Mauer was tripped while pitching to tailback Roger Craig; Craig could not catch the ball because he was being hit by Danny Triplett. William Devane, who combined with William Perry at nose tackle to neutralize Dave Rimington, Nebraska's Outland Trophy winner, recovered at the 28.
When the Tigers couldn't move, Igwebuike kicked his 41-yarder for a 3-0 lead.
Nebraska then put together one of its two eight-play, 69-yard drives of the night. It culminated on a 25-yard option pass, Mike Rozier taking a pitch right and hitting Anthony Steels, who was wide open, for the touchdown to make it 7-3.
That was the only time all night the Tigers were worried.
For the rest of the first half, Clemson dominated. Two Nebraska penalties forced a punt from the five-yard line, setting up Igwebuike's second field goal.
On their next possession, the Tigers, with the help of Frank Magwood's tipped catch good for 41 yards, had second down at the Nebraska eight. Jordan, who was so dehydrated after the game that he had to be given liquids intravenously, threw a quick pass to Tuttle, running a post pattern. Tuttle appeared to make the catch but Nebraska's Ric Lindquist came away with the ball.
"I thought I had it for a second, then I juggled it," Tuttle said. "The defender made a good play, but I thought it was a touchdown before I lost it."
With Ford raging on the sidelines, the ball was awarded to Nebraska at the 20-yard line. Perhaps feeling guilty, the Cornhuskers returned the ball three plays later when fullback Phil Bates fumbled and Davis recovered at the 28.
From there, the Tigers punched the ball in, Austin finally taking a pitch right and scoring untouched. Considering that Austin was stuck in a hotel elevator until 30 minutes before the team bus left for the stadium, he was overjoyed even to touch the ball.
"The whole time I was in there, I kept thinking, 'My God, I'm going to miss the game. How can this be happening? I was scared.' "
Austin's touchdown must have scared the Cornhuskers because even when the two-point conversion failed, the Tigers led, 12-7. It stayed that way until halftime. In the quiet locker room, the players said Ford and his assistants urged them to remember what this game meant.
"This meant respect," said Perry, the giant freshman known as "Refrigerator." People been saying Clemson can't play, the ACC can't play. Nebraska was cocky. We just showed them."
They showed them in the third quarter with a 75-yard drive.
On second and goal from the three, Chuck McSwain was dropped for a 10-yard loss. In came play 98, a quick drop for Jordan with Tuttle running to one corner, Jerry Gaillard the other. Jordan has the option to go either way.
"I thought he would go to Jerry because the safety had been coming my way all night," Tuttle said. "But this time it was just man-to-man and the back (Allen Lyday) turned the wrong way on the ball. It was a timing play all the way."
With Lyday turned around, Tuttle made a leaping catch and after the kick with 6:12 left in the third quarter, it was 19-7.
Now, the Tigers were beginning to believe. "All along," said defensive tackle Jeff Bryant, "it was like a dream. All of a sudden I looked up and it was becoming real."
It became more real minutes later when Billy Davis' 47-yard punt return set up Igwebuike's last field goal to make it 22-7.
It became a game when Craig, taking a straight pitch, ducked defensive end Mark Richardson in the backfield and went 25 yards for a touchdown to make it 22-13 with 9:15 to go. Even with a delay-of-game penalty, Craig made the two point conversion, going eight yards on the identical play. It was 22-15.
"We let down," Davis said. "We thought we had the game won and we started celebrating a little. On the bench we told each other, 'wrap up, wrap up on the tackles.' We were too close to get careless."
The defense had to return quickly after the Nebraska defense held Clemson. One final time it dug in, Dan Benish smacking Mauer on third and four before he could even release a pitch to Craig. The Huskers punted with 5:24 left, not knowing they would not see the ball again until six seconds were left.
The key for Clemson as it ran out the clock was Jordan's 23-yard run on third and four. That was it: Clemson could become the national champion for the first time in 85 years of football.
As he was helped to a waiting police car, barely able to stand from cramps and exhaustion, Jordan was asked how much longer he could have gone.
"That was it," he said. "I couldn't have made it no further."
He didn't need to. Tonight, he and his teammates made it all the way.