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Until the game was finally over and the 12-0 season and undisputed national championship that had seemed like such a "stupid" idea—to use Danny Ford's favorite word—four months, or even four hours earlier, became real, the 33-year-old coach kept seeing the dream end in just about every unhappy way possible.
"Shoot," said Ford after Clemson's 22-15 Orange Bowl victory over Nebraska, "before the game I saw us getting behind by a lot of points early. When it started I saw us staying close all the way and them blowing us out in the fourth quarter. Then when the fourth quarter came I saw them winning by one point with a two-point conversion in the last minute. I saw everything. From what I had been hearing and reading I figured there were more ways for us to prove we didn't belong on the field with Nebraska than to prove that they didn't belong on the field with us."
That was the way most everyone in Miami and across the nation felt, it seemed. Except, that is, for the tens of thousands of orange-clad Clemsonites with paw prints painted all over their faces who refused to let their dream die. A team from the Atlantic Coast Conference might be favored in the NCAA basketball tournament, but no ACC team had won a national football championship since Maryland in 1953, and the betting line favored Nebraska by 4� points. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the fourth quarter Clemson led 22-7, which gave the disbelievers pause—or paws—although in the next few moments the miraculous Clemson season appeared destined for trivia-land.
Throughout the game the Tiger defense had stopped Nebraska's ground attack cold and foiled the passing of sore-armed Cornhusker Quarterback Mark Mauer, who completed just five of 15 attempts for 38 yards. Mauer's arm began to twinge two weeks ago. "He doesn't have a tremendous arm to begin with," said Husker Coach Tom Osborne. "But against Clemson we're going to have to put the ball up." The only time Clemson was hurt on a pass, it was a halfback option throw from Mike Rozier to Wingback Anthony Steels in the first quarter. Clemson Free Safety Terry Kinard read "run" and was on his way up while Steels passed him going the other way for a 25-yard touchdown play.
But that was early. Clemson had already scored on a 41-yard field goal by its Nigerian kicker, Donald Igwebuike. After Steels's TD, Igwebuike hit another, a 37-yarder. Clemson had pinned Nebraska deep in its own territory, with help from a holding penalty—one of three the frustrated Nebraska line would commit in the game—against Center Dave Rimington. Nebraska punted short from the end zone, and soon Igwebuike's foot was swinging again.
All in all, penalties cost Nebraska dearly, and the Clemson defenders thought there should have been more, particularly Middle Guard William Perry, who went nose to nose with Rimington much of the game. Perry acknowledged that he and Rimington, the Outland Trophy winner, exchanged some harsh words. "I wouldn't say he was dirty," said Perry, smiling after the game. "But he was holding all night. Once I told Jeff Davis [leader of the defense] about it and he spoke to the referee. On the very next play they dropped a flag on him. Holding."
It was clear that the Huskers had come up against more of a team than they had expected. "I could tell they were taking us lightly," said Davis, "just being around them during the week, around town, at discos, the hotels, the stadium. You could feel it, as if they were saying, 'We're from the Big Eight and you boys aren't of the same caliber.'
"I almost had to laugh a couple of times. Like on the first play. I came up to the fullback and forced him inside. It looked like he thought that was the best I could do. I was just feeling him out. So the next time I hit him and knocked him flat on his back. He looked up surprised, like that wasn't supposed to happen." Just as if Clemson's holding opponents to an average of 88.7 rushing yards per game had been some sort of statistical aberration.
So the Clemson defense kept presenting the offense with the ball in Nebraska territory or near it throughout the game. Which brings us to Homer Jordan, the versatile junior quarterback. Ford had intended to do a lot of set-up passing against Nebraska, which, he figured, didn't see much of it in the Big Eight. But that simply didn't work out.
"The one advantage I thought we'd have would be quickness," said Ford. "But I saw during warmups that they were just as quick as us up front. We couldn't set up. We had to sprint out."