clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Football Firsts - Clemson 1977

Down in the Valley

Notre Dame’s comeback win over Clemson in 1977.

My off-season series of “Notre Dame Football Firsts” continues this week with the first meeting between Notre Dame and Clemson, 1977.

So far I’ve covered USC, Stanford, Navy, Purdue, the first Spring Game at Notre Dame, Michigan State, Pitt, Army, Michigan, Boston College, Miami, Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Nebraska, and Penn State. This week I’m going to take a look back at Notre Dame’s first matchup against Clemson in 1977.

Notre Dame and Clemson have played each other a total of seven times with Notre Dame winning three times and Clemson winning four times. Notre Dame’s largest margin of victory was 35-14 in 2022, and Clemson’s largest margin of victory was 30-3 in 2018. Clemson’s longest win streak is three from 1979-2018, and Notre Dame’s longest win streak is one, 2022. Notre Dame has 938 all time wins, to Clemson’s 789. Notre Dame has played in 39 bowl games and won 19, and Clemson has played in 49 bowl games and won 26. Notre Dame has had seven Heisman Trophy winners, to Clemson’s zero. Notre Dame has had 70 first round NFL draft picks, to Clemson’s 39. And Notre Dame has spent 98 weeks at AP No. 1, to Clemson’s 25.

The two teams played for the first time on November 12th, 1977, and Notre Dame won by a score of 21-17. The following game recap excerpt is from the January 27, 1978 issue of The Scholastic Magazine, and is written by Paul Stevenson.

A record-breaking crowd of 54,189 at Death Valley witnessed the Fighting Irish football team increase their winning streak to seven games and keep their major bowl hopes alive by rallying in the final period to tame the Clemson Tigers, 21-17.

Notre Dame scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, before an astonished partisan crowd; to rebound from a 17-7 deficit. The win was the eighth of the season in nine attempts and only a victory over the Air Force Academy next Saturday lay between the Irish and a bowl invitation, and possibly even a shot at the National Championship.

Notre Dame opened the scoring with a 56-yard drive that began with only 5:49 remaining in the first quarter. A 22-yard aerial strike to split end Kris Haines and a ten-yard sprint around the left end by Jerome Heavens were instrumental in the scoring march. The touchdown came on a five-yard burst by Heavens over right guard Dave Reeve’s conversion gave the Irish a 7-0 advantage.

Then, just at the start of the second period, the Irish began to move again. Starting at the Clemson 49 via a Jim Browner recovery of a Tiger fumble, the Notre Dame offense drove to the Clemson 12. But, after a fumbled snap and two incomplete passes, the Irish signaled for Reeve. However, the senior place kicker was wide on his 32-yard field-goal attempt.

That errant three-point try appeared to be a turning point in the contest. The crowd which had been vociferous before the clash, had settled down after the Irish took a 7-0 lead. If Notre Dame had tallied again, the game may have been entirely different. Another score may have quieted the fans as well as the team. However, the missed field goal gave the Fighting Tigers new life as they proceeded to march 67 yards downfield. Obed Ariri’s field goal narrowed Notre Dame’s lead to 7-3, as the Tigers displayed that they were not going to be tamed easily.

Clemson contained the Irish offense on their next possession; and after a fourth down Joe Restie punt and a four yard return by Willie Jordan, the Tigers had a first down at the Irish 34. Six plays later, the Tigers reached pay dirt on a 10-yard jaunt around left end by quarterback Steve Fuller, only the second, rushing touchdown to be scored on the Irish this season. Ariri’s conversion gave the Tigers a 10-7 lead.

The second half appeared as though it would start where the first half ended. After holding the Irish following the second-half kickoff, Clemson gained control of the football at the Notre Dame 48. In six plays, the Tigers were on the Irish two.

Faced with a fourth-down and one at the Notre Dame two, the Tigers decided to go for the touchdown. On the fourth-down play, Fuller flowed left and pitched to his tailback, Lester Brown, who went wide following a great block by the head linesman, W. R Cummings. Cummings’ shield enabled Brown to elude Ted Burgmeier for the score. Ariri’s extra point gave the Tigers a 17-7 edge with only three and one-half minutes elapsed in the third quarter.

Although the Notre Dame offense was able to advance the football, turnovers and penalties kept the Irish off the scoreboard. However, even though the situation looked dismal late in the third quarter, it was not going to be one of those Death Valley days.

The Tigers were driving, but Ken Callicutt fumbled right into the hands of defensive tackle Mike Calhoun at the Irish 16-yard line. Then, the Notre Dame offense began to explode. Vagas Ferguson veered off right tackle for four yards and freshman Mike Courey took a Montana pitch on the following play, connecting with Haines for a 24-yard advance. Ferguson and Heavens then alternated running duties to bring Notre Dame down to the Clemson 35.

On the next play, Ferguson raced off left guard for a 30-yard gain. However, the yardage was brought back due to an illegal procedure call against the Irish. Two plays later, Ferguson rambled for another 11 yards, but this play was also called back, this time for a clipping infraction. Then, Irish Head Coach Dan Devine, showing his disgust over the officiating, was called for unsportsmanlike conduct. The Irish received the 15-yard penalty when Devine told the referee that he “was a disgrace to college football.”

Now, second-down and 31 at the Irish 44 was the challenge faced by the Notre Dame offense. Montana hit tight end Ken MacAfee for a 27-yard gain and Ferguson made up two more off tackles, but now the Irish were presented with a fourth-down and two situation at the Clemson 27. On the next play, Montana connected with MacAfee for a 16-yard advance to the Tiger 11.

Montana then rushed over from the one-yard line on the first play of the final period to give Notre Dame their second touchdown of the contest. Reeve’s point from placement brought the Irish within three, 17-14.

Thanks to a Calhoun fumble recovery at midfield, the Irish started their final scoring drive of the clash with 9:24 left in the final quarter.

On the second play of the possession, Montana dumped a screen pass to Ferguson; and the sophomore speedster raced 36 yards down the left sideline. Five plays later, Montana tried a sneak from the one which was marked for no gain. The Pennsylvania quarterback repeated the call on the next play, and this time the Irish signal caller broke the plain of the end zone to put Notre Dame ahead. Reeve’s conversion gave Notre Dame a 21~17 advantage.

Montana completed nine of 21 passes for 172 yards. Meanwhile, Fuller connected on 13 of 20 for 185 yards, while suffering one interception. MacAfee snagged four catches for 75 yards and Haines caught three for 59.

Next week I’ll look at the first matchup between Notre Dame and Air Force, in 1964.

Cheers & GO IRISH!