The clock raced toward zero, and the overwhelming favorite raced toward the end zone, frantically trying to salvage the day with more than 104,000 fans roaring encouragement.
25 ... 24 ... 23 ... 22 ... 21 ...
The game had taken on the appearance of one of those that the favorite would somehow find a way to win. Or, perhaps in most cases, the underdog would discover a way to lose.
For reference, check Notre Dame vs. Pitt or Florida vs. Louisiana-Lafayette from this season.
The clock is relentless. 20 ... 19 ... 18 ... and now the favorite — Michigan, mighty Michigan — has covered 77 of the 80 yards it needs. The ball rests on the foe’s 3-yard line and what seemed impossible moments ago — so far to go and no time outs — became probable.
The quarterback drops to throw, no doubt looking toward all-star wide receiver Anthony Carter, but before he can launch the winning pass, the underdog — South Carolina — strikes in the form of onrushing missile named Hal Henderson.
Loss of 7.
Now it’s fourth down from the 10. One play for the game. The clock rolls on ... 17 ... 16 ... 15 ... 14 ... 13 ... 12 ... and the offense scrambles to the line of scrimmage, anxious to execute the play worked on countless times in practice.
Again, the quarterback drops to throw and this times fires toward his ace. 6 ... 5 ... 4 ...
But once more, the underdog Gamecocks find the answer, this time from Chuck Finney, who tips the ball away, and South Carolina celebrates one of the school’s finest football hours.
The teams — the Gamecocks and the Wolverines — meet again in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, but they face a tall challenge to match the drama of 32 years ago.
BO’S GAMBLE BACKFIRES
South Carolina 17, Michigan 14 — at the Big House, Michigan Stadium, on Sept. 27, 1980 — always will hold a special place in Gamecocks’ lore, and the last stand is the stuff of legends. But there is more, far more, to this game that Paul Dietzel scheduled in the early 1970s to give some ommph to Carolina’s then-independent schedule.
The power of George Rogers grew that day and perhaps his performance provided the key to winning the Heisman Trophy. Then, there is Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, whose coaching philosophy is more conservative than Jim DeMint’s politics, who called for a fake punt at his 29-yard-line and his team in the lead. Throw in a conflict between the coaches, Schembechler and USC’s Jim Carlen, and the fumbles and the interceptions, and the game featured more twists and turns than a mountain road.
Remember, this is 32 years ago, long before the Gamecocks achieved the consistent excellence of the past few seasons. Nevertheless, this 1980 team ranked among the school’s best, featuring two first-round NFL draft choices in Rogers and tight end Willie Scott, and three of its four losses came against powerhouses of the day — Southern Cal, Georgia and Pitt.
Michigan, meanwhile, had dropped to 17th in the national rankings after a close win over Northwestern and a last-second loss to Notre Dame. But the Wolverines would not lose again, would roll through the Big 10 undefeated, win the Rose Bowl convincingly and finish fourth in the national polls.
The Wolverines featured All-America offensive tackle Bubba Paris, who played on three Super Bowl championship teams with the 49ers; tailback Butch Woolfolk, who made All-Big 10 three times and played seven years in the pros; All-America defensive tackle Mike Trgovac, a long-time NFL assistant coach; and safety Keith Bostic, who spent seven seasons in the pros.
“Back then, they didn’t rank recruits like they do now with stars, but apart from a couple of players, they had what would now be a bunch of five stars and we had a lot of one stars,” Carolina defensive tackle Andrew Provence said recently. “But our team had a special chemistry, and we proved something that day.”
Or, as defensive back Mark Bridges remembers thinking after the final pass fell incomplete: “Wow! We beat Michigan in Ann Arbor.”
GAMECOCKS WERE NO PATSIES
That’s the ending a few minutes after 4 on a golden Midwestern afternoon more than 32 years ago. Now, move back a few days, and USC’s Walt Kater is talking about the power of positive thinking.
“I try to visualize good things happening in games,” said Kater, a linebacker who moved into the starting lineup after an injury sidelined J.D. Fuller. “I see myself intercepting a pass and returning it 100 yards for the winning touchdown. I think about good things; that’s better than the alternative.”
Little did he know ...
The Gamecocks arrived at Ann Arbor “not knowing what to expect,” Bridges said.
Remember, this is long before television called the shots, dictated game times and carried almost every meaningful game on one channel or another. Columbia fans could watch a closed-circuit telecast at Carolina Coliseum — for a fee. This is before athletes grew up so aware of all the nuances of the major programs.
“We walked in there on Friday afternoon, and it was like any other stadium, just bigger, the day before the game,” USC quarterback Garry Harper remembers. “It was a lot different and louder on game day with all those people there.”
Officials announced the attendance at 104,213, but Bridges says, “We had played in hostile environments around here, at Clemson and Georgia, and that stadium was much bigger, but the noise at Michigan wasn’t as loud, at least to me. Their fans weren’t as rowdy.”
Maybe the fans took the Gamecocks lightly and gave their vocal chords a rest. After all, one Midwestern scribe noted in his preview, “Opponents like South Carolina are expected to be patsies, no trouble to beat.”
If the fans weren’t rowdy, the coaches were. Or, at least Carolina’s Carlen came into the locker room after pregame warm-ups with fire in his eyes, his ire directed at Michigan’s Schembechler.
“I don’t know what happened, but coach Carlen came in very excited,” Willie Scott says. “Something had gone on, he didn’t say what, and from what I understand, whatever it was was not a pleasant exchange.”
Dale Evans, a USC assistant during the Carlen years, does not remember a conflict, then adds, “But you know Jim. He could have said something or coach Schembechler could have said something. Jim would always speak his mind, and he sometimes scared (assistant coaches) with what he would say. I know one year before we played Georgia, he told coach (Vince) Dooley, ‘You know you’re not very good (by Georgia standards) this year.’ ”
Ray Goff, the Gamecocks’ offensive backfield coach that season and later head coach at Georgia, did not recall specifics. He says the years have blurred his memory, “but either at Notre Dame the year before or at Michigan that season, the opposing coach did not come out on the field in pregame warm-ups and that set coach Carlen off. He said they didn’t have any respect for us.”
If the Gamecocks, who had lost a tough, physical battle against Southern Cal a week earlier, needed extra incentive, Carlen provided it.
“He did a great job of keeping us focused,” Harper says. “He stressed that we could win if we worked hard and stayed positive. We believed we could win, and we did.”
Yet, for the longest time, the Gamecocks faced an uphill climb.
Although losing a first-quarter fumble at the USC 2-yard line, Michigan forged a 14-3 lead and opened the second half by driving 82 yards in 15 plays to the Carolina 8. The march consumed half of the third quarter, and a touchdown likely would extinguish the Gamecocks’ hopes.
But fullback Stan Edwards fumbled and Kater — the power-of-positive-thinking guy — recovered his second fumble in scoring territory, this one in the end zone.
“Our defense was challenged a number of times, and we had to rise to the occasion,” Provence says.
The Gamecocks countered with an 80-yard, 14-play scoring drive that featured a lot of George Rogers and a bit of Johnnie Wright on the ground with a couple of Harper strikes stirred in. Key plays: Harper picked up a first down at midfield with a fourth-down quarterback sneak, and the quarterback threw 23 yards to Horace Smith on a third-and-14 play down to the Michigan 22.
Rogers’ short TD run cut Michigan’s lead to 14-10 with 1:21 left in the third quarter, and the game turned upside down on the first play of the final period. Facing fourth-and-inches at the Wolverines’ 29, Schembechler called for the ill-fated fake punt.
“He went against his coaching principles,” Evans says. “He was a Woody Hayes disciple and always would punt in a situation like that. But he didn’t want to give the ball back to George. We always prepared for a fake punt, but we knew it would be going against his philosophy. The guys responded to the fake and did what they were supposed to do.”
Edwards, a blocker in the formation, took the direct snap and tried to run wide. Finney — the cornerback who would be so important later — made the tackle for no gain.
Finney: “I saw it all the way. (Defensive end) Phil (Ellis) strung out the play and left me one-on-one with the runner.”
The Gamecocks took over, and Wright scored from the 1 on the drive’s seventh play for a 17-14 lead with 11:49 remaining.
The drama did not end there. In fact, the fireworks had just started.
After an exchange of punts, Michigan started at its 5-yard line and picked up one first down before Bridges intercepted John Wangler’s pass to put the Gamecocks in position at the Wolverines’ 31 for the killing blow.
“Michigan had scored on the same play earlier,” Evans says. “They would put Carter in motion against ‘man’ coverage, then use other receives to pick off the defensive back. That time, Mark cut under the pick and made the play.”
The Wolverines countered by intercepting a Harper pass in the end zone, a play Carlen labeled “a poor call on my part” after the game.
“That gave them a second wind,” Harper said. “They drove down the field for one last shot.”
Michigan took over with 2:20 remaining and raced the clock. With Carter for a weapon — “the best wide receiver I’ve seen before or since,” Ray Goff says — the Wolverines mixed Wangler’s passes with a couple of effective draw plays and moved to a first down at the Carolina 6.
An incompletion and another draw moved the ball to the 3 with 25 seconds to go and the clock ticking. Henderson struck.
“As I recall, he had not been that big of a contributor, but he made a big, big play that day,” says Jerome Provence, Andrew’s older brother and the Gamecocks’ strength and conditioning coach who also worked with the offensive line.
“I just went after him,” Henderson said in postgame interviews. “I reacted when he dropped back, and the only thing I could think of was to get him.”
He did, and Michigan hurried to get off the final play. The pass over the middle to Carter never arrived at the receiver; Finney tipped the ball away.
“Carter is a super receiver, quick as a cat,” Finney said. “On that play, I just knew it was fourth down, and they had one more play and the game rode on it. The coach told us if we keep playing hard, some good things will happen, and it did.”
Thirty-two years later, Ray Goff takes two things from that triumph — fans from both sides.
“When we left our locker room to get on the bus to the airport, some Michigan fans were standing around, and they were clapping for us,” he says. He laughs and adds, “That doesn’t happen in the SEC, does it?
“Then, when we got back to Columbia about 10 or 11 that night, thousands of people were at the airport to greet the team. They were everywhere.”
Scott called the game “a great experience to play in front of all those people, and I’m sure George won the Heisman that day.”
Rogers finished with 142 yards rushing on 36 carries, a 3.9 average, and Harper says, “George proved himself that day, and we proved we had the best offensive line in the country.”
Meanwhile, Schembechler thought his team played well against Rogers, telling reporters afterwards that holding the Gamecocks star to less than 4 yards per carry represented a victory for his defense.
But he seemingly contradicted himself by saying he called for the fake punt due to the lack of confidence in his defense “and that was wrong.” The fake depended on USC’s defensive alignment, he said, and a couple of his players did not hear the call at the line of scrimmage.
“We were a good football team playing well,” Scott says in summing up the victory in simple terms.
Harper: “A great memory for me and all Gamecocks.”
Asked after the game about his 11th-hour sack, Henderson said, “I feel great for the team.” Asked how he felt personally to make a key play, he said, “I’m part of the team.”