The giant who changed the game
During Danny Ford's first two years as Clemson's football coach, the Tigers recruited a Georgia prep star named Herschel Walker about as heavily as they recruited any prospect.
Walker was a sculpted 6-1, 222-pound running back who was reported to have run the 40-yard dash in 4.25 seconds. As a senior at Johnson County High (Ga.), Walker rushed for 3,167 yards.
"We wanted him pretty bad out of high school," Ford said. "We recruited him hard and often and long, and Georgia did, too."
Walker chose Georgia over other finalists, including Clemson. As a true freshman in 1980, Walker rushed for 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns to lead Georgia to a national championship, a campaign that included a victory over Clemson.
Georgia arrived at Clemson's Memorial Stadium in Week 3 of the 1981 season for the rematch, riding a 14-game winning streak and with Walker playing even better as a sophomore, averaging 5.9 yards per carry.
But Like Georgia a year earlier, Clemson had its own freshman phenom in defensive tackle William Perry.
Perry was one of the first athletic 300-pound players in college football. And after watching Perry's influence on opposing offenses, tossing aside centers and guards like plastic lawn furniture, coaches across the country soon tried to find their own huge and dominant defensive tackles.
The power of Perry
As hard as Ford had gone after Walker, Ford was as unrelenting in his pursuit of Perry, assigning tight end Bubba Diggs -- who missed the 1980 season with a broken elbow -- to attend the Aiken High School standout's prep football games as a recruiting proxy.
Diggs was one of the first Tigers to witness the power of Perry.
"William Perry was playing near my hometown," Diggs said. "The coaches sent me just to show my face; he knew who I was. Recruiting wasn't as strict as it is now."
What Diggs saw was a player "who didn't know his own strength ... he would destroy guys."
The trend continued the day he walked on campus, arriving as one of the strongest players on the team.
"He would show up in the weight room on max-out day and do more than the machine would hold," said offensive guard Brian Butcher said. "He was the first legit 300-pounder who could run and play. No one could block him. I was just glad he was on my team on game day."
Perry could dunk a basketball jumping flat-footed.
Perry, at 315 pounds, could run the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds.
And Perry could eat.
Fellow defensive tackle William Devane remembered going with Perry to a Pizza Inn in Clemson.
"One of the managers just invited us to eat. He said we could eat for free," Devane said. "He didn't invite us back."
Defeating the Dawgs
Perry's coming-out party was against Walker and Georgia. On a punt play, Perry drove the long snapper into the blocker behind him, and the blocker into the punter like a series of human dominos, resulting in a deflected kick.
When Perry wasn't making plays himself, he was drawing double-teams, allowing linebackers like Jeff Davis and safety Terry Kinard to get to Walker. Walker rushed 28 times for 100 yards, well below his averages, and fumbled three times after fumbling just once as a freshman.
"We beat him to death," Kinard said of Walker. "How many fumbles did they have? We shut down the run. We took them out of their comfort zone ... They were one of the top running teams. That's what we took pride in. The first thing you build a defense on is shutting down the run."
With Georgia forced into obvious passing downs, Clemson forced the Bulldogs into five interceptions. After averaging 468 total yards in wins against Tennessee and California, Georgia was held to 255 yards -- and nine turnovers -- against Clemson.
Clemson defeated Georgia, 13-3, ending the defending national champion's winning streak.
The unsung star was Perry, who became Clemson's first three-time All-American and a first-round pick by the Chicago Bears in the 1985 NFL draft.
"I think the biggest difference from 1980 to 1981 was the defensive line play," Kinard said. "The only really different person was William Perry. I think a lot of our struggles (in 1980) were because we lacked a pass rush. The front made the biggest difference on our defense.
"He required a double-team to get him out of the way. Pretty much every offense we played had to double-team him."
Perry was a major reason Clemson finished eighth in the country in rush defense in 1981, allowing just 88 yards per game.
After defeating Georgia, Clemson went from unranked to No. 14 in The Associated Press poll.
The following week, Clemson held Kentucky to 49 rushing yards on 39 carries to improve to 4-0 and jump to No. 9 in the polls.
But it was the Georgia win that lifted the team's confidence.
The Tigers were in a state of euphoria.
"That was the big turning point, beating Georgia," Butcher said. "We had the confidence we could beat anyone."