The Sting of Defeat

Clemson’s title hopes and undefeated season in 2000 laid to rest in Death Valley by the Ramblin’ Wreck

When one thinks of great rivalries in college football, Clemson and Georgia Tech doesn’t always jump out. However, when the Tigers and Yellow Jackets tangle, they often leave fans gasping for air. The 2000 rendition of the rivalry provided another classic that both fan bases still clamour about.

In the prior 10 Clemson-Georgia Tech contests, eight had been decided by four points or less. On Oct. 28, 2000, the 5-2 Yellow Jackets traveled to Death Valley to face undefeated and fifth-ranked Clemson. Could the Tigers defeat Georgia Tech to set up a Top-5 duel with Florida State the following week?

The Yellow Jackets were led by quarterback George Godsey, running back Joe Burns and receiver Kelly Campbell, while Clemson countered with its own trio in dual-threat quarterback Woody Dantzler, tailback Travis Zachery and receiver Rod Gardner.

After Georgia Tech failed to gain any traction in its first series, Tiger defensive back Tore Francis blocked a Yellow Jacket punt to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Dantzler, putting Clemson ahead 7-0.

On Tech’s next possession, Burns’ 44-yard catch-and-run moved the Jackets into scoring position. Unable to tie the game, Tech settled for a 27-yard field goal from kicker Luke Manget to make it 7-3.

Gathers was a beast who stymied opposing offenses | Photo courtesy Georgia Tech Athletics

Dantzler, who was nursing a bruised ankle from the previous week fell prey to a stout Tech defensive line spearheaded by Greg Gathers, Felipe Claybrooks and Nick Rogers. Although Dantzler was limited in his mobility, he found a streaking Zachary for a 29-yard touchdown pass, putting Clemson up by 14-3. 

In need of a spark in the second quarter, Godsey found receiver Will Glover for 24 yards on a third-and-7 to keep a Tech drive alive. Godsey connected with flanker Kerry Watkins on a 33-yard scoring strike to close the gap to 14-10.

Godsey had a career day | Photo courtesy Georgia Tech Athletics

After Tech recovered a Clemson fumble, Manget made a 29-yard kick to bring the Yellow Jackets to within one. With Clemson unable to generate any offense, Tech defensive back Kelley Rhino’s 24-yard punt return set up another Manget field goal and, Georgia Tech gained its first lead of the game 16-14 just before intermission.

Feeling as if Dantzler couldn’t guide the team through its toughest battle to date, Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden turned to freshman Willie Simmons to ignite the struggling Tiger offense in the second half. Both defenses stood tall in the third, however, as neither team gained an advantage, and the score remained 16-14 until Tiger cornerback Brian Mance scored on an 88-yard punt return to give Clemson a 21-16 lead with 6 seconds remaining in the quarter.

After stonewalling Georgia Tech yet again, Simmons found receiver J.J. McKelvey for a 65-yard gain, moving Clemson into the red zone. However, Tigers kicker Aaron Hunt’s 29-yard field goal attempt hit the upright, negating the massive play from McKelvey. Godsey capitalized on the miss with a 48-yard bomb to Campbell, and the Jackets were back in front 24-21.

With under 3 minutes left, Simmons found receiver Justin Watts open on the sideline for a 27-yard gain, moving the Tigers into the red zone. On second-and-14 from the Tech 18, Simmons rolled left, came back to his right and lobbed a pass into the end zone that Gardner miraculously hauled in for the score. With 1:52 left, Clemson was a defensive stand away from a battle with Florida State to determine the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) champion.

But it was not to be as Godsey drove Tech down the field, connecting with several Yellow Jackets before Watkins made a spectacular one-hand grab for the game-winning, 16-yard touchdown with 7 seconds left to stun the Tigers 31-28.

Georgia Tech receiver Kerry Watkins (9) uses one hand to haul in the game-winning touchdown in front of Clemson defender Darrel Crutchfield (30) in the final seconds of the game as Tech won, 31-28. CHRISTOPHER A. RECORD/Staff | Photo courtesy Georgia Tech Athletics

Godsey accounted for 454 yards passing, while Campbell caught 14 passes for 209 yards to lead Georgia Tech in the upset.

With the ACC championship still in play, Clemson suffered a 54-7 drubbing at the hands of FSU the next week. Clemson ended the season 9-3 after a 41-20 loss to Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl.

The Yellow Jackets finished the regular season 9-2 after dispatching in-state rival Georgia for the third consecutive year. Unfortunately, Georgia Tech’s momentum ended with a 28-14 loss to LSU in the Peach Bowl. The Jackets finished the 2000 campaign 9-3. H&A

All photos courtesy Georgia Tech Athletics 

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