Willie Underwood doesn’t need to close his eyes to visualize the 1980 game between Clemson and South Carolina. The former strong safety for the Tigers listens to fans give him a descriptive reminder of his heroics in November every year.
Underwood picked off two passes that day and returned them for a school-record 101 yards, including one for a 37-yard touchdown, to lead a .500 Clemson team to a 27-6 upset victory over the Gamecocks, who entered the game at Death Valley with an 8-2 record and No. 14 national ranking.
He also made 17 tackles and earned Sports Illustrated player of the week for his performance, which was the senior’s final game wearing a Clemson uniform.
“I don’t get tired of hearing about it. It’s very memorable,” Underwood said. “I’m actually proud to talk about it. It meant a great deal to me, and it meant a great deal to the team at that particular time.”
The game also became renowned for being the first time the Tigers wore orange pants, as a pumped-up defense kept USC tailback George Rogers, who would win the Heisman Trophy that season, from getting into the end zone.
Underwood, who works for the National Wild Turkey Foundation in Edgefield, laughs when recalling the decision to wear all orange. He remembers being called into Danny Ford’s office along with linebacker Jeff Davis and being shown a pair of orange pants.
“Jeff and I sat down with coach Ford, and he said, ‘I’ve got a surprise for you.’ He pulled out the orange uniforms and we were shocked,” Underwood said. “We said, ‘We’re actually going to wear those things?’ He said, ‘Yes, if ya’ll want to, we will.’ We both agreed on it, and it turned out to be one of the best things to ever happen to us.”
Ford laughs upon hearing Underwood’s recollection, which he calls different from his own.
“Whatever those guys say, their minds are younger than mine,” Ford said. “I’m a lot older now, and I forget a lot of things I should remember. If Willie and Jeff say it, I did it.”
As the legend goes, the orange pants – along with the inspired guys wearing them – propelled the Tigers to victory. Underwood, who was inducted into the Clemson Athletics Hall of Fame in 2008, certainly played with inspiration.
Late in the third quarter, USC reached deep into Clemson territory and looked ready to take its first lead of the day, but Underwood stepped in front of a Garry Harper pass and ran 64 yards down the sideline to the USC 24. Shortly afterwards, quarterback Homer Jordan scored on a 1-yard run to give Clemson a 13-6 lead.
On South Carolina’s next possession at the start of the fourth quarter, Harper again threw the ball to a spot where Underwood, who was playing with a medical device attached to his side that would keep the muscles loose in his sore back, made a perfect read and took it for a 37-yard touchdown and a 20-6 lead.
“It was the same route. Willie broke underneath it at strong safety and intercepted,” Ford said. “I saw a highlight a few months ago, and I think Willie was just as surprised as anybody else. He caught it, ran it in there, handed the ball to the official, and went back to the field. Everybody was jumping all over him and he didn’t want nothing to do with it. He just thought he was doing his job.”
Underwood, who was called an under-the-radar recruit out of Alabama by Ford, remains humble to this day about doing his job.
“I’ve always been a team player. It was a group effort,” Underwood said. “I really don’t take credit for a lot of that. It took everybody that particular weekend. It was a down year, and all we wanted to do was go out on a positive note.”
The win allowed Clemson, which had lost to Maryland 34-7 the week before, to finish with a winning record at 6-5. Many observers credit the momentum of that victory with setting the stage for the Tigers’ 12-0 run to the national championship the following season.
“We needed the win,” Ford said. “It certainly didn’t hurt, and it had to give us a little confidence because we had a lot of kids coming back. It was a stepping stone to ’81.”
Ford remains thankful that USC didn’t give the ball more often to Rogers, who finished with 168 yards on 28 carries, and instead decided to put the ball in the air, which allowed Underwood to make such a huge impact. Underwood said the win helped point the Tigers in the direction of a national championship, something that served as the catalyst for sustained success in the program.
And he looks today at how big the rivalry game has become. The affable Underwood loves seeing the passion that the teams and the fans put into the game, but don’t expect him to brag to folks in garnet and black about his signature game.
“A lot of other people do that for me,” he said. “I pretty much don’t bring it up.”