“When you coach for four-plus decades, some of those games get a little foggy,” Ayers told The State this week.
The Wofford legend, who coached 347 games with the Terriers, has no problem recalling the details of what happened when his team traveled down I-85 to face Clemson on Sept. 10, 2011.
“The thing about that game there, it’s pretty much crystal clear,” Ayers said.
Clemson entered the game as a huge favorite, but it was evident from the start the Tigers were going to be in for a dogfight, so to speak. Clemson turned the ball over on downs on its opening drive, before Wofford marched right down the field to take a 7-0 lead.
“They came in ready to play,” former Clemson linebacker Quandon Christian recalled. “We were going through the motions and they came ready to play. They brought the fight to us the whole game.”
The Tigers had an offense that featured one of the best quarterbacks in ACC history in Tajh Boyd and NFL talent all around him, including receivers DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, tight end Dwayne Allen and running back Andre Ellington.
But Clemson’s offense struggled to find a rhythm as the Tigers scored on only three of their eight drives in the first half. Clemson and Wofford were tied at 21 as the teams headed for the locker room.
“I remember getting booed going off the field at halftime,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said this week.
‘It was disheartening a little bit, but I could understand it,” Boyd added. “I remember all of that. That demeanor in that locker room was so stiff. It was sour in there. You’ve got five-star players, four-star players, we’re playing against guys from Wofford and we don’t know who they are. We’re watching them on film but it’s not like you’ve heard of them before. You never played them in a high school all-star game. ... It was a gut check.”
Swinney had gone out on a limb and hired a high school coach by the name of Chad Morris to lead his Tigers offense in 2011, but a couple of weeks in, the results weren’t great. Clemson had played Troy the previous week and trailed the Trojans at halftime. Then came the game against Wofford.
“Everybody was telling coach Morris to go back to high school,” Swinney said of what he remembers about that day.
Boyd remembers not being at his best that afternoon and heading to the locker room in a bit of disbelief that the game was tied at 21 at the half.
“You’ve gotta get them off of the field because they’ll chew that clock up. For any young quarterback playing against a team like Wofford, you’re not getting that many opportunities. You start to press because you want to score every time you touch the football,” he said.
Boyd was only a sophomore at the time, in his first year as a starter, and he had yet to gain the trust of his teammates. Boyd was worried some of the defenders on the team might be upset with the way he was playing, but Christian says that wasn’t the case.
“I didn’t question the offense because I had my own problems going on on defense,” Christian said laughing. “We had our own problems. We couldn’t stop them. It’s not solely the offense’s fault. We couldn’t get our stuff together on defense either.”
The Terriers’ triple option offense was giving Clemson fits.
The Tigers were unable to consistently slow down Wofford quarterback Mitch Allen and fullback Eric Breitenstein.
“Oh my God. That fullback was the real deal. He was a heavy load,” said Christian. “He ran with power, I’m not even going to lie. It was hard tackling him. He was one of the toughest running backs I ever had to tackle, and I played against some great running backs. He was one of the toughest ones.”
With Clemson struggling to stop the run, the Tigers had to load up the box. That’s when Wofford went over the top and took advantage.
“I remember them having the most open guy in college football history,” Swinney said. “That big, tall kid, that white kid that caught the ball. He literally back-pedaled to catch it and then back-pedaled 50 yards into the end zone. Probably should have gotten an ESPY that year for most wide-open wide out.”
That receiver was Brenton Bersin, who went on to play in the NFL for the Carolina Panthers for a few years.
Wofford completed only two passes on the day with both going to Bersin, but they went for 127 yards and a touchdown.
“We were giving up points like it wasn’t nothing. I don’t think we had a highlight until the fourth quarter of that game on defense,” Boyd said.
Wofford continued its strong play into the second half. The Terriers opened the third quarter with a long drive that resulted in a field goal to take a 24-21 lead.
As frustration was growing on the Clemson sideline and in the stands, Wofford was feeling more and more like it was the Terriers’ day to pull off the upset.
“The term I always used with our guys was dealing with the darkness of doubt. And all of a sudden you have some positive things that happen for your team, and the next thing you know the doubt is out the backdoor and gone. And now the fight is on,” Ayers said. “I know that that particular day that there was a lot of good energy and a great vibe on our sideline. The Clemson faithful, they were not quite as happy as they thought they would be at that time.”
Clemson finally took its first lead of the game midway through the third quarter, going on top 28-24. Wofford answered with a field goal, but Clemson responded with a touchdown to take a 35-27 lead.
Wofford had three drives in the fourth quarter when it was trailing by only a score, but the Terriers were unable to find the end zone and fell 35-27.
“We had a group that fought hard. We had coaches that prepared extremely well that week. We never went into a game thinking that we couldn’t have a chance,” Ayers said. “I don’t know whether that’s naive on our part, but I think quite frankly so many games, especially now a days, the FCS level has closed some distance on the FBS level as far as quality of play. And you see it every week.”
Wofford finished the 2011 season 8-4, falling to Northern Iowa in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
Even with Clemson pulling off the victory, it wasn’t exactly a happy group of Tigers after the game.
“On Monday it was like the end of the world. We missed so many tackles on defense. I missed like five. Between me and Jonathan Meeks, we missed the most tackles on the team. We watched film and we were really sick,” Christian said. “It was hard core (Monday). That day we started tackling to the ground in practice.”
The change worked.
Clemson won its next six games to open the season 8-0 and went on to take the ACC title that year. Former Tigers center Dalton Freeman credits the struggles against Wofford for helping the Tigers to turn that season around.
“That was the adversity we needed and the gut check that was necessary for us to go on the run that we went on, beating those three ranked teams in a row in Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech,” Freeman said. “We had struggled the year before and had a losing season. We had gone 7-6 and lost in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Coach Swinney definitely went out on a limb when he brought coach Morris in. We all believed in him and knew he would be successful. We just had to start clicking and figure it all out.”
The Tigers finished the 2011 season 10-4, starting a streak of eight consecutive seasons of 10-plus wins, which is still active today.
“I think everything that happened throughout the course of that season, the success that season was a byproduct of those first couple of games against Troy and Wofford,” Boyd said. “I think we would’ve thought we were special if we’d have gone out there and beat Wofford by 50 points going into the Auburn game.”
Still, the game was a little too close for comfort, something Boyd hopes doesn’t repeat this weekend as the Tigers host the underdog Terriers. Clemson once again has an offense loaded with NFL talent.
“You don’t want to give them any life. You really want to suck the blood out of them as soon as possible,” Boyd said. “But if you’re not careful they can drain you too, especially with that offense running that clock.”