’77 Irish Survived a Challenging Trip to Death Valley

By Jim Lefebvre
Forever Irish

Mostly, Luther Bradley remembers the waiting.

And the waiting and the waiting.

It was Nov. 12, 1977 at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, South Carolina – known across the college football world as Death Valley. Bradley and his fellow Fighting Irish were ranked number 5 in the nation, with a 7-1 record. They had already made one trip to the Deep South that season, dropping an early 20-13 decision to Ole Miss in Jackson.

All-American defensive back Luther Bradley helped lead the 1977 Irish defense.

All-American defensive back Luther Bradley helped lead the 1977 Irish defense.

But since then, the Irish had strung together a number of one-sided victories, including those over Army (24-0), Southern Cal (49-19), Navy (43-10) and Georgia Tech (69-14) the four weeks previous to the Clemson trip. The Tigers were a surprising 7-1-1 under first-year head coach Charley Pell, and had climbed into the Top 20 at number 15.

“I remember how hostile the environment was,” said Bradley this week, recalling the scene 38 autumns ago when a record crowd of 54,189 packed Memorial Stadium. “We took the field, and the fans reacted. But there was no Clemson (team). We waited…and waited…and waited. It was 15 or 20 minutes, and that’s a long time. The fans were going bananas.

“Finally, Coach (Dan) Devine went to the officials and said ‘this is ridiculous…throw a flag for delay of game.’ Of course they didn’t.”

Finally, down the long hill came the home team, each Clemson player touching the revered Howard’s Rock, to the thunderous roars of their faithful. They were ready to spring an upset of the vaunted Irish.

Meanwhile, “we were (ticked) off,” says Bradley. “But after all the emotion and energy, when the game got going…well, the better team always wins, right? We just had a terrific group of guys. When you look around the defense, and there’s Bob Golic, Ross Browner, Willie Fry. And then on offense, Joe Montana, Vegas Ferguson, Ken MacAfee. We were loaded, just off the charts.

“But Clemson played it smart, motivation-wise. The ‘big, bad monsters from South Bend’ were coming to town, to play little old Clemson.”

And Clemson was able to make a game of it, a challenging game for Notre Dame. Leading 10-7 in the third quarter, Clemson had a fourth-and-goal at the Notre Dame two-yard line. The Tigers went for it, and scored when the head linesman got in the way of the play. “Teddy Burgmeier had a perfect angle for a tackle, and the official knocked him down. It seemed like the officials were skewed toward Clemson. But what can you do?”

Notre Dame brought a No. 5 ranking in its first visit to Clemson's Death Valley in 1977.

Notre Dame brought a No. 5 ranking in its first visit to Clemson’s Death Valley in 1977.

In the fourth quarter, back-to-back runs by Ferguson were called back due to penalties, then Devine was assessed an unsportsmanlike call for showing his disagreement. On a second-and-31, Montana hit MacAfee over the middle for 27 yards. Two plays later, on fourth-and-two from the Clemson 27, Montana hit MacAfee again, this time for 11. It led to a Montana TD run to cut the deficit to 17-14.

A Clemson fumble at midfield set up Notre Dame’s winning drive. Ferguson took a screen pass from Montana and raced 36 yards down the sideline. From the one, Montana’s second quarterback sneak crossed the goal line, the winning score in a 21-17 Notre Dame victory.

Clemson had an All-American receiver, Jerry Butler. Before the game, the Irish coaches came to Bradley and said, “Wherever he goes, you go. Bump and run, the whole game.” And Butler didn’t make a reception against Bradley the entire game. Joe Restic led the Irish with 14 tackles; Browner and Steve Heimkreiter had 11 each, and Golic 10.

“I think, in the end, the Clemson fans were appreciative,” says Bradley. “They knew they had seen a really good team, a team that wouldn’t be stopped.”

The following week, the Irish were back to their pattern of walloping the opposition, hammering Air Force, 49-0. They closed the regular season with a third trip south, ripping the Miami Hurricanes, 48-10. In the Cotton Bowl, Notre Dame shocked No. 1 Texas, 38-10, and walked off with the school’s 10th consensus national championship.