November 7th, 1981….

Clemson, who was unbeaten and ranked second in the country, traveled to Chapel Hill to take on #8 UNC with the ACC Championship and a major bowl bid on the line. UNC’s lone loss had come two weeks earlier, a 31-13 home loss to UofSC.

This was the first time in history that two top ten ACC teams faced off and was being billed as the biggest game ever in the state of North Carolina. It was also Homecoming for the Tarheels.

The Tigers were coming off an 82-14 win over Wake Forest and head coach Danny Ford knew this would be his teams toughest remaining test. Clemson had already beaten #4 Georgia at home, earlier in the season. Ford would later say,

“I was concerned about how we can play physically with this team. We were out-muscled in 1980, which did not happen too often with our football teams. Their game plan in 1980 was to out-muscle Clemson, and I think they did it. We knew that’s what they were going to try and do again.”

All American LB Jeff Davis would later say about the UNC game,

“The North Carolina game did
more for us winning the national
championship than any other game. It was the ultimate test for us. We expected to win in Death
Valley and we expected teams to already be behind when the whistle blew in Death Valley. But, to go into the backyard of a top 10 football team with everything at stake, and win, that did it for us.”

“Remember, North Carolina had everything to play for. It’s right there for them. You can think there were people wondering ‘Can Clemson stay focused?’ And we beat them in a fight. It was an all-out brawl. May the best man win! It was man on man.”

Reps from eight different bowl games were on hand, more than any other game in the nation that weekend. Sports Illustrated had been in Clemson all week doing a story on the teams season to date, and ABC televised the game across most of the country, something that didn’t happen often back then.

The Heels had beaten Clemson the year before in Death Valley 24-19, and on this day the Tigers would have their revenge. And sweet revenge it was.

UNC starting QB Rod Elkins sprained his ankle in that earlier loss to UofSC, so backup QB Scott Stankavage got the start. After being sacked once and fumbling twice on the Heels first two drives, he was benched and Elkins came in. He would reinjure the ankle early in the second quarter and would watch the rest of the game from the sideline.

What Elkins would witness was the Tiger defense holding the nation’s second best rushing attack to just 84 yards on 42 carries. Stopping the run was what this defense did best and on this day they showed why they were the second best run defense in the country. UNC RB Kelvin Bryant was limited to just 31 yards on 13 carries.

Bill Smith forced a fumble on a lateral pass with under a minute to play and after the ball rolled backwards for several yards, Jeff Bryant fell on it at the UNC 25, preserving the Tigers win, and keeping their national title hopes alive.

Relive some of that day….

Clemson vs UNC 1981 Highlights

Or the condensed version

Clemson vs UNC 1981 (Condensed Version)

Or watch the full game…

Clemson vs UNC 1981 ( Full Game)

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