January 1, 1988…..
Coming off a 20-7 loss to rival South Carolina to end the regular season, the 14th ranked Tigers were sitting at 9-2 and had a chance to finish up the season on a positive note against 20th ranked Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. The Nittany Lions were 9-3, and highly confident that they would shut the one dimensional Clemson offense down in front of a record crowd of 53,152. Instead it was Penn State that was shut down, as Clemson won handily 35-10.
It didn’t take long for head coach Joe Paterno to realize the Tigers weren’t as one dimensional as originally thought. Tigers QB Rodney Williams came into the game having completed just 47% of his passes on the season and was thought of as a guy who could run, but not much of a passer. Less than one minute in he hit on a 24 yard pass, giving the Nittany Lions an idea of what was in store for them.
This Clemson team was one of those Danny Ford coached, run heavy, option teams. They didn’t do a whole lot of passing. They typically ran it down your throats. On this day however, Williams connected on 15 of 24 passing attempts for well over 200 yards and was named the game MVP. Seven of those were caught by Keith Jennings, who had 110 receiving yards.
Penn State was caught off guard by the offensive gameplan and had no answers for the 3 receiver sets the Tigers kept using. Once they established the passing game, the talented trio of Clemson RBs, Tracy Johnson, Bo Allen, and Wesley McFadden, were able to churn up 203 yards on the ground behind a dominant offensive line.
The Tigers only led 14-7 at halftime, but capitalized on a couple of turnovers to outscore Penn State 21-3 in the 2nd half. Clemson would finish the season 10-2 and ranked 11th in the Coaches Poll and 12th in the AP.