A 3-time Super Bowl MVP and 4-time Super Bowl champion, quarterback Joe Montana came through in the clutch numerous times during his football career. Well before he was doing it for the San Francisco 49ers or Kansas City Chiefs, he was leading game-winning marches at Notre Dame.
On this day 45 years ago, Montana was the hero. Trailing by double-digits in the final quarter, Montana scored a pair of touchdowns to rally the Fighting Irish to a 21-17 win over Clemson.
Setting the Stage
Notre Dame was 7-1 and riding a 6-game winning streak as it arrived at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C. on Nov. 12, 1977. The Fighting Irish had shaken off an early-season loss to Ole Miss and had played just one game decided by fewer than 10 points since.
At 7-1-1, Clemson was coming off a tie against North Carolina. The Tigers were ranked No. 15, but seemed well on their way to moving up in the polls.
Montana Rallies the Irish
The wheels seemed to be falling off for Notre Dame in the second half. Lester Brown’s third-quarter touchdown run gave Clemson a 17-7 lead. On a Notre Dame possession later in the period, a clipping call on the Fighting Irish came with another 15-yard penalty for head coach Dan Devine’s outburst.
The 30 yards, however, wouldn’t kill Notre Dame’s chances or even the drive. After consecutive completions to Ken MacAfee, totaling 43 yards, kept the possession alive, Montana found the end zone on a keeper early in the fourth.
Down 17-14, the Notre Dame defense responded by forcing a turnover. Set up at midfield, a 36-yard completion from Montana to Vagas Ferguson moved Notre Dame into the red zone. Montana would cap the drive with another short touchdown run.
After allowing 214 yards in the first half, the Fighting Irish were ironclad down the stretch. The Tigers would fail to get a first down the rest of the way. Notre Dame’s Jerome Heavens and Clemson quarterback Steve Fuller scored the first touchdowns for their respective teams.
New York Times
After beating South Carolina the following week, Clemson closed the year with a blowout loss to Pittsburgh in the Gator Bowl, 34-3. With a record of 8-3-1, the Tigers finished No. 19 in the AP Poll.
Notre Dame would beat its final three opponents by a combined margin of 135-20. After defeating No. 1 Texas 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl, the Fighting Irish ascended from fifth to first in the final polls to claim the national championship.
For Notre Dame, the win at Clemson was one of only two where it rallied to win in the fourth quarter. It came on this day 45 years ago.
Featured image provided by Clemson athletics