Mike Nall has the game ball at his house in Akron, Ohio, something to gaze at from time to time, conjuring up memories of N.C. State’s last ACC football championship.
“It’s a little old and deflated,” Nall said this week, laughing.
There’s nothing deflating about seeing the score written on the football: N.C. State 16, Clemson 13. Or recalling that late-October day in 1979.
N.C. State believed it could win the ACC championship that year. Standing in the way: Clemson’s Tigers.
The Pack’s victory – that year, in Death Valley – didn’t clinch the 1979 ACC title. N.C. State still had to beat Duke, and did, in its final ACC game. But Clemson was the biggest obstacle, just as the Tigers appear to be again for the Wolfpack heading into their game Saturday at Carter-Finley.
The Tigers (7-1, 5-1 ACC), the defending national and ACC champions, are ranked sixth nationally, itching to get back to the college football playoffs. The Pack, 6-2 overall, 4-0 in the ACC and ranked 20th, leads the Atlantic Division but has Boston College, Wake Forest and North Carolina left to play to close out the regular season.
Should it win the division, the Wolfpack would need to win the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte on Dec. 2. That’s the final step and one that the players from 1979, now in their late 50s and early 60s, would like to see N.C. State take again.
“You can ask any of us from the ’79 team, and we’re proud of being ACC champions,” said Nall, a starting safety for the Pack and a senior that season. “We’re proud we won, but we’re not happy to be the last ones to win it.”
NC State vs. Clemson, 1979
The late Bo Rein was the Wolfpack coach in 1979, and at 34 one of the youngest head coaches in Division I. Danny Ford was the Clemson coach, building a program that would be voted national champion in 1981.
“Bo Rein was a coach who got the best out of his assistants and the best out of his players,” said Buddy Green, a graduate assistant coach at N.C. State in 1979 and later Wolfpack defensive coordinator under Dick Sheridan and Chuck Amato. “He was a players coach. He was demanding, on and off the field, but one who communicated well with his players. He could talk to them, and they could talk to him. The players loved him and played hard for him.”
Losing to North Carolina that season was a disappointment for everyone in the program. But by the end of October, it was down to N.C. State and Clemson for first place and the two teams played it like a championship game on Oct. 27, 1979.
“We knew we were playing for all the beans,” Scott Smith, the Pack’s quarterback, said Friday.
The Pack had one sustained drive that afternoon at Memorial Stadium – an 80-yard march highlighted by four pass completions from Smith to star wideout Mike Quick, the last for a 5-yard touchdown.
N.C. State, getting two field goals from Nathan Ritter, led 13-3 at the half. The Tigers rallied in the second half, tying the score 13-13, but a 25-yard Ritter field goal, set up by a 54-yard punt return by Woodrow Wilson, gave the Pack a three-point lead with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter.
“It was a short kick but from a sharp right angle,” Ritter said Friday. “There are no gimmies. I had to concentrate and get it through and was able to do it.
“And then there was the goal-line stand. Wow.”
Clemson drove to a first down at the Wolfpack 4-yard line, lined up in a power formation and ran Tracy Perry three times up the middle, gaining 2 yards.
Nall said Amato, the Wolfpack’s defensive coordinator, had cornerback Eric Williams shoot in on Perry from the edge, wrapping up Perry’s legs. Safety Donnie LeGrande also got in on some hits.
On fourth-and-goal from the 2, Ford went for the touchdown, not a tying field goal. Perry again got the call and was stopped inches short of the goal line as he was hit and driven back by linebackers David Shelton and David Horning, with an assist from Nall.
Clemson quarterback Billy Lott was convinced Perry scored with his lunge. There was no TV replay or review, but there was a long delay as the referees conferred.
“I saw the referee signal N.C. State first down, and I jumped about 10 feet in the air,” Nall said.
Not that it was over. Clemson’s defense forced a three-and-out, and although Pack punter John Isley got off a 53-yard kick, the Tigers moved to a first down at the NCSU 18.
Lott, under pressure from a blitzing LeGrande, was flushed out of the pocket and tried to hit receiver Joey Smith on the sideline. But Nall jumped the route for an interception with 58 seconds left. Ball game.
After that win
Nall didn’t keep the ball. That’s not the one in his house. He gave the football to linebacker Joe Hannah, whose father passed away a few days before the game.
“He had played a monster game, and I said, ‘Joe, this is for your dad,’ ” Nall said. “I still get emotional thinking about it.”
The Pack beat Duke 28-7 to clinch the ACC title with a 5-1 record and finished 7-4 overall. But to those who played, the title was decided on the field in Clemson’s Death Valley.
“One thing I remember was as we were driving away after the game, we looked out the bus window and saw Clemson fans give us a standing ovation,” Ritter said. “It was just a special day.”
Rein would leave N.C. State to become LSU’s head coach after the 1979 season but died in a plane crash in January 1980. The years have passed, and the 1979 title remains the Pack’s last in football.
“Thirty-eight years, geez, some of us have grandkids now,” defensive tackle Brian O’Doherty said. “We’re ready for another team to win one.”
Nall, who was awarded one of the game balls after the Clemson game, will be at Saturday’s game with several former teammates. Amato, now defensive coordinator for the Akron Zips, also is scheduled to be at the game as members of the Pack’s 1967 “White Shoes” team also gather.
Nall said he and Amato eat a spaghetti dinner in Akron most weeks during the season. And, yes, 1979 and that day in Clemson comes up.
After the victory, Rein said, “We’re hoping the Clemson game will carry us through November.” Another Wolfpack coach is hoping the same.
Clemson at NC State
When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh