Note: The following appears in the Georgia Tech football gameday program.
Editor’s Note – For each program in 2023, Tim Bourret chronicles an epic game in the history of Memorial Stadium. Today is the sixth installment.
Clemson’s Oct. 21, 2006 game against Georgia Tech was memorable in many ways. The meeting between Tommy Bowden’s No. 12 Tigers and Chan Gailey’s No. 13 Yellow Jackets was the first of top-15 teams in Memorial Stadium since the 1992 opener against Florida State. It was also the first time since 1939 that Clemson wore the uniform combination of purple jerseys and purple pants.
There was interest in this game nationally because of those national rankings, enough interest to bring ESPN College GameDay to campus for the first time. I recommended that the network do the broadcast on Bowman Field, because Clemson played its games there when John Heisman was the head coach, and ESPN loved the historical connection. On top of that, it was Homecoming, so the colorful displays made a great backdrop for the broadcast.
Additionally, the rivalry was among the most competitive in the nation. The two teams had played games decided by five points or less in nine of the previous 10 seasons, including an incredible six straight games decided by exactly three points between 1996 and 2001.
The game was billed as a matchup of Georgia Tech’s passing game, led by All-America wide receiver Calvin Johnson, and Clemson’s rushing game that featured James Davis and C.J. Spiller. Johnson was averaging six receptions and 93 receiving yards per game, leading the Yellow Jackets to a 5-1 record, with the only loss at Notre Dame by four points in the season opener.
Davis and Spiller were leading a ground game averaging over 250 yards per game, a big reason for Clemson’s 6-1 record, with the only loss in double overtime at Boston College.
It appeared the game would be another close contest, as the only score of the first half was a two-yard rushing touchdown by Davis in the second quarter. Meanwhile, the Tigers were doing a great job in the secondary shutting down Johnson and quarterback Reggie Ball.
Clemson took a 17-0 lead late in the third quarter when Spiller burst up the middle for 50 yards and a touchdown.
The Yellow Jackets got back in the game thanks to a receiving touchdown by a different receiver named Johnson. James Johnson caught a 35-yard pass from Ball to make it 17-7.
However, the Tigers came right back on the next drive thanks to another 50-yard play by Spiller. This time, he caught a pass from Will Proctor near the Georgia Tech sideline, faked out three defenders and sped 50 yards for a touchdown.
Davis put the game out of reach with a fourth quarter touchdown run of five yards to give the Tigers a convincing 31-7 victory.
After Spiller’s electric catch and run, Todd Blackledge, who was broadcasting the game for ESPN, called Davis and Spiller “Thunder & Lightning” for the first time. They certainly had burst on the national scene that night. Davis had 216 rushing yards and Spiller added 116 rushing yards plus the 50 receiving yards.
It marked the first time Clemson had a 200-yard rusher and 100-yard rusher in a game. Spiller became the first Tiger to score on a rush of 50+ yards and a reception of 50+ yards in a game.
After the game, ESPN had a setup in the southeast corner of Memorial Stadium. Davis and Spiller were escorted through the student section to reach the broadcast location. It was an unforgettable moment, and Davis and Spiller still remember the scene today.
While they received much of the postgame attention, the Clemson defense, especially the secondary, also received a lot of attention for holding Calvin Johnson without a catch. The swarming secondary, led by Michael Hamlin, Chris Clemons, Duane Coleman and C.J. Gaddis, shut out Johnson in the reception column. Ball targeted him five times, but he was smothered by the Clemson secondary. The only time he touched the ball was on a reverse that lost four yards.
The performance by the Tiger secondary would become more and more significant as Johnson’s NFL Hall of Fame career continued. He finished his Georgia Tech career with 38 games, and it was the only contest he did not have a reception. He then played 135 games in the NFL with the Detroit Lions and had at least one catch in every game. Therefore, in 12 years and 173 games at the college and NFL level, Johnson had just one game where he did not have a reception, and it was this Saturday night in Death Valley.