Dec. 22, 2012
By Jon Cooper
It’s proper etiquette for one to wait until AFTER Christmas to make returns.
Willie Clay decided he couldn’t wait and implemented his own special return policy on Christmas Day 1991 in the Aloha Bowl. Georgia Tech was glad he did.
The senior cornerback and return man extraordinaire fielded a punt inside his own 10 with fewer than two minutes remaining, and took it 63 yards up the left sideline, setting up the winning score and two-point conversion as the Yellow Jackets edged No. 17 Stanford, 18-17.
While returning punts for big yards was part of Clay’s game throughout his Tech career, doing so using a sideline return was a little out of character, as that specific return hadn’t been used since the season-opener against Penn State. Head coach Bobby Ross re-introduced it just for the bowl game.
“We’ve returned punts up the middle all year,” said Clay, who set a school-season record in ’91 with 48 punt returns (a mark that still stands although it was tied 10 years later by Kelley Rhino), and had 101 returns for his career (a school-record later broken by Rhino).
The return might not — and logically should not — have happened at all, as Clay caught the boot from Stanford’s Paul Stonehouse at his own six on the left side of the field. Letting it bounce into the end zone for a touchback would have been safer thinking but was never part of Clay’s.
“Fair catch my last punt return at Georgia Tech? No way,” he said. “I was catching that ball. I didn’t even know where I was on the field. I just caught the ball and ran straight up the sideline.”
Instead, he set a school-bowl-game record, as the 63-yard return which still stands and at which current punt-returning phenom Jamal Golden will take aim next Monday in the Hyundai Sun Bowl, fittingly against a Pac-12 opponent.
The return put the ball at the Cardinal 31-yard. Seven plays later, quarterback Shawn Jones, took it in from the one on a quarterback draw with 14 seconds left to bring Tech to within 17-16.
Clay’s return might have been unconventional but it seemed downright normal compared to what came next.
Ross, who would be coaching his final game at Georgia Tech, chose to roll the dice and go for two. He put the ball, and the Jackets’ fate in the hands of Jones, whose first game of 1991 was the Citrus Bowl, the 1990 National Championship-clinching victory over Nebraska.
Jones took the snap and went down the line on the option, looking to turn the corner. But Stanford pursued well. So Jones pitched to Lincoln, who, seeing the corner clogged, broke back toward the middle and into the end zone for the score.
“The defender could either take the quarterback or the pitch. He took the quarterback and Shawn pitched the ball out,” Lincoln said. “There were two guys outside, and one was supposed to be picked up by the wide receiver. But somehow he didn’t, so I had to cut back real quick.”
In a game of momentum swings, the pendulum had swung Tech’s way last.
The Jackets had led 10-7 early, before Stanford scored 10 unanswered points in the second quarter, taking the lead late in the half on a two-yard scoring run by “Touchdown” Tommy Vardell.
The defenses controlled the second half, as the Jackets defense shut out the Cardinal. Offensively, Tech squandered a game-tying opportunity at the end of the third quarter, when Rodney Wilkerson fumbled at the one-yard line. That drive had been set up by a mishandled snap by Stonehouse, which was recovered at the Stanford 18 by the Jackets’ Mike Williams.
The victory made for a Merry Christmas and a nice finish for the Jackets, who found themselves at 3-4 midway through the season before finishing by winning four of its final five games.
For Clay, the return was redemption, as earlier in the game, he dropped what looked like a sure interception. Making one last big play also was fitting for the senior, who would be named Second-Team All-America after picking off nine passes, tying a school record set 22 years earlier by Jeff Ford. He’d finish his career with 16 INTs, still the school-record.