THE BIRDDOG HALL OF AWESOME: ERIC RUTHERFORD

One of the quirks about Navy fans is that there aren’t very many that have been Navy fans all their lives. A lot of teams have fans that have no affiliation with the school outside of geographical proximity or just general bandwagon-ness; Navy’s sphere of influence doesn’t extend much farther than Anne Arundel County. Most people came to USNA dragging the allegiances of their youth with them, and unless you grew up in a Navy family, that allegiance wasn’t to the Mids. Because so many Navy fans spent the first 18 years of their lives cheering for someone else, they aren’t always familiar with the team’s history. So for the next long-overdue installment of the Hall of Awesome, I thought I’d go old school. We’re all looking forward to the South Carolina game this year, so it seems fitting to look back to the Mids’ colossal 38-21 win over the #2 Gamecocks in 1984, and the star of that game, defensive tackle Eric Rutherford.

By 1984, Navy’s spiral into the abyss was already well underway. George Welsh had left for Virginia after the 1981 season. The Mids were able to put together a 6-5 campaign in their first year under Gary Tranquill, but fell to 3-8 in 1983. Nevertheless, there was still some optimism heading into the 1984 season. 1983 had ended with a 42-13 mauling of Army in Pasadena, Napoleon McCallum was emerging as a legitimate star, and sophomore Bill Byrne showed great promise at quarterback. With a thrilling 33-30 win over North Carolina to start the season, the optimism seemed justified. Sadly, it all fell apart the following week against Virginia when McCallum was lost for the year. Byrne would go down as well later in the year, and the Mids limped into their home finale with a disappointing 3-5-1 record and seemingly little hope against the #2 team in the nation. South Carolina, on the other hand, was in the middle of the best season in school history. Joe Morrison had the Gamecocks sitting at 9-0 with wins over Georgia, Notre Dame, and Florida State. Their split-back veer offense was averaging 35 points per game. Orange Bowl officials were in attendance at the game, giddy at the thought of matching up #2 South Carolina with #1 Nebraska. A national championship was within reach.

Unfortunately for South Carolina, Navy had one last great performance left in them. What followed was the greatest win by a service academy in the modern age.

What was so remarkable about that game wasn’t just that Navy dominated, but that they dominated despite playing a game that was far from perfect. The offense turned the ball over 3 times, including giving South Carolina the ball in Navy territory on each of their first two possessions. Yet the Gamecocks came away with no points off of those turnovers thanks almost entirely to Eric Rutherford, who blocked a FG attempt on Carolina’s first possession, then had a 3rd-down sack on their second possession to set up 4th & a nautical mile and force the Gamecocks to punt. By game’s end, Rutherford had 11 tackles, 4 sacks, one forced fumble, one blocked field goal, and one halftime interview filled with enough swagger to make the hair on your chest grow half an inch. He barely missed out on a 5th sack when the quarterback was able to stumble forward for half a yard, and the pressure brought by Rutherford and others led to one of Mike Taylor’s two interceptions.

(I’m sure Stan White was provided with copious quantities of media notes by Tom Bates before the game, but he apparently didn’t find any of it nearly as interesting as the fact that this was the seniors’ last home game that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.)

It was 7-7 in the second quarter when Navy went on to score 31 straight points to take a 38-7  lead before South Carolina made a late run in garbage time. Despite the Mids’ scoring outburst, the defense was the story of the game, led by Chad Van Hulzen, Mike Taylor, and Rutherford. It was a performance for the ages, and one that clearly deserves to be remembered here.

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14 Responses

  1. The Gamecocks would have been guaranteed an Orange Bowl bid with a win, even if they had lost the following week to Clemson. I believe they also would have moved up to #1 in the polls.

    Just a staggering upset in every way, with the one asterisk being it was South Carolina, which has had a history as an athletics program of pulling defeat out of the jaws of victory…

  2. I recall that the game was televised, which, outside of Army-Navy, was rare for us in those days.
    This year’s game could be a “trap” game since they play Georgia the week before us and their remaining 7 SEC games after us. Let’s hope they have forgotten about 1984.

  3. Guarantee you’ll hear all about it nonstop that week.

  4. we need to bring the neck roll back

    it deserves its own hall of awesome post

  5. That was awesome. I remember being underway on a sub then and we’d get the scores on Monday for both college and pro – I saw that score and looked at it for a long time thinking it had to be a mistake. Rutherford had a game for the ages.

    I’ve never seen any film on that game – thanks. Of course we got back from patrol in time to see Army beat Navy for the first time in 7 years 28-11. I guess Navy didn’t come to play that game, because Army ran all over us. And the darkness began…….

  6. Sandlapper Spike is correct in that the Gamecocks would have most likely been elevated to #1 in the polls provided they had beated Navy –> The #1 ranked team also lost that day.
    I was at the game (post JO shore tour duty as an Engineering instructor over in Rickover Hall), and it was an awesome performance/victory by Navy! The atmosphere in NMCM stadium was pretty electric as I recall. Go Navy!

  7. QB Bob Misch was also a big piece of that historic victory.

    I’ll never forget the Gold siide of N-MC MS full of black shirted SC fans (Morrison wore all black). If I remember correctly about 13-15K SC fans drove to Annapolis to see the culmination of their perfect season….the rest is history.

    At the Hall of Fame dinner that winter the SC AD told me that game cost SC over a $1M.

  8. Thanks, Mike. Was at sea when this occurred, so this was great video for me to see for the first time.

  9. Thanks, Mike. I remember that game very well. Good for you for recognizing Eric Rutherford. What a game he had.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I must relate the following. I had been off active duty for a couple of years and had started my career in ‘CivLant’. A guy whom I had gotten to know at work was a big-time bettor on college football and knew that I was a Navy alum. He quizzed me very intently for some insights because the betting line made Navy an interesting bet. However, he was tempted to take Navy straight up and make some big bucks. I, of course, told him he was crazy. Oh, well.

    My colleague didn’t hold my bad advice against me b/c he had some good picks that weekend and still took Navy with the points and made some good money. However, he never let me forget that I kept him from wining some big-time money.

  10. Awesome post, Mike! I remember that game very fondly. I didn’t know it was on TV though, even though very few people had access to HTS at the time. I wonder if anyone has the game in its entirety? I’d love to have a copy.

  11. I was at the game with my father (USNA ’70) . We left feeling like Rich Clouse was the MVP with his huge run in the second half and we also saw it published somewhere Clouse played most of the second half with a concussion too. Great post.

  12. I swear I posted a clip of that run somewhere around here once before…

  13. Ah! I did. 2:45 in this video:

    http://thebirddog.wordpress.com/2009/02/02/compressing-130-years-of-navy-football-history-into-5-minutes/

  14. What a great game. I really like looking back at the at the stadium, love the ole scoreboard…

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