Clemson, coached by Danny Ford, came into the game unbeaten at 11-0 and ranked #1 and was attempting to win its first national championship. Nebraska had started the 1981 season poorly, but then caught fire and steamrolled their way through the remaining eight games to emerge at 9-2 and a solid #4 in the polls. Earlier in the day, #2 Georgia and #3 Alabama had both lost, theoretically opening the door for Clemson or Nebraska to claim the national title with a victory.
Clemson scored first on a 41-yard field goal by Donald Igwebuike to take a 3-0 lead. Nebraska then went to their bag of tricks, as running back Mike Rozier threw a 25 yard halfback pass to Anthony Steels for a touchdown to take a 7-3 lead. Donald Igwebuike kicked a 37-yard field goal to pull Clemson to 7-6. Following a Nebraska fumble, Cliff Austin scored on a 2-yard touchdown run as to give Clemson a 12-7 halftime lead.
The third quarter was all Clemson, as Homer Jordan threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Perry Tuttle and then added another Igwebuike field goal, this time a 36 yarder, and Clemson led 22-7.
In the fourth quarter, Roger Craig scored for the Huskers on a 26-yard touchdown run. Following a penalty on the first two-point try, Craig then scored from the eight on a two-point conversion attempt which closed the margin to 22-15.
The Huskers would get the ball back, but more penalties would ultimately kill the drive and force them to punt the ball back to Clemson, who managed to hold possession of the ball for the bulk of the last six minutes and would secure its first and, as of 2012, only national championship.