This is the third story we are writing leading up to the National Championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama. This story recounts the first time these two storied franchises ever met – the 1973 Sugar Bowl, still to this day one of the most exciting games ever played.
It was New Year’s Eve, 1973. Dick Clark was preparing for the very first new years’ eve countdown – no pomp, no circumstance, just a countdown. AC/DC performed their first-ever live show at Chequers in Sydney, Australia. And the No. 1 song on the charts was Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.”
But for fans of two of the most storied programs in college football history, Dec. 31, 1973 was important for another reason: It was the first time that Notre Dame and Alabama would face each other on the field.
At stake? Just a little thing like a National Championship. Alabama was ranked No. 1; Notre Dame was No. 3 – and both were undefeated.
Since Alabama switched to the wishbone offense in 1971, they had outscored opponents 1,228 to 381, while losing just three games in that span.
Ara Parseghian and Notre Dame had similarly found success, as in his first year the Irish were 9-1 and chosen as the National Football Foundation’s national champion. In 1973, both programs were on top of the world. Alabama defense was solid, as expected, allowing a mere eight points per game. But the wishbone unleashed on even the best-prepared was steamrolling opponents into submission, rolling up 480 yards and 41 points per game.
Notre Dame wasn’t chopped liver, however. The Irish defense was ranked No. 1 in the nation, and the Wing-I offense averaged nearly 36 points per game.
Said Sports Illustrated: “It’s doubtful that any college bowl game ever featured two teams with such an itch to get at one another.”
More than 85,000 filled into New Orleans’ Tulane Stadium for the 40th annual Sugar Bowl game, and rumor has it scalpers were asking as much as $2,000 a seat, which based on www.westegg.com’s inflation calculator, amounted to $9,984.68 in 2011.
As is so rarely seen anymore, the game more than lived up to the pregame hype.
Notre Dame quarterback Tom Clements opened the game completing three passes for 59 yards, paving the way for a Wayne Bullock touchdown run.
Alabama took the lead in the second quarter, but on the ensuing kickoff, Irish return man Al Hunter took the kick 93 yards to put Notre Dame back on top, and the teams went into the halftime locker room with the Irish holding a 14-10 lead.
Both teams scored touchdowns in the third quarter, setting the stage for a dramatic final frame, the likes which have been rarely seen.
After recovering a Notre Dame fumble, Bear Bryant gambled with a trick play – something the conservative, play-it-by-the-book coach rarely did. But on this occasion, he had quarterback Richard Todd pitch the ball to Mike Stock. Everyone expected another run, and why wouldn’t they?
But the Bear – and Stock – shocked the stadium, when Stock lofted a wobbly pass to a wide-open Todd, who snared the pass and scored easily. After a failed conversion, Alabama held a scant 23-21 lead with slightly more than nine minutes remaining.
After driving the length of the field but having to settle for a field goal, Notre Dame again took the lead, 24-23. The defenses finally lived up to their previous billing, forcing punts back and forth. Finally, the Irish were sent deep in their own territory with three minutes left.
Two runs netted next to nothing, and Notre Dame faced a 3rd-and-8 from their own 3.
Years later, Bryant recalled, “There are so many ways to win from that position. A fumble. A good defensive play to force a safety. A blocked punt. The main thing was to hold them and make them try to kick it out. We were sure to have good field position and plenty of time to score. We also had two timeouts left.”
But turnabout is fair play. After watching Alabama complete a trick play, Parseghian decided it was time for one of his own. Common sense said to run the ball – you don’t want to take a sack and a safety. This time, however, Parseghian called for a pass – a play-action pass, at that.
Irish backup sophomore receiver Robin Weber – who had caught one pass all year – ran past a defense expecting a run and was wide open along the Alabama sideline. The 35-yard-completion gave the Irish first down with less than two minutes to play.
“I had tackle shoulder pads, a lineman’s cage face mask, and I had never caught a pass from Tom Clements — not even warm-ups,” Weber said many years later. “I had never run the play in practice. I had never run any pass play in practice.”
“We got into a two-tight end set, a running set,” Clements recalled years later.
“It was a play where (tight end Dave) Casper was supposed to cross from one side of the field to the other, and he was the main target. But when I made the play-action fake and looked into the area where he was supposed to be, I noticed that (wide receiver) Robin Weber was running straight down the field.”
Notre Dame then proceeded to run out the clock and claim the 24-23 victory.
With six lead changes, and the outcome in doubt until the final minutes, the excitement proved to be too much for some people – Birmingham Post-Herald sportswriter Herb Kirby saw the game to the end, wrote his story, filed it to the paper — then died of a heart attack in the press box.
Some, however, didn’t ever view the game as an Alabama loss.
“I don’t think we got beat by Notre Dame,” Bryant said. “Time just ran out on us.”
“There were no losers on that field,” he said.
The Crimson Tide and Fighting Irish went on to play five more times in the next 14 years. Alabama won only once, in 1986.