Notre Dame Overcomes Alabama, Odds to Win 1973 Sugar Bowl, AP National Title
By Florian Sohnke
While controversy often surrounded the awarding of college football’s mythical national title prior to the inauguration of the College Football Playoff system in 2015, it was virtually unheard of for a head-to-head match-up to result in a vanquished team rewarded a share of the crown after a bowl loss. On December 31, 1973, the number-one ranked Alabama Crimson Tide met number-three ranked Notre Dame in New Orleans at the Sugar Bowl to determine the 1973 championship. A game of “firsts,” the epic match-up was the first-ever meeting between the two dominant football powers; it was also the first meeting between legendary coaches, Alabama’s Paul Bryant and Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian.
One year removed from a 40-6 shellacking at the hands of Nebraska in the January 1,1973, Orange Bowl, little was expected of the Fighting Irish despite the fact the team posted an 11-0 record. In contrast, heavily favored Alabama had entered the game undefeated, posted four shutouts and had disposed of archrival Auburn 35-0 in the season finale.
Following days of intense thundershowers, the teams charged onto Tulane Stadium’s damp field to the roar of 85,000 fans amid constant threat of tornado warnings. Led by quarterback Tom Clements, Notre Dame’s offensive firepower consisted of running backs Wayne Bullock, Art Best, and Eric Penick and receivers Pete Demmerle and All-American tight end Dave Casper. Opposing Parseghian’s powerful Irish was the Crimson Tide’s quarterback Richard Todd, running back Wilbur Jackson and wideout Wayne Wheeler.
Starting on offense, Notre Dame scored on its first drive on a six-yard Bullock run, but missed the attempted conversion after a botched hold and witnessed Alabama respond on a Randy Billingsley score minutes later. Briefly nursing a 7-6 lead, the Tide’s kickoff fell into the hands of returner Al Hunter at the seven-yard line and, stunning the crowd, returned it 93 yards for a score. A two-point attempt was successful and following a Crimson Tide field goal, the Irish led at the half was 14-10.
Returning to the field to start the second half of play, Alabama drove down the field and scored on a five-yard run by Jackson to snatch the lead once again. Trading possessions, with under three minutes remaining in the third quarter, Alabama fumbled deep inside their territory and Notre Dame responded with a 12-yard Penick run to take the lead 21-17. Alabama would score on final time, this one on a trick play, and Notre Dame would respond with a 19-yard Bob Thomas field goal to give the Irish the lead, 24-23.
With four minutes remaining, Notre Dame would force Alabama to punt from the Tide’s 20-yard line. Despite leading by one point, the ball rolled to the Irish one and Notre Dame appeared doomed. As the Crimson Tide defense stiffened and held the Irish inside the five-yard line twice, a third and three turned into a third and eight from the three-yard line after a penalty as the clock continued to burn precious seconds. With Alabama and Bryant expecting a low-risk run play, in what would prove to be a pivotal coaching call and go down in football lore, Ara Parseghian called a pass designed for tight end Dave Casper.
Under a heavy Tide rush, Clements tossed a 35-yard pass from his end zone on third and eight to reserve tight end Robin Weber, who juggled the ball, but maintained control before stepping out of bounds on Alabama’s sideline. Removing himself from the soaked carpet, Weber was greeted by a furious Bryant, but jumped into the arms of jubilant Irish players before trotting off the field. The unexpected pass play injected new life into the Irish and Notre Dame managed one more first down to maintain possession, escape New Orleans with a win, and secure the 1973 National Title.
Bryant would later enter Notre Dame’s locker room to congratulate the Irish, their coaches, and Clements. The first of four confrontations with Notre Dame on the gridiron, Bryant would never defeat the Irish.
Despite the win, Notre Dame would only earn the backing of the Associated Press (AP) for recognition as national champions in 1973. The United Press International/Coaches Poll (UPI) had blessed the Crimson Tide with its crown at the conclusion of the regular season.
Follow the author on Twitter @FlorianSohnke.