Dec. 31, 1973
NEW ORLEANS – It was to be a dream game.
Two undefeated, highly-ranked teams with long and storied gridiron traditions were set to battle for the national championship. It was billed as a classic confrontation – the game of the century.
The prognosticators’ predictions rang true as the 1973 Sugar Bowl saw Notre Dame emerge a 24-23 winner over Alabama in a thriller that saw the lead change hands six times.
Bob Thomas, who had missed two attempts earlier in the game, kicked a 19-yard field goal with 4:26 remaining to give the Fighting Irish and coach Ara Parseghian the one-point upset over top-rated Alabama. The win also clinched the national championship for Notre Dame which finished the season at 11-0.
The record crowd of 85,161 was treated to a pulsating battle that went to the wire. With three minutes to play, Alabama’s punting specialist, Greg Gantt, booted a 69-yard punt that backed up the Irish to their own one-yard line. However, Gantt was fouled on the play and Alabama was entitled to keep the ball with fourth down and five yards to go.
But Alabama’s Paul “Bear” Bryant elected to decline the penalty, hoping his defense could force an Irish turnover deep in their own territory. Moments later, Notre Dame quarterback Tom Clements rifled a pass to tight end Robin Weber at the 38 and secured the national championship.
The Irish opened the contest with a superb defensive effort that held the Tide without a yard gained in the first period. Led by Clements, who shot passes of 19, 26 and 14 yards to split end Pete Demmerle, the Irish offense drew first blood in the opening period. Fullback Wayne Bullock capped a 64-yard scoring drive with a six-yard gallop into the end zone.
Alabama’s thoroughbred backs made it out of the starting gate in the second period. They produced three long drives that resulted in a pair of scores – the first coming with 7:30 remaining. Randy Billingsley scored on a six-yard run and Bill Davis added the extra point that put Alabama up by one at 7-6.
On the ensuing kickoff, Notre Dame’s Al Hunter stunned the crowd with his dazzling 93-yard return, the longest in Sugar Bowl history. The Irish went for two and converted as Clements hit Demmerle in the end zone for a 14-7 Notre Dame lead.
Alabama moved deep into Notre Dame territory late in the second quarter, but had to settle for a 39-yard field goal by Davis.
At the start of the second half, Alabama marched 93 yards and took the lead on Wilbur Jackson’s five-yard scoring plunge. Again Notre Dame charged back, but a 54-yard field goal try by Thomas fell by the wayside.
Notre Dame excited the crowd again when linebacker Drew Mahalic recovered a Tide fumble in mid-air and took the ball to the Alabama 12-yard line. On the first play from scrimmage, Eric Penick dashed 12 yards for the score. Thomas’ kick gave the Irish a 21-17 lead.
Early in the fourth period, the game took a zany turn with three turnovers in 90 seconds. Alabama took charge and put in its own version of the razzle-dazzle. With the ball on the Notre Dame 25, secondstring quarterback Richard Todd handed off to halfback Mike Stock, then raced to the sidelines where he took a return pass from Stock and went in for the score. But Davis missed the conversion try and Bryant’s Tide, which hadn’t won a bowl game in its last four appearances, hung on to a slim two-point advantage.
Notre Dame then marched 79 yards in 11 plays. Strong runs by Hunter, Penick and Clements and a 30-yard pass from Clements to Dave Casper carried the drive to the Alabama 15-yard line. The Irish got to the three, but couldn’t get any closer when the call went to Thomas. This time he didn’t miss and the Irish had a 24-23 win.
Most Valuable Player
Tom Clements, Quarterback