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Notre Dame Football Throwback Thursday: Irish VS Alabama, 1973 Sugar Bowl

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Parseghian threw caution and pigskin to the wind.

University of Alabama Crimson Tide vs University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish
NEW ORLEANS, LA- DEC 31, 1973 : Ara Parsegian (right) head coach of the Notre Dame University Fighting Irish talks with University of Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant before the the 1973 Sugar Bowl at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, Louisiana on December 31, 1973. Notre Dame won 24-23.
Photo by Notre Dame/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

Here we are ... it’s playoff week. Notre Dame is headed to Dallas, Texas, to face the University of Alabama in the Rose Bowl. Only in 2020, right? This week I’m going to throwback to the December 31, 1973 match-up between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Alabama Crimson Tide. But before I begin, here are a few fun facts. Notre Dame and Alabama have played each other seven times with Notre Dame winning five times and Alabama winning twice. Notre Dame’s largest margin of victory was 37-6 in 1987, and Alabama’s largest margin of victory was 42-14 in 2013. Notre Dame’s longest win streak was four games (1973, 1975, 1976, 1980), and Alabama’s longest win streak was one game (2013).

A few more interesting tidbits about the two teams. Alabama has 17 national championships to Notre Dame’s 11. Alabama’s all time record is 927-331-43 (.729), which is third overall, and Notre Dame’s all time record is 918-328-42 (.729), which is fourth overall. Alabama’s bowl record is 41-26-3 (.607), which is 14th overall, and Notre Dame’s bowl record is 18-18-0 (.500), which is 42nd overall. Alabama has had 74 consensus All-Americans (6th overall), and Notre Dame has had 102 consensus All-Americans (1st overall). Alabama has spent 129 weeks in the number one spot on the AP poll (1st overall), and Notre Dame has spent 98 weeks in the number one spot on the AP poll (4th overall). Alabama has had 68 first round NFL draft picks (4th overall), and Notre Dame has had 69 first round NFL draft picks (3rd overall).

Notre Dame and Alabama met on December 31, 1973, in the 40th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic, which was played at Tulane Stadium (attendance 85,161). Notre Dame, coached by Ara Parseghian, was ranked No. 3 in the AP poll, and No. 4 in the coaches (UPI) poll, and headed into the game (10-0). Alabama, coached by Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, was ranked No. 1 in both polls, and was 11-0. The Crimson Tide entered the game as a 6 12 point favorite. The game was Alabama’s 15th consecutive bowl game, but their record in the previous six games was 0-5-1. It was Notre Dame’s first Sugar Bowl appearance, and only their fifth bowl game in program history.

There was no controversy, just jaw-dropping surprise.

The following excerpt, from Chris Dufresne’s LA Times article, shares Robin Weber’s memories of the game:

People to this day buy Robin Weber bar drinks.

“It’s been good for beer,” he joked in a recent phone interview.

On New Year’s Eve, 1973, a year after the scoop-for-score that made Franco Harris famous, Notre Dame executed its own “Immaculate Reception” to defeat Alabama for college football’s national championship.

The same programs will play for another title Monday night in South Florida.

The out-of-nowhere reception made by Weber four decades ago in New Orleans secured a 24-23 Sugar Bowl win and encased the game in football’s all-time time capsule.

There was no controversy, just jaw-dropping surprise.

Protecting a one-point lead late in the game, Notre Dame was backed against its own goal line facing third and long. Everyone expected Notre Dame to run the ball and punt. In 1966, Irish Coach Ara Parseghian had played conservatively in a 10-10 tie against Michigan State that cinched for Notre Dame the national title Alabama fans still think they deserved.

This time, though, in the rain at rickety old Tulane Stadium, Parseghian threw caution and pigskin to the wind.

The play was designed for star tight end Dave Casper but Weber, the second end in the set, had slipped wide open near the left sideline. Quarterback Tom Clements floated a perfect strike to Weber, who caught the ball in stride over his left shoulder for a 36-yard gain with 2:12 left.

Weber remembers running right past Alabama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. “He could have reached out and slapped the ball,” Weber said.

Weber fell out of bounds on the Alabama sideline, and found himself looking square into Bryant’s anguished, disgusted, defeated face.

“There are all these red helmets looking down on me,” Weber recalled. “And here comes Bryant, he’s mad. He’s very, very unhappy … but I knew it was checkmate.”

Weber’s catch allowed Notre Dame to run out the clock in one of college football’s epics.

The catch was Weber’s second of the season. The sophomore would be injured the next year and fade harmoniously into Notre Dame’s scrapbook. He runs a real estate business in Dallas that has a website with a link to “The Catch.”

The play almost never happened. Weber said he couldn’t believe Notre Dame would call a play that might remotely involve him.

“Holy crap,” Weber said he was thinking. “They want me to run a 40-yard flag route? I’ve run that in sandlot football, but other than that…”

Weber said he almost called time out, certain the Irish had the wrong personnel in the game.

“The unusual thing is, I had never caught a pass from Tom Clements,” Weber said.

Not even in practice?

“Ever,” he said.

The game endures as one of Notre Dame’s greatest and one of Alabama’s most painful.

It was the first meeting between college football’s most powerful pillars. Alabama had already been named national champion by coaches voting in a United Press International poll, which made a final determination before the bowls.

“It was North vs. South, No. 1 vs. No. 2, Ara vs. Bear,” recalled Mike Stock, Alabama’s halfback that night. “And then the game lived up to its hype. It’s amazing the shelf life of that game.”

Notre Dame could have earned an extra $100,000 playing in the Orange Bowl but opted for the undefeated matchup against the top-ranked Crimson Tide. The Irish were actually No. 3 in the polls behind No. 2 Oklahoma, which was ineligible for a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions.

“It’s doubtful that any college bowl game ever featured two teams with such an itch to get at one another,” Sports Illustrated reported. The setup could not have been more perfect. And the hurt on the losing end still penetrates.

Moving the chains was never more dramatic.

The following recap, from the Allstate Sugar Bowl website, gives an alternative look at the play that won the game for the Irish.

This play didn’t go for a touchdown, stop a touchdown, or lead to a touchdown – or points of any sort.

This was for a first down.

Moving the chains was never more dramatic.

With a national title on the line and time running out, a quarterback dropped into his own end zone and threw – to his second option, a receiver who hadn’t caught a pass all season. Football doesn’t get more theatrical than this.

Of the eight decades of the Sugar Bowl, and the thousands of plays run in that time, this one first down is indelibly etched into the chronicles of the game.

In a game charged with as much electricity as filled the New Orleans skies with a fierce thunderstorm hours earlier, there was a Sugar Bowl record 93-yard kickoff return by Notre Dame’s Al Hunter, and a 25-yard Alabama touchdown pass from quarterback Mike Stock to quarterback Richard Todd on a trick play that put the Crimson Tide in front 23-21 with 9:33 left in the fourth quarter. ‘Bama kicker Bill Davis missed the extra point attempt.

All the scoring ended with 4:12 remaining in the game when Notre Dame kicker Bob Thomas put the Irish ahead 24-23 with a 19-yard field goal.

A series after Thomas’ field goal, Greg Gantt boomed a punt that was downed at the Notre Dame 1-yard line with less than three minutes remaining.

The Irish faced third-and-six with 2:12 left. Coach Ara Parseghian told quarterback Tom Clements to go with a long count in hopes of drawing Alabama offsides. Instead, Irish tight end Dave Casper was the one who jumped, pushing Notre Dame back almost to the 2, and making the situation third-and-nine.

Parseghian gave Clements the next play, one which took the signal-caller aback. Parseghian called Power-I-right, tackle-trap-left. “There were two options on the play,” Parseghian said. “Clements could bootleg the ball around the left end to throw to Casper, the primary receiver, who would cross the middle of the field from right to left.”

“I do remember asking him, ‘Are you sure?’ ” Clements said. “He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s go.’”

Parseghian said decades later a pass out of his end zone wasn’t that much of a gamble. “Circumstances prevail there,” he said. “I knew we could get beat by a field goal if we didn’t maintain possession. Being so close to the goal line, we would have to punt out of our end zone. We tried to lead them into thinking we were going to run the ball by coming out in a two-tight end formation and a stacked backfield. We made it look conservative.”

Alabama fell for it.

“I was the outside linebacker on the play, and we were completely fooled by it,” said Mike Dubose, who later became head coach at Alabama. “It caught us off guard. Third-and-nine in 1973 wasn’t exactly the way it is now, as easy to pick up. In that situation in 1973, you’re thinking ‘Run.’ It was a great call on their part.”

Trouble was, the player who was supposed to catch the pass, Casper, got hung up in the middle of the field by the Tide defense, forcing Clements to look for his second option, Robin Weber, who hadn’t practiced in two days because of a knee injury and who hadn’t caught a single pass all season.

An Alabama defensive back, expecting the run, froze. Weber blew past him and suddenly was all alone. Cutting diagonally, Weber saw Clements let loose with the pass and thought, ‘Oh (bleep), this is one I better not miss.”

He didn’t, and Notre Dame had a new set of downs at the 38, from where the Irish were able to run out the clock.

Bryant said he missed the crucial play because he was busy getting the punt return team ready for the anticipated fourth-down kick.

“We were going to rush and try to block it,” said the Bear. “Two points would have won the game, or three on a field goal. When we had them backed up like that, if I had been a betting man, I would have bet anything we were going to win. . . I think Notre Dame is a great team. But I wouldn’t mind playing them again. In fact, I’d like that.”

This was a game of historical proportions. Two “national champions” came out of this Sugar Bowl, just as in the 1936 game between Texas Christian and Louisiana State.

The UPI poll continued to vote for its No. 1 team at the end of the regular season. This year it was Alabama. The AP, of course, voted after the bowls, and Notre Dame, as expected, leap-frogged Alabama in that ballot.

The embarrassment caused UPI to amend its practice the next season, while Alabama continues to proclaim its No. 1 standing in that poll, ignoring the defeat.

Still, more than three decades after it was played, Parseghian, whose team inflicted the only Sugar Bowl defeat of Bear Bryant’s career, assessed it by saying evenly: “There were no losers in that game.”

True enough. This was one for the ages.

Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

In the following YouTube video, head coach Ara Parseghian shared his memories from the game.

Want to watch the game in its entirety? Here you go!

Here come the Irish! Cheers ... and GO IRISH!