Friday, December 13, 2002
1973 - Notre Dame 24, Alabama 23
By Dan O'Sullivan
In this age of endless media hype, it seems that college football has a "Game of the Century" every few years.
Just two years ago, Florida faced Florida State for bragging rights of the Sunshine State. In 1991, another intrastate summit pitted Miami against Florida State. Eight years earlier, Penn State clashed with Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. And so on.
1973's Game of the Century was the Alabama-Notre Dame Sugar Bowl.
The two storied programs met for the first time at New Orleans' Tulane Stadium, where the Sugar Bowl was held until 1975. It was the perfect match-up. Both Alabama and Notre Dame had histories sprinkled with national championships, All-Americans and Heisman Trophy winners. Both had legendary coaches leading them into battle: Paul "Bear" Bryant for the Crimson Tide and Ara Parseghian for the Fighting Irish.
Most enticingly, both teams had gone undefeated during the regular season. Alabama came to the Big Easy with the No. 1 ranking from the AP and UPI, while Notre Dame sat in the top four of both polls.
Quarterback Tom Clements, whose collegiate career fell between those of Joe Theismann and Joe Montana, headed the Irish offense. The junior signal-caller carried with him the historical burdens of quarterbacking greatness and championship expectations at South Bend. And yet, he remembers anticipating the New Year's Eve tilt with great eagerness rather than anxiety.
"It was the kind of game you want to play in," Clements said recently. "That's why kids go to schools like Notre Dame, Alabama and Southern Cal. It's because they want to have the opportunity to play in games with a lot of meaning, games where potentially you could win a national championship."
As game time approached, the artificial turf at Tulane Stadium was soggy and slippery. Fortunately, the competition on the field belied the less-than-ideal conditions.
The Irish defense set the tone early, holding 'Bama to negative yardage in the first quarter. ND's Al Hunter highlighted the second quarter with a 93-yard kickoff return for a score, as Parseghian's squad took a 14-10 advantage to the locker room.
Clements said he and his teammates appreciated Parseghian's ability to guide them through big games.
"(Parseghian) paid great attention to detail, was a great motivator, and we knew that sometimes we would get beaten physically, but we wouldn't get beaten by X's and O's," said Clements. "We felt very confident that if we listened to him and executed, everything would turn out OK."
In the third quarter, the two teams exchanged touchdowns. Alabama pulled a trick play early in the fourth, when halfback Mike Stock hit second-string quarterback Richard Todd with a 25-yard scoring strike. The touchdown gave the Tide a 23-21 lead, but kicker Bill Davis failed to make the extra point. The miss proved to be critical.
On its next drive, Notre Dame answered with a field goal to go ahead 24-23 with 4:26 remaining. It was the sixth lead change of the game. Alabama was forced to punt on its succeeding drive, and punter Greg Gantt boomed a 69-yarder that pinned the Irish on their own 2-yard line with 3:00 on the clock. Gantt was roughed up on the play, but Bryant declined the penalty (which would have given 'Bama a fourth-and-five) in hopes that his defense could create a turnover.
The ND offense got nowhere on the next two plays. Rather than playing it safe on third and long - by running to set up a punt - Parseghian called for a pass play.
"We got into a two-tight end set, a running set," recalled Clements. "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."
Clements hit Weber with a 36-yard pass that brought Notre Dame out of danger with 2:12 left, and the Crimson Tide were all but finished. The 24-23 victory propelled Notre Dame to No. 1 in the AP poll (the final UPI poll came out before the bowl games), while Alabama finished at No. 4.
Clements went on to have a long, successful career in the Canadian Football League and now coaches quarterbacks for the New Orleans Saints. Twenty-five years later, he still delights in looking back on his championship season.
"It's a great memory and obviously a great accomplishment," said the 1973 Sugar Bowl MVP. "There's a great number of kids who play college football, and only a very small percentage who have the opportunity to play on a national championship (team). It's not easy to win one, and when you're fortunate enough to win one, you remember it for the rest of your life."