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.
ND: Wayne Bullock 6-yard run (Kick failed), 5:51 (1st)
Ala: Randy Billingsley 6-yard run (Bill Davis kick), 10:10 (2nd)
ND: Al Hunter 93-yard kickoff return (Pete Demmarle pass from Clements), 7:17 (2nd)
Ala: Davis 39-yard field goal, 0:39 (2nd)
Ala: Wilbur Jackson 5-yard run (Davis kick), 11:02 (3rd)
ND: Eric Penick 12-yard run (Bob Thomas kick), 2:30 (3rd)
Ala: Richard Todd 25-yard pass from Mike Stock (Kick failed), 9:39 (4th)
ND: Thomas 19-yard field goal, 4:26 (4th)
ND: Wayne Bullock 19-79 TD; Tom Clements 15-74; Art Best 12-45
Ala: Wilbur Jackson 11-62 TD; Randy Billingsley 7-54 TD; Paul Spivery 11-44
ND: Tom Clements 7-12-0, 169 yards
Ala: Gary Rutledge 7-12-1, 88 yards; Mike Stock, 1-1-0, 25 yards, 1 TD
ND: Dave Casper 3-75; Pete Demmerle 3-59; Robin Weber 1-35
Ala: George Pugh 2-28; Wilbur Jackson 2-22; Richard Todd 1-25 TD
Miller-Digby Award recipient: Tom Clements, Notre Dame quarterback