14 Saturdays: 1973 Sugar Bowl Version

1972 would see USC win the national championship again and Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers won the Heisman Trophy.

But, I am skipping ahead to 1973 to the next Game of the Century.

In 1973, I discovered how deprived I had been when our family finally got a color television set. Looking at my large screen television set right now makes me think I would probably want to kick that first television set now. But, at the time, it was like we had finally made it to the country club and it was a whole new world I had entered.

1973 Cuda

1973 would be the year that America said goodbye to the American made muscle cars.

Sorry to my Corvette loving friends but they ruined every other American made car in 1974. Chevy, Ford, and Mopar, all gone.

1973 was my first football season in color and what a season it was.

John Cappelletti  won the Heisman Trophy and gave maybe the most touching Heisman speech ever winning the trophy giving honor to his little brother Joey who was dying at the time.

Ohio State and Michigan met and played to a 10-10 tie. Ohio State had been #1 at the time and would have been national champs if not for being moved way up in the polls. I never understood that. Ohio State, after tying Michigan trounced USC in the Rose Bowl. Michigan was unable to go to a bowl game because only the winners of the Pac 8 and the Big 10 went to bowls back in those years.

The Buckeyes finished 10-0-1. Michigan also finished 10-0-1 but couldn’t even go to a bowl. Penn State finished 12-0 and out of the running. Oklahoma finished at 10-0-1 but was on probation and didn’t go to a bowl.

Even Miami of Ohio went undefeated and beat Florida 16-7 in the Tangerine Bowl. That is an amazing feat in itself.

 

December 31st, 1973, the new #1 Alabama,  also undefeated at 11-0, would face off against #2 Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. The Irish were 10-0 going in and some other polls had the Irish ranked as highly as #4.

I don’t remember another season with 7 teams finishing undefeated. After the last bowl game had been played, there were still 6 undefeated teams. That hasn’t happened before or after the 1973 season. Just amazing.

The 1973 version of the Game of the Century was much like the 1971 version and lived up to the hype. This game actually had more time for build up than any regular season game since it was a bowl game and it was a thriller.

Alabama had Richard Todd at QB who was sort of billed as the second coming of Joe Namath in my memory. Like Namath, Todd also spent some time playing for the NY Jets and he sort of looked like Namath. But, Todd was not even the starting QB for the Crimson Tide. Just a talented guy that shared playing time at the position.

 

Running Back Wilbur Jackson who played for the 49ers and the Redskins. Wilbur Jackson was the first black player offered a scholarship by Alabama. Woodrow Lowe at LB, Sylvester Croom at Center who would later become the first black coach in the SEC. These guys  were pioneers at Alabama and that seems like a life time ago.

Mike Riley was a reserve Defensive Back and would go on to coach the San Diego Chargers and is now the head coach at Oregon State.

 

Notre Dame had Tom Clements at QB. Clements played many years as a back up in the NFL and in the CFL and is now the Offensive Coordinator for the Green Bay Packers.

One of the all time great NFL Tight Ends, Dave Casper, was on that team. Greg Collins was an AA LB for the Irish and played in the NFL a few years but is more recognizable for his Hollywood movie roles. Steve Niehaus played DT for the Irish and was the 1st draft pick ever taken by the Expansion Seattle Seahawks. That should be a sports trivia question. He had a sensational rookie season and still holds the rookie sack record for Seattle and then tore up his knee. Mike Fanning was another DT on that team drafted in the 1st round by the Rams. He played a number of seasons in the NFL mostly with the LA Rams.

Ross Browner was a true freshman and an obvious future star. Browner had a great career with the Cincinnati Bengals.

 

The Sugar Bowl game was played in old Tulane Stadium and there was obviously no dome in those days. The Super Dome would not be built until 1975. It was wet and nasty and people were sliding all over the place.

Alabama’s version of the  Wishbone offense lacked the speed of the Oklahoma versions and wasn’t quite as impressive. But, it did work in it’s day. Alabama in those years was much like the SEC teams of today in that they played great defense and used a ball control offense to control the clock and the game.

 

Notre Dame scored first with the passing game moving them down the field, then Wayne Bullock scored from the 1 to go up 6-0.

 

Notre dame missed the first extra point because of bad snap. The Tide stormed back and scored with a 6 yard TD run by Randy Billingsley, and made their extra point to go up 7-6.

 

The next Kick off would be returned all the way by Notre Dame’s Al Hunter. Irish went up 12-7 but went for 2. Pete Demmerle who had a big hand in the outcome of this game, was wide open in the End zone. Irish went up 14-7.

 

Alabama started Gary Rutledge at QB but replaced him with Richard Todd. Todd was maybe a better  athlete and a nice change of pace and he led them down the field  for a Field Goal to make it 14-10.

Notre Dame missed a FG to end the half. 14-10 at half time, with the Irish still up.

 

The 3rd quarter would see Bama drive it down the field and score a TD with Wilbur Jackson going over. 17-14 Alabama with taking the lead. Gary Rutledge was back at QB in place of Richard Todd.

1 turnover each in the first half, but the second half was messy.  Alabama started dominating a little in the 3rd until they fumbled which was recovered by Notre Dame. Momentum change again as Notre Dame  had the ball at the Bama 12. First play from scrimmage Eric Penick had a 12 yard run through a wide open hole to take the Irish back up, 21-17.

Irish were set to take control of the game when  Art Best for the Irish had a big run and they run the play again and he fumbled. Momentum was set to turn again.

But, Bama’s Gary Rutledge threw a long interception on the very next play. Then, the Irish fumbled it right back. This was one wet and sloppy game.

Alabama now had the field advantage after the series of fumbles.

Bama ran a trick play that would forever be famous. Mike Stock threw a half back pass back to Richard  Todd who was all alone and he took it the distance for a TD. Bama went up 23-21 and missed the extra point which was huge to the ending of this game. There was no overtime back in those days and a tie would have been very unsatisfying for everyone if they had made the extra point

 

Irish drove it down with a great pass play from Tom Clements to Dave Casper. Casper really didn’t do that much at South Bend but he was big during this game with a super catch which foreshadowed what he would turn out to be in the NFL. He had a huge block on a TD run and then this nice catch. Clements, of course, was the game’s MVP but Casper had a big game that night.

 

A few years down the road, Notre Dame’s Dave Casper and Alabama’s Kenny ‘The Snake’ Stabler would team up to be one of the NFL’s more deadly combinations.

 

Bob Thomas kicked a 19 yard Field Goal that barely made it through the uprights to put the Irish up, 24-23. Noticeable during this game was Thomas was a soccer style kicker and Bill Davis for Alabama was an old school straight kicker. Soccer style had not taken the game over completely as of 1973. Incidentally, it was the straight kicker that missed the extra point later that would cost the game essentially.Could have happened to anyone, but I am sure that Bill Davis has had to deal with that missed kick his entire life and Bama fans don’t forget.

 

The Wishbone offense was a great one for a few years but later games would badly expose the offense as one that was very difficult to mount a comeback with. That, and I believe increased speed on the defense would end the days of the bone. Defenses just didn’t have the over all speed back in those days. Bama found itself in the strange position to have to mount a comeback with an offense that was not ideally suited for that situation.

 

The great Ross Browner, just a freshman in 1973, sacked Rutledge to end a possible come back by Bama and forced a punt. With 3 minutes left in the game, the Crimson Tide punted the ball.

 

What happened next was one of the most disturbing plays I have ever witnessed. Bear Bryant played the field position gamble figuring his defense could stop Notre Dame and the Irish wouldn’t throw the ball to get a first down to try and run down the clock.

On the Bama punt, the Irish roughed the punter. The possible bonehead play of the century in a game of the century. However, the penalty was declined. As long as I can remember the roughing the punter penalty has come with an automatic first down.

The punter, in the game of the century came up with one of the punts of the century and the Tide downed the ball inside the Irish 1 yard line.  It’s easy being an arm chair quarterback or coach, but at the time the Bear probably made the right decision.

 

The Bear figured he could stop them and force a punt and get better field position. As expected, the Irish tried running the ball for 2 plays.

3rd and 5 for the Irish on about the 6.

Casper who had been brilliant, jumped before the snap and it was half the distance to the goal for the Irish. Clements then in a move that  surprised the entire country dropped back and hits totally unknown Tight End Robert Weber on a deep pass. They said it was his first catch of the entire season, but he actually had one catch earlier.

Of all of the plays of the entire game during this back and forth battle this play would go down as the play of all plays. This would basically end any shot that the Crimson Tide had of a come back.

 

The game  ended to the sound  of the Notre Dame fight song.

 

This really was one of the best games of the last century.  Irish fans still celebrate it and Tide fans still are upset over it. I personally was for the Tide at the time, but I love both of these schools because of their history and their passion for the game of football that I love so much.

As a fan of college football, this one is a great and fun game to remember and a true Game of the Century candidate.

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