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Notre Dame’s 1973 National Championship

1972 had ended dismally. USC had thrashed our Fighting Irish 45-23. Anthony Davis, the first player who appeared in a Nike ad, scored six touchdowns to key the victory of the McKayMen. The salt-rubbing-in-wound LA Times ran a repetitive headline on its front page.

Davis, Davis, Davis
Davis, Davis, Davis

Well, at least it couldn’t get any worse! Wrong!

The Irish accepted an Orange Bowl bid to play Nebraska and Heisman Winner Johnny Rodgers. Rodgers ran wild and Nebraska won 40-6.

In the final two games, the Irish had been outscored by an average of 42-14, an ominous defeat margin in Irish lore.

MOVING ON

Nevertheless Ara and Pagna and Johnny Ray’s successor as defensive coordinator, Joe Yonto, busily prepared for Spring. The Irish defensive base had morphed from the 4-4-3 of ’66 to a 4-3-4.

Ara, with Niehaus having convinced him that freshman could start and star for the Irish, had recruited aggressively. They had harvested Defensive Lineman Ross Browner from Warren, Ohio, DB Luther Bradley from Muncie speedy RB Alphonse Hunter from Greenville, North Carolina, and DL Willie Fry from Memphis.

Tom Clements had shown promise as a soph starter at QB. He had some rough edges, but Pagna was at work smoothing them out. Pete Demmerle was a crafty receiver and Dave Casper, the greatest Foosball (the table game) player ever as evidenced by his exploits at Nickie’s, could block and catch at tight end. The OL was stout and there was the typical bevy of backs. Some wondered if Eric Penick, with his sprinter’s speed, would ever break through and bring magic to the Notre Dame gridiron.

The team looked good, but a burr remained under the saddle of every Notre Dame fan: How were we going to beat USC??? We hadn’t since ’66.

FRESHMEN ARE STARTING? ISN’T THAT A BAD SIGN?

August arrived and the incoming frosh caused quite a stir. Luther Bradly earned his starting spot at safety first. Shortly after, Ross Browner was named a starting defensive end. The coaches knew they had a playmaker on the DL. Al Hunter’s speed was as advertised. But just how could they use it?

FAST START

The Irish opened with Northwestern. From 1959-1974 there was a “Mortal Lock” in the Notre Dame-Northwestern game. You just had to pick the team with the raven-haired Ara Raoul Parseghian on its sideline. Ara never lost an ND-Northwestern game. Ross Browner, the wunderkind, blocked a punt, announcing his arrival, and the Irish shutout Northwestern 44-0.

The Irish handled Purdue, 20-7 in Ross-Ade, and returned home to defeat Michigan State 14-10 in a tight defensive struggle.
USC-The Sword of Damocles

As October ripened, the game with USC moved closer. McKay’s boys were trouncing everyone they played. Their quarterback, Pat Haden, was both smart and accurate. McKay’s son was a wide receiver, but the Trojan wide receiving star was the acrobatic Lynn Swann. The Trojans would be 6-0 and outscoring their opponents 145-65 when they arrived in South Bend.

Clements clearly had a better command of the offense. Wayne Bullock, Art Best and Eric Penick would all rush for more than
500 yards, but in Ara/Pagna style a total of 9 backs would rush for more than 100 yards. Pete Demmerle would be the leading receiver with 26 catches for 404 yards and 5 TDs and Dave Casper would grab 19 balls for 317 yards and 4 TDs. Some thought Robin Weber would be a factor, but he made just one catch for 11 yards.

The Offensive Line was powerful, Frank Pomarico, Gerry Dinardo, Center Mark Brennemann, and tackles Steve Neece and Steve Sylvester were an aggressive, well-oiled unit. The Irish traveled to Houston and shellacked Rice 28-0. The record was 4-0.

The defense had given up just 17 points in four games

The front line was Browner, Niehaus, Mike Fanning, a tall Oklahoman who was an outstanding wrestler, with Kevin Nosbusch as an effective third tackle, with Jim Stock as the other end. The linebackers were Collins, Potempa, Drew Mahalic, Smith. The defensive backfield was Tim Rudnick, Mike Townsend, Luther Bradley and Reggie Barnett.

The Irish then made one of college football’s most beautiful Autumn trips, playing Army at Michie Stadium in mid-October.
The Irish won 62-3. After 5 games. the irish were 5-0 and had outscored their foes 168-20. That was the good news. In other news, Southern Cal would be coming in on the 27th of October.

USC AND PENICKS DRAMATIC RUN

It was a rainy morning in Northern Indiana. Clad in rain gear, Irish fans filed into Notre Dame Stadium with a combination of Hunter Thompson’s famous “Fear and Loathing.”

Luther Bradley set the tone early, knocking Lynn Swann’s helmet off and ensuring that an early flare pass from Pat Haden was incomplete. There was nothing tentative about Bradley’s play style.

Bob Thomas kicked a field goal for a 3-0 Irish lead. Then that infernal Anthony Davis scored on a 1 yard run and Troy led
7-3. Davis did not have a good day rushing, being limited to just over 50 yards (it is strange but true that Davis never achieved 100 rushing yards in a game against. the Irish). Thomas got another field goal early inthe second stanza for a 7-6 deficit, then the Irish marched down the field late in the second quarter. You know how announcers, late in the second quarter often remark “And XYZ squad also receives the second half kickoff.” Keep that in mind. With 30 seconds left in 2Q, Clements dove into the end zone from 1 yard out, and Thomas’ conversion (PAT, not religious) gave the Irish a 13-7 lead. Irish fans chattered nervously at halftime, convening right there at the intersection of Bravado and Paranoia.

The Irish took the second half kickoff out to the 15 yard line. From there, Pagna called one of his beloved misdirection plays from the Wing-T. Positioned at right wing, Eric Penick turned and went left toward Clements who handed Eric the ball as he circled left. Penick got two perfect blocks from the Howard Beach duo, Pomarico and Dinardo and found an opening, evading the last Trojan facing him at the Irish 40. Time seemed to stop. It seemed as if something massive, a roar, had started at Angela Avenue and swept northward to and through the Stadium. It caught up with Penick about midfield
as two Trojan DBS were in tepid, but futile pursuit. The tsunami like roar swelled, peaked and thunderously crashed into the North stands and endzone as Penick completed his 85 yard touchdown jaunt.

Sometimes a touchdown is 6 points. And sometimes, like this one, it is release, catharsis, redemption and deliverance. Notre Dame now had a 20-7 lead and Penick had horsecollared momentum and dragged him over to the Irish sideline.

Haden hooked up with Swann for a touchdown later in the quarter to make it 20-14, but the Irish marched down for another
Bob Thomas field goal and the third quarter ended with the Irish up 23-14. The Irish defense smelled victory and stiffened in the scoreless fourth quarter. 23-14. We had beaten Southern Cal! and we had physically dominated USC, outrushing them by 316 yards to a mere 60.

OUT OF THE CARDINAL AND GOLD FRYING PAN INTO THE CRIMSON FIRE

And now, our true and next enemy revealed itself.

Down on the Capstone in Tusdaloosa, Bryant had fashioned a juggernaut. Alabama was scoring points at a torrid pace. They would outscore their 11 regular season foes 454-89, roughly 44-8. The Irish had a relatively easy remainder to the schedule: Navy Pittsburgh, Air force and the pre-Schnellenberger Miami..

Ohio State and Michigan were unbeaten, slouching toward a 10-10 tie in Ann Arbor. But it was the cache of Alabama-Notre Dame that captured the interest of the press and the publc.

The Irish mauled Navy 41-7 in South Bend. Staubach had beaten Notre Dame in ’63, but Ara had never lost to Navy, or any other academy, for that matter.

The Irish traveled to Pittsburgh to play a renewed Panther team under Coach Johnny Majors. The Irish handled business 31-10, but frosh running back Tony Dorsett caused the vaunted Irish defense a lot of problems. It would not be the last time.!

Air Force came in and was rolled by the irish 48-15.

Then the irish went to the Orange Bowl and shut out Miami 44-0 in a crisp, coldly efficient display. For the year, the 10-0 Irish had scored 358 points, and allowed the opposition just 66.

BRYANT FINALLY GETS TO PLAY NOTRE DAME

‘Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.”

Bryant had had a thing for Notre Dame since Frank Leahy reached down to Flaget High School in Louisville and recruited
Paul Hornung (and his caddy Sherrill Sipes) to play for the Irish. Bryant was over in Lexington coahing the Kentucky Wildcats football team and he was not pleased to lose the Commonwealth’s best player to Notre Dame. Hornung’s Heisman and Packer success were just daily salt rubs into Bryant’s wound.

Then, in 1966, Bryant wanted a shot at Michigan State or Notre Dame.

But the mist cleared and it would be Alabama versus Notre Dame in “neutral” New Orleans. At venerable Tulane Stadium,
the original Sugar Bowl. The Superdome was well under construction, but this would game would be held New Year’s Eve in the storied venue.

The entire state of Alabama and most of the Confederacy was eager for this matchup. The Atlanta Journal Consitutiion had said it covers the news
“like the dew covers Dixie,” and most of the Southern newspapers followed suit.

The Tide were led by three All-Americans, wide receiver Wayne Wheeler, guard Buddy Brown, and linebacker Woody Lowe.
Bryant shared Parseghian’s preference for using a bevy of running backs, and he even had a former Elkhart Blue Blazer, Mike Stock
in his stable.

DON’T SLEEP ON ARA

Ara Parseghian was judicious in his commentary before the game. But something special burned within him. His first championship in 1966 had been won BEFORE Notre Dame lifted the 45 year bowl ban in 1969. Ara’s 1966 glory was tempered by having to explain his late play calling. Ara was polite, but didn’t like such explanations. He preferred to coach his team and win football games. The more Alabama and its constituencies crowed, the more Ara smoldered and transferred that constant heat to his team.

In South Bend there was a popular bumper sticker and t-shirt: “there will be no Crimson Tide where the River Shannon flows.”

NOTRE DAME VERSUS ALABAMA

The Irish got off to a great start with an early first quarter drive which ended with triphammer fullback Wayne Bullock
Bullocking the last yard for the touchdown. But reliable Bob Thomas missed the PAT so Notre Dame led, but only by 6-0.

The Irish defense held Bama to negative total yardage in the first quarter, but midway through the second quarter, the Tide completed a seven play, 52 yard drive on Randy Billingsley’s 6 yard run, converted and led 7-6.

Then, one of Ara’s prize freshmen made a big play. On the ensuing kickoff Al Hunter made the first man miss, dodged another, broke into the clear at his own 40 and galloped past the stunned Crimson tide for the 93 yard touchdown. Clements floated a pass to Pete Demmerle for the two point conversion and the Irish led 14-7. Alabama mustered the last score of the half, a Bill Davis field goal from 39 yards to close the gap to ND 14- Alabama 10.

Irish and Bama fans circled each other warily on the Tulane Stadium concourses at half time. The game was see-sawing, and meeting the buildup. Which coaching genius would make the right second half adjustments?

Bryant appeared to as the Tide took the second half kickoff and ground out 97 yards on 11 plays, with Wilbur Jackson streaking into the end zone from 5 yards out for a 17-14 Alabama lead. After a fumble recovery by Drew Mahalic, Eric Penick, the hero of the SC game, burst in from 12 yards out to give the Irish the upper end of the see-saw, 21-17 late in the thrid quarter.

Then, with just over 9 minutes left and the ball on the Irish 26, Bear tried a trick play and had Elkhart’s Mike Stock execute a throwback pass to Richard Todd for the touchdown which gave the Tide a 23-21 lead, but Bill Davis missed the extra point.

The Irish then took the ensuing kickoff and Parseghian and Pagna went to work, crafting an epic 11 play, 79 yard masterpiece of a drive that led to Bob Thomas’ go ahead field goal: Notre Dame 24, Alabama 23.

The Tide fans roared and with the Irish pinned back in their own territory with just over two minutes left, thought their comeback was inevitable. When Dave Casper jumped offside on third down it backed the Irish up inside their own five yard line. Well, Parseghian knew about audacity, and while he loved his defense, preferred to keep the ball in his offense’s hand. Clements faded back into the end zone and seeing primary target Casper covered, he made the progression to Robin Weber, he of the one regular season catch. The ball floated through the misty Big Easy night and hit Weber in the hands for a 38 yard first down. The Irish had the fresh set of downs at their own 40 with just 1:56 left. And the Crimson tide were beaten, 24-23. Bear was denied, as he would be thrice more against the Irish, before he left this mortal orb.

The Irish running attack amassed 252 rushing yards against Alabama. The Tide ran for 192 against the Irish. This was a large yield for the ND defense, but the irish still won the ground game by 60 yards. Rutledge, Todd and Stock completed 10 passes for 127 yards, Clements more efficient with 7 completions for 167 yards. Notre Dame had out-gained Alabama, Ara had outgained Bear, by 100 yards.

Irish fans made their way to the Vieux Carre and enjoyed the glow and the Hurricanes until they gobbled down beignets with the sun peaking over the Mississippi.

Ara had his second in the tenth year of the era of Ara. It was good to be Irish!

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