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December 2, 2012

ND-Bama: A championship renewed

Notre Dame had won national titles before. But the concept of playing in bowl games to win a championship was a foreign notion to the Irish at the time.

Notre Dame’s return to the bowl scene in 1970 after a 45-year hiatus brought the Irish into modern times. After losing to Texas in the Jan. 1, 1971 Cotton Bowl, Notre Dame returned to Dallas the following year and defeated the No. 1 Longhorns, 24-11, to end Texas’ 30-game winning streak. Nebraska and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers blew out the Irish in the Jan. 1, 1973 Orange Bowl.

Led by junior quarterback Tom Clements, the Irish strung together 10 straight victories during the ’73 regular season and ranked No. 3 when they were matched up with undefeated and No. 1-ranked Alabama on New Year’s Eve.

The Crimson Tide, coached by the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, was in the midst of one of the great runs in college football history. From 1971-75, Alabama won 54 games and lost six. Four of those losses came in bowl games, and two would come against Ara Parseghian and the Fighting Irish.

“At Notre Dame, football is a religion; at Alabama, it’s a way of life,” said ABC color commentator Howard Cosell, who was part of a three-man broadcast booth that also included play-by-play man Chris Schenkel and analyst Bud Wilkinson -- the legendary Oklahoma coach.

The 1973 Notre Dame squad boasted a thrashing-machine ground game. The Irish racked up an incomparable 350.2 yards rushing per game, marking the third time in six seasons that Notre Dame averaged better than 300 yards on the ground.

The match-up was tailor-made for the national championship. The Crimson Tide had allowed more than 14 points just once during the 1973 season. Tulane Stadium in New Orleans - pre-Superdome - served as the venue for the national title clash.

The game lived up to the hype. The lead changed hands six times. Neither team led by more than seven points. Alabama had negative yardage after the first quarter, but finished with 233 yards rushing. The Irish had to earn every one of their 257 yards rushing on 59 attempts.

The Irish capped a seven-play, 64-yard drive with a six-yard touchdown run by Wayne “The Train” Bullock with 3:19 left in the first quarter. Clements, who would complete just 7-of-12 passes on the evening, hooked up with receiver Pete Demmerle three times on the drive for 59 yards. The extra point attempt was missed due to a bad snap.

Alabama took the lead midway through the second quarter on a six-yard touchdown run by Randy Billingsley. But Notre Dame regained the advantage on the ensuing kickoff when freshman Al Hunter sprinted 93 yards untouched. Clements’ pass to Demmerle for the two-point conversion gave the Irish a 14-7 lead with 7:17 left in the second quarter. Alabama would pull to within 14-10 at halftime on Bill Davis’ 39-yard field goal with 39 seconds left.

Alabama regained the lead in the third quarter on an 11-play, 93-yard drive, capped by a Wilbur Jackson five-yard run. But Notre Dame was back on top, 21-17, with 2:30 left in the third quarter when the Irish converted a turnover into a 12-yard Eric Penick touchdown run.

The Tide turned to some razzle-dazzle for the fifth lead change of the game. Halfback Mike Stock hit back-up quarterback Richard Todd for a 25-yard touchdown. But Davis’ extra point failed, which would prove crucial.

Notre Dame marched 79 yards on 11 plays - inside the Crimson Tide five - before settling for a 19-yard Bob Thomas field goal (who had missed two earlier) and a 24-23 lead.

Bryant would make a critical decision after Greg Gantt’s 69-yard punt to the Irish one. Notre Dame ran into Gantt on the punt, which would have given the Tide a 4th-and-5 at their own 30. Bryant elected to let the punt stand and try to force the Irish into a return punt.

On 3rd-and-8 from the Irish three after a false start penalty, Clements wanted to hit tight end Dave Casper for the first down. But he was jostled off the line of scrimmage from the right side of the formation. Seldom-used tight end Robin Weber - attached left - got a clean release and caught Clements’ perfectly thrown pass for a 35-yard gain, and the Irish ran out the clock.

Thirty-nine years after Notre Dame and Alabama squared off for the first time with the national title at stake, the Irish and the Crimson Tide will do it again on Jan. 7 in Miami.

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