Ara Parseghian had come to Notre Dame in 1964 and immediately revived a program that had suffered through a miserable two-win campaign in 1963. Over Ara’s first seven seasons in South Bend, he finished in the national top 10 every year and won a national title in 1966. There was some slippage in 1971 and 1972—five losses overall, including a 40-6 shellacking at the hands of Nebraska in the Orange Bowl game that ended the 1972 season. But the 1973 Notre Dame football team got back on top, going undefeated and winning Ara’s second national championship.
Tom Clements was a respectable quarterback and he would make one of college football’s great clutch throws before this season was over. Clements had one of the country’s top wide receivers in Pete Demmerle and a future NFL tight end in Dave Casper as his prime targets.
The running game was led by Wayne Bullock and Art Best, who ran for over 700 yards on the year. Eric Penick averaged nearly six yards a carry as the third option. They ran behind an offensive line anchored by second-time All-American guard Frank Pomarico and keyed an offense that ranked eighth in the country. The defense, with defensive back Mike Townsend a consensus All-American, was even better, ranking fourth nationally in points allowed.
Notre Dame opened the season at #8 in the polls and shut out lowly Northwestern 44-0 to open the season. They knocked off mediocre teams in Purdue and Michigan State, by scores of 20-7 and 14-10. A road trip to another mediocre opponent in Rice produced a 28-0 whitewash. A visit to face an winless Army team produced the expected 62-3 beatdown.
The Irish were unbeaten. They were also still untested, so that #8 national ranking had not changed. But USC, the defending national champion, and ranked #6, was coming to South Bend on October 27.
USC was more than a small thorn in Notre Dame’s side. The Irish had not beaten the Trojans since the championship season of 1966. A year earlier, USC running back Anthony Davis scored six touchdowns and inflicted Notre Dame’s most humiliating defeat of the Parseghian Era. Could the Irish finally get some payback?
A tight first half saw Notre Dame holding a 13-7 lead at intermission. But this year the Irish were the ones controlling the line of scrimmage. Davis would be held to 55 yards on 19 carries. Meanwhile, the Notre Dame ground attack was muscling up for what would end up a 316-yard afternoon. Penick raced for an 85-yard touchdown run. The Irish defense forced three turnovers in the fourth quarter that kept USC at arm’s length. With a 23-14 win, Notre Dame moved up to #5 in the polls.
A 44-7 beatdown of Navy a week later set up the Irish for a road trip to Pittsburgh. The Panthers were ranked #20. From the perspective of history, we know that head coach Johnny Majors had a history-making freshman class. It was a group that would win Pitt’s only national championship as seniors in 1976. And one of those players was a freshman running back already making an impact—a kid named Tony Dorsett.
Dorsett had a big day, and piled up 209 yards on the ground. On the Notre Dame side, Clement was playing hurt. Pitt moved the ball up and down the field. But the Irish defense was making opportune plays and getting key stops. Pitt was stopped on downs inside the 10-yard line once and fumbled deep their own territory twice. Notre Dame intercepted three passes. Meanwhile, Bullock rushed for four touchdowns. The decisive difference in mistakes led to a decisive number on the scoreboard—a 31-10 win for the Irish.
This was an era when mid-November was when bowls started locking up their games. Even with two games to play against respectable opponents in Air Force and Miami, the Irish accepted a bid to the Sugar Bowl, where #2 Alabama was waiting.
Notre Dame hosted Air Force on the Thursday prior to Thanksgiving and rolled to a 48-15 win. Alabama won their big showdown with LSU. Everything was almost in place for a national title battle at the Sugar Bowl. But there was still one more break needed—Ohio State was #1. On Saturday, the Buckeyes played Michigan to a 10-10 tie. The national championship door was open.
When the Irish closed the year by shutting out Miami 44-0, they were #3 in the polls. Alabama was #1. In between at #2 was Oklahoma…but the Sooners were on probation. The Sugar Bowl battle on New Year’s Eve would surely settle the national title.
Tulane Stadium was the host of the Sugar Bowl at this time and the game was worthy of the stakes. Notre Dame trailed 7-6 in the early going, having missed an extra point. Al Hunter returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown and a two-point conversion made up for the missed PAT. Getting that one point back would make all the difference, because as the back-and-forth joust continued, the Crimson Tide also missed an extra point—that they didn’t get back.
Even so, Notre Dame trailed 23-21 in the fourth quarter. Facing a 3rd-and-1 on the Alabama 45-yard line, Clement found Casper with a 15-yard pass. It set up a field goal with just under five minutes to play. The Irish defense held and forced a punt.
Notre Dame was closing in, but the Alabama punt backed the Irish up against their own goal line. It was 3rd-and-8 from their own 2-yard line. If it’s possible to have a lead in the final minutes, yet feel like you’re behind, this was that situation for the Irish. Everything was set up for Alabama to get the ball back already in field goal range.
Ara rolled the dice and called a deep pass that had Clement dropping deep into the end zone. It was an enormous risk that could easily have turned into an Alabama safety. But Clement found backup tight end Dave Weber down the left side line and dropped in a perfect throw for a 35-yard gain. Notre Dame had a fresh set of downs, they had field postion…and moments later, they had a national championship.
Parseghian would only coach one more season in South Bend, bur Dan Devine came on and kept the winning tradition alive. Four years later, in 1977, the Irish won it all again.