Before the long-awaited game down in the bayou country of Louisiana, Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian had tended to shrug off all those horror stories about what often happens to a visiting team in that hellhole known as Tiger Stadium. In his usual cool, analytical way, Parseghian pointed out that the Irish played in front of large, hostile crowds wherever they went, so he did not see any reason why LSU at home should be any worse than, say, Texas in the Cotton Bowl or USC in the Los Angeles Coliseum. After all, remember, this was Notre Dame—worldly Notre Dame—not some giddy little team that was apt to fall apart at the first chant of "Tiger bait, Tiger bait."
When Parseghian expressed these sentiments shortly after arriving in Baton Rouge, some felt he was grossly underestimating the spirit with which the bayou country—and the LSU team—was approaching Notre Dame. To understand that you first must know that there are almost as many Catholics in southern Louisiana as there are LSU fans, and many of them are included in the Tigers' large, hysterical following. Also, more than a few of LSU's players came from high schools with names like Baton Rouge Catholic, Shreveport Jesuit and even Notre Dame of Crowley. Some had come to LSU four years ago just for the chance to play against Notre Dame. And so, since the Irish had edged LSU 3-0 last year in a memorable defensive struggle at South Bend, it was safe to assume that the Tigers and their fans were spoiling for a chance to get even on their own turf, before a national TV audience. As early as last summer all tickets were gone and bumper stickers inscribed GO TO HELL, NOTRE DAME could be found all around the LSU campus.
The excitement and anticipation hadn't abated a bit last week, even though both teams had long since lost a chance for top national ranking or a major bowl bid. The Irish had been defeated only once, by USC 28-14, but in this year of ultra unbeaten teams, that one disaster was enough to relegate them to the lower reaches of the top 10 and out of the bowl scouts' hearts. So rather than play in, say, the Gator Bowl, the Notre Dame players last week voted not to accept any bids.
Meanwhile, LSU, with a 6-3 record, was poised to accept a bid from the Sun Bowl in El Paso and thankful to get even that. All season the Tigers had been plagued by misfortune and stretches of ineptness. First, Colorado upset them at home in their opener. Then, in the second game, Tommy Casanova, the tall, handsome All-America cornerback, was sidelined with a hamstring injury. An expert runner, defender and punt re-turner, Casanova was considered a strong Heisman candidate, perhaps the best all-round athlete in college football. With Casanova out of the lineup, the Tigers were upset by Ole Miss 24-22. The next week he was back, but playing at less than full speed, and Alabama beat the Tigers 14-7. Since this was LSU's second home loss of the year, maybe Parseghian had reason to think that Tiger Stadium was just another bowl of concrete and steel.
November 29, 1971
But Casanova was fit and ready for the Irish, and everyone was looking forward to his duel with Tom Gatewood, Notre Dame's brilliant split end. Last year Casanova held Gatewood to only 21 yards on four receptions. Unfortunately, some people remembered that less than his missed interception late in the game that paved the way for Notre Dame's winning field goal. "It was right in my hands," said Casanova, nervously cracking his knuckles as he recalled the incident again. "I've made that catch 100 times since then."
Everything finally came to a head on a chilly Saturday night. By kickoff time the 68,000 fans had worked themselves into a howling frenzy that was excessive even by Tiger Stadium standards. The Irish went nowhere on their first possession and punted to LSU at the Tiger 23. A murmur went through the crowd when junior Bert Jones trotted out to run the offense, because Jones had not started a game since LSU's opening loss. But he still was LSU's best passer and Coach Charlie McClendon felt that if the Tigers could not run against Notre Dame's fearsome defense, perhaps they could throw. After a six-yard gain by Art Cantrelle, Jones went to the air and—behind excellent protection that was to hold up most of the game—he hit Split Back Andy Hamilton, his good friend and first cousin, for 36 yards and a first down on the Notre Dame 35. Three plays later Hamilton, LSU's alltime leading receiver, slipped behind Notre Dame's zone coverage again and once more Jones found him. Taking the pass without breaking stride, Hamilton sauntered into the end zone and it was 7-0 LSU with less than three minutes gone.
The next time the Tigers had the ball, however, Jones fumbled and End Fred Swendsen recovered for the Irish at the LSU 36. What followed was one of those magical things that happen to teams in Tiger Stadium. Sophomore Quarterback Cliff Brown quickly moved the Irish to the one-inch line but on fourth down Andy Huff was stopped and thrown back by the left side of LSU's defensive line. Ever heard 68,000 people scream at once? On the sideline, Parseghian's face wrinkled into a painful frown. The Cotton Bowl was never like this.
In the second quarter Notre Dame threatened twice more but each time LSU pushed the Irish back. On a fourth and one at the Tiger 10 Brown was thrown for a loss by Cornerback Norm Hodgins. And later, with a fourth and one at the LSU three, Brown's intended pass to Larry Parker was just beyond his outstretched arms. By this time the crowd was delirious, but there was more to come. With only 1:30 left in the half, LSU's Warren Capone intercepted a Brown pass and returned to the Irish 32. On the next play Jones dropped back and had enough time to pump twice before hitting cousin Andy wide open at the Irish 15. Hamilton strolled leisurely into the end zone and LSU went to the dressing room with a 14-0 lead.
After that it was strictly an Irish debacle. Late in the third quarter, Hodgins recovered a Brown fumble for LSU and six plays later Jones, who is not supposed to be a runner, went off left tackle for the touchdown that blew the game open.
The Tigers lost their shutout in the last period when Gatewood leaped high to take a pass from Brown just over the straining fingertips of Casanova. But overall Tommy won their duel. That pass was one of seven Gatewood caught all night, but the only one off Casanova in one-on-one situations. And early in the last quarter Casanova had made a circus interception, leaping in front of Gatewood in the end zone for a one-handed catch.
Right after Notre Dame's touchdown, the Tigers drove back to score again with only 20 seconds left in the game. The clincher was a 13-yard pass from Paul Lyons to Hamilton, who once more had managed to get away from Notre Dame's Clarence Ellis. The extra point made the score 28-8, Parseghian's worst loss as Notre Dame coach. As the game ended, a swarm of Cajuns mobbed their team, stripping Jones and Hamilton of their jerseys.
In his office, amid all sorts of stuffed tigers and Tiger portraits, McClendon was jubilant as he accepted congratulations. "Man, we stopped everything that Notre Dame had going for 'em," he said. "We were the first team to score against them in the second half. We wanted to do that. It kind of got to be an obsession with us."
Over in a quiet Notre Dame dressing room Parseghian stubbornly insisted that the "tremendous crowd noise had no effect on me or my players." When that was reported to McClendon, the potato-faced coach winked. "Well, I'll bet they never played in a place where the fans are so close up," he said. "And where they are so, uh, en-thu-si-as-tic."
He didn't get any takers.