THE FIRST DANCE

December 10, 2012

ON DEC. 31, 1973, ARA PARSEGHIAN AND THE IRISH BEAT BEAR BRYANT AND THE TIDE 24--23 IN A SUGAR BOWL FOR THE AGES. THE TWO TEAMS COMBINED FOR 738 YARDS IN AN OFFENSIVE EXPLOSION THAT HINTED AT THE GAME'S FUTURE—AND YIELDED NOTRE DAME'S NINTH NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

From the SI Vault: Jan. 14, 1974

George Blanda, the wise old quarterback, said after watching the Alabama--Notre Dame Sugar Bowl on television that that was the way football ought to be played, "a great game, wide-open," and that by comparison the pro game is "getting dull." Blanda implied that to bring the pros to parity in excitement will require a greater infusion of passes, and in the wire-service dispatch that featured his views it was pointed out that even Ohio State's Woody Hayes, celebrated advocate of the flat football, ordered more passes than Miami threw in its AFC championship victory over Blanda's Oakland Raiders.

The fact is that college football is more exciting—most especially as played by teams like Notre Dame and Alabama—not because more passes are thrown but because its offenses are better conceived by more imaginative men. Men who dare to be different, who are not so wrapped up in precision and technical efficiency that they forget the name of the game is to make yards and points, not to keep from making mistakes.

If anything, the college game is more run-oriented than the pros. In the Sugar Bowl, where the ball seemed to be flying around all night, only 27 passes were thrown, fewer than in any of the six NFL playoff games over the two-weekend period. The reason the Sugar Bowl principals seemed so wild and woolly is that their offenses do not depend on flight alone to save them from tedium, and the wonders they performed in this showdown for the national championship made for drama and suspense no Super Bowl has come close to matching. Forty-seven points were scored (24 by Notre Dame), 43 first downs achieved and, most significant, 738 total yards accumulated against defenses that were the burly, beastly equal of any in college football. None of the pro playoff totals were close to that last figure. The average for the six playoff games was 557 yards, all teams basically doing the same thing, out of the so-called pro-set offense.

The most obvious difference in concept is that both Alabama, with its wishbone attack, and Notre Dame, with its multiplicity of sets and men-in-motion wing T stratagems, are four-back offenses. The halfbacks and the fullbacks run and catch and sometimes throw. Even the quarterbacks run. And sometimes catch. The pros are two-back offenses, with a passer. Period. And even when it came down to that nittiest of all the gritty moments over the bowl weekend, Notre Dame with its Irish up at its own goal in the 11th hour, there was one more surprise to be generated.

Bear Bryant said much later that Tom Clements's clinching third-and-eight pass from the end zone was not just a brilliant call but also came off a well-executed misdirection play in the backfield that further camouflaged Ara Parseghian's intentions. Two scoops for the price of one; surprise on top of surprise. "A great play," said Bryant.

The halfbacks and the fullbacks run and catch and sometimes throw. Even the quarterbacks run.

To Bryant, Clements's victory-sealing throw was the product of smart strategy and well-executed misdirection. "A great play," the Bear called it.

SI.COM

Read John Underwood's full examination of Notre Dame's win over Alabama in the classic 1973 Sugar Bowl at SI.com/mag

PHOTOPhotograph by RICH CLARKSONICED BOWL Late in the game, Clements (2) threw from his own end zone on third-and-eight to move the chains and ensure the Irish victory. PHOTOPhotograph by RICH CLARKSONTIMES WERE CHANGING Wilbur Jackson (80)—the first African-American offered a scholarship at Alabama—put the Tide up 17--14 with a five-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter, but the lead wouldn't hold up against a complex and creative Notre Dame attack. PHOTOAPA NEW TWIST The game took place in New Orleans, where Alabama punt returner Robin Cary (48) and everyone else battled a wet field and a chilly wind. Still, the conditions didn't inhibit the offenses, which combined for 27 passes—a staggering number for the time. PHOTOJOE RAYMOND/AP (COACHES)CLASH OF THE TITANS The larger-than-life pairing of Bryant (far left) and Parseghian set the stage for an instant classic, and after a tense, wild 60 minutes, halfback Greg Hill (22) and linebacker Gene Smith (75) were celebrating yet another Irish title.
PHOTO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)