Notre Dame continued its tradition of talented backfields in 1973, with a foursome that proved up to the challenge of leading the Irish to their ninth overall national championship. Taking their names among Notre Dame’s legendary stars, the 1973 team backfield included quarterback Tom Clements, halfbacks Art Best and Erick Penick, and fullback Wayne Bullock. The four combined to give Ara Parseghian’s Notre Dame team a balanced offensive attack that piled up an amazing 358-66 total points advantage during the regular season.
There two key games on the Irish schedule in 1973 were a mid-season matchup with USC and a season-ending game against Miami before the memorable Sugar Bowl clash with Alabama. Against USC, who came into South Bend ranked No. 6 in the country and with a 23-game winning streak, it was the Notre Dame defense that sparkled, holding Trojan running back Anthony Davis to just 55 yards on 19 carries. Penick rushed for 118 yards, 50 more than the entire USC offense and Notre Dame won, 23-14, pushing them to No. 5 in the national polls. The game against Miami turned out to be a total domination by the Irish, with Notre Dame winning 44-0, and setting the stage for the clash between No. 1-ranked Alabama and the third-ranked Irish in the Sugar Bowl at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans.
The “dream game” featured two powerful teams and schools with rich football traditions. Parseghian vs. Bear Bryant. It was a game for the ages and the teams did not disappoint. Notre Dame led 6-0 after the first quarter with the Irish defense stopping Alabama’s offense with zero total yards. The Tide offense rolled in the second quarter as they capitalized on a fumble recovery and covered 48 yards in seven plays to take a 7-6 lead. ND came roaring back on the ensuing kickoff as freshman Al Hunter raced 93 yards for a touchdown. The two-point conversion put the Irish back in the lead. A field goal by Alabama made it 14-10 at the half. An intense third quarter saw the Irish leading 21-17 and the fans on the edges of their seats for the final 15 minutes.
A trick play by Alabama resulted in The Tide regaining the lead, 23-21, but Alabama’s sure-footed kicker missed the point after, leaving them with a two-point lead with just under 10 minutes to go. Notre Dame took the ensuing kick off and marched 79 yards in 11 plays down to the Alabama 3-yard line. Alabama’s defense held and Notre Dame’s Bob Thomas, who had missed two earlier field goal attempts in the game, came on and nailed the ball through the goal posts to give the Irish the 24-23 lead. With just over four minutes to go, the dramatics were far from over. Notre Dame held Alabama and forced a punt, masterfully placed at the Notre Dame one yard line. If Notre Dame failed to make a first down, the Tide would most certainly have the ball back in excellent field position to make a game-winning drive. On a third-and-eight, with QB Clements dropping back to pass in his own end-zone, the Irish stunned the Tide and the crowd by throwing for a first down to tight end Robin Weber. The 35-yard-gain allowed Notre Dame to run out the clock and hand Parseghian his first perfect record. Not since 1949 had ND finished unbeaten and untied.