Big Games: Irish, Alabama Have Had Their Share
Notre Dame and Alabama have played in many a “game of the century,” including the memorable first meeting of these two football powers in the Sugar Bowl, Dec. 31, 1973.
However, tomorrow’s duel between the undefeated Fighting Irish and the once beaten Crimson Tide in the penultimate BCS National Championship contest doesn’t come close to generating the hype necessary to be listed among those “games of the century.”
Compared to the 1925 and 1926 Rose Bowls, the 1946 Army-Notre Dame scoreless tie, or the 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State 10-10 tie, the BCS title game this winter hardly qualifies as one of those great attractions that get labeled “game of the century.”
Had it not been for the ridiculous NCAA punishment of Ohio State that banned the undefeated Buckeyes of 2012 from postseason play, there might have been a recreation of one “game of the century,” Notre Dame’s historic 18-13 upset of undefeated and No. 1 ranked Ohio State in 1935.
But the NCAA found it necessary to punish totally innocent current Buckeye players and coaches because a former head coach and some of his players, long gone from Ohio State, violated NCAA rules a few years ago.
Back in the 1920s there was only one postseason football game, the Rose Bowl.
Knute Rockne, in his seventh season as head coach of his alma mater, led Notre Dame through a 9-0 regular season in 1924 for the third of five undefeated seasons he produced in his 13 years as the Irish coach.
That was also the year that Grantland Rice established four Notre Dame seniors as the most famous backfield in college football history when he referred to them as “The Four Horsemen” in the lead paragraph of his New York Herald Tribune story of Notre Dame’s 13-7 victory over Army, Oct. 17, 1924, at New York City’s Polo Grounds.
Notre Dame accepted the invitation to meet coach Pop Warner’s undefeated but once tied Stanford team in the 11th Rose Bowl game, Jan. 1, 1925. That would be the finale for the Four Horsemen — quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, halfbacks Jim Crowley and Don Miller, and fullback Elmer Layden.
Stanford had its own outstanding back, Ernie Nevers. He played all 60 minutes of that Rose Bowl game and rushed for 114 yards, more than all of the Four Horsemen combined. But he also threw an interception that was costly to Stanford.
Those Four Horsemen did most of their damage against Stanford when they were on defense during the era when players went both ways playing offense and defense.
Layden intercepted two passes, returning the first 78 yards for a touchdown and the second 63 yards for a touchdown as Notre Dame went on to beat Stanford, 27-10, in what was described then as “the battle of the ages.” Years later it became just the first of those Notre Dame “games of the century.”
Following its big triumph in the Rose Bowl that established the Irish as the No. 1 team in the land for the 1924 season, Notre Dame reverted to a no-bowl policy for the next 45 years. This ended when the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh and the Rev. Edmund Joyce, president and executive vice president of the university, decided to allow the 1969 Fighting Irish to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl, a game Notre Dame lost.
Since then Notre Dame has played in 29 more bowl games and has a 15-16 bowl record. Tomorrow’s game is the first BCS title game for the Irish, who have not been ranked No. 1 in the nation since 1988.
Alabama became the first Southern team to play in the Rose Bowl when the Crimson Tide was supposed to be a push-over for the powerful, undefeated but once tied Washington team in the Jan. 1, 1926, Rose Bowl. After all, the Huskies had opened their season by beating Willamette, 108-0.
But coach Wallace Wade’s “hick farmers” from Tuscaloosa gave up only seven points all season en route to a 9-0 mark. Washington led 12-0 at the half. But those missed extra points proved to be the Huskies’ downfall.
One touchdown by Alabama’s quarterback, Pooley Hubert, and two pass receptions for touchdowns by Johnny Mack Brown were just enough for the Crimson Tide as Washington made only one more touchdown in the second half. That time the Huskies got the extra point. But Alabama made good on two of its three extra-point conversions to win, 20-19, in the biggest upset to that point in a dozen Rose Bowl games.
One of the Four Horsemen, Elmer Layden, was in his second season as the Notre Dame coach in 1935, just four years after his coach, the Norwegian-born Knute Rockne, was killed in an airplane crash in Kansas.
Despite being undefeated at 5-0, Coach Layden’s Fighting Irish were big underdogs facing the mighty Buckeyes of Ohio State (4-0) when they met in Columbus, Nov. 2, 1935.
Trailing, 13-12, with only two minutes remaining, Notre Dame recovered an Ohio State fumble on the Buckeyes’ 49. Then Andy Pilney ran 30 yards to the Ohio 19 and suffered a serious leg injury when tackled.
From there, Bill Shakespeare, not an English playwright but a fine Irish halfback, threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Wayne Millner for Notre Dame’s 18-13 triumph.
Unfortunately for the Irish, they were beaten by Northwestern the following week, ending Notre Dame’s hopes for the unofficial national title.
That game in Columbus was the first to be called “game of the century.” But the 1925 and 1926 Rose Bowl games were retroactively anointed as such by Notre Dame and Alabama publicists plus willing sports columnists as the accolade became standard procedure for many big games that followed.
The next “game of the century” took place Nov. 9, 1946, at Yankee Stadium when undefeated and No. 1 ranked Army, with Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard, faced off against undefeated and No. 2 Notre Dame, with Johnny Lujack and other returning veterans of World War II. It ended in a scoreless tie.
Twenty years later, following the biggest buildup to that point for such a game, Notre Dame went to East Lansing, Mich., Nov. 19, 1966, to battle Michigan State in another match between two undefeated teams ranked one and two in the nation. Coach Ara Parseghian’s Fighting Irish had to come from behind to tie the game at 10-10 with Joe Azzaro’s 28-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Then Parseghian, with a chance to win, turned this game into the most controversial big college football game in history.
With a minute and 10 seconds remaining and Notre Dame in possession on its own 30, Parseghian directed his team to run out the clock instead of going for broke to try and pick up 40 to 50 yards and get within field goal range. By doing so, Parseghian felt, correctly, Notre Dame would remain No. 1 and Michigan State No. 2 in the AP and UPI polls that decided the unofficial national championship in those days.
Meanwhile, down in Birmingham, Ala., coach Bear Bryant’s undefeated and third-ranked Crimson Tide trounced Auburn to complete a 10-0 regular season.
The following week Notre Dame whipped Southern California, 51-0, as Parseghian was accused of piling it on to assure Notre Dame of the final No. 1 ranking and thus the unofficial national title for 1966.
Notre Dame, Michigan State and Alabama finished one, two and three in the polls. This left Alabama and Michigan State folks quite angry, not to mention Southern California’s coach, John McCay, who was supposed to have said, “They’ll never beat us again.”
Notre Dame did not beat Southern Cal again until 1973.
The 40th Sugar Bowl game played New Year’s Eve of 1973 in Tulane Stadium was another “game of the century” involving two undefeated teams with two famous coaches — Bear Bryant leading No. 1 ranked Alabama and Ara Parseghian coaching No. 3 ranked Notre Dame.
Once again conversion placements and field goal attempts that were successful or missed decided a wild and exciting game between two fine teams.
In this case, Alabama’s Bill Davis missed on the extra point kick after Richard Todd scored the final touchdown of the game by a pass reception with 9:33 left in the game. As a result, the Crimson lead was only two points, not a safe margin against a strong foe and plenty of time remaining.
So it was that Bob Thomas booted the 19-yard field goal with 4:26 left for Notre Dame’s 24-23 triumph. And the Irish once again were voted No. 1 and unofficial national champions.
Alabama was favored to win that Sugar Bowl game in 1973 just as Alabama, ranked No. 2 today, is favored to beat No. 1 ranked Notre Dame tomorrow.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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