It Came Up Oranges For The Irish In Ara’s Last Game

1975_Notre_Dame_vs_Alabama_(Orange_Bowl)For the second straight year, unbeaten Alabama faced Notre Dame on New Year’s Day, with their national championship hopes on the line.

In the 1974 Sugar Bowl, the two teams came into the game with identical perfect records, and the Irish pulled out a dramatic 24-23 win to capture the No. 1 position. So when the Tide arrived in Miami for what proved to be an historic rematch, it had one big thought on its mind: Revenge.

The Irish, meanwhile, had another fine season, but an upset at the hands of Purdue and a second-half meltdown against Southern Cal in the regular season finale took them out of the championship picture. But with only those two losses on their record, coach Ara Parseghian’s South Bend eleven was looking to give him a rousing going away present in what was to be his final game.

And as it turned out, the ninth-ranked Irish totally dominated the crucial first half, building a 13-3 lead on the strength of a stalwart defense, a fumbled punt, and a penalty that enabled them to keep a second quarter drive alive for what proved to be the winning touchdown. The Tide rallied in the second half and put a plug in the Notre Dame offense, and a dramatic 48-yard catch and run from Richard Todd to Russ Schamun along with a two-point conversion brought them within two points with 3:13 to play in the fourth quarter.

But after the Tide’s defense forced a three and out and gave Todd a chance for a last minute miracle, his errant pass from the Notre Dame 38 was picked off by defensive back Reggie Barnett, and with but 68 seconds remaining on the clock the Tide’s fate was sealed.

Call it the luck of the Irish or the Bama Bowl Curse, but the result was the same, in one of the great Orange Bowl classics of the ages.

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When Charlie Way Showed Nittany Lions The Way To Victory

Long before either Penn State or Nebraska joined the Big 10 to make it a de facto Big 12, the independent Nittany Lions met the Big 6 Cornhuskers 11 times, going back to the days of train travel, leather helmets and exclusively male cheerleaders.

At their first meeting in 1920, the Cornhuskers were playing their second game in the East within five days, with the first one being a most unusual game against Rutgers that was played on Tuesday, November 2nd, the day of Warren Harding’s election to the presidency. After the Nebraskans easily disposed of the Scarlet Knights in a game that was played in the New York Giants’ Polo Grounds, they trundled up into the hills of western Pennsylvania to try to extend their luck against the unbeaten and increasingly powerful Nittany Lions, who’d steamrollered their first six opponents by a combined score of 232-28.

Although the “fast and heavy” Cornhuskers brought their full strength and speed to Happy Valley, they had no answer for the Nittany Lions’ diminutive ball of energy who went by the name of Charlie Way. Standing but 5-feet-8 and tipping the scales at a mere 144 pounds, the All-American halfback was held out by coach Hugo Bezdek until the fourth quarter, either to preserve his energy or to produce a timely element of surprise. But once he entered the fray, he showed the Cornhuskers the reason for his credentials.

On his first carry, Way weaved his way off tackle to a 55-yard touchdown gallop. When Penn State’s defense forced a Nebraska punt, Way slipped through the Cornhuskers’ right tackle, and kept on going 57 yards for the score that put the game on ice. The Nittany Lions went on to the first of two consecutive unbeaten seasons, and upon graduation, Charlie Way went on to a career with the Canton Bulldogs and Frankford Yellow Jackets in the newly-formed National Football League, and then with the champion Philadelphia Quakers of the rival American Football League.

Not bad for a man who would scarcely seem big enough for an intramural team of today.

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Stock Market Crash? Not At Ross-Ade Stadium

The stock market may have slid down the tubes at the end of October in 1929, but as far as Purdue fans were concerned, prosperity wasn’t just around the corner. It had already arrived.

And while the economy was to take a nose dive for the next four years, the Boilermakers entered the greatest stretch of gridiron success they ever were to know, racking up a 36-4-2 record that included two Big Ten titles and two undefeated seasons. No longer were they to be playing second or third fiddle to the likes of Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota.

Led by All-American lineman Elmer “Red” Sleight, and a powerful backfield collectively known as “The Four Riveters”, coach Jimmy Phelan’s 1929 eleven approached the Columbus Day Michigan game in somewhat of a slump against the Wolverines in recent years. In fact, the last time the Boilermakers had handled the mighty men of Michigan was back in 1892!

So you might say that there was a bit of revenge in the West Lafayette air.

After three quarters of play, it looked to be business as usual for the Wolverines as they raced out to a 16-6 lead and looked to extend their mastery over the Boilermakers to 37 years. But a “Red” Sleight touchdown off a blocked punt aroused the home team out of its slumber, and before it was all over, the Boilermakers had tallied four fourth-quarter touchdowns en route to a most convincing 30-16 win.

Once Michigan was out of the way, the rest of the season was a breeze. Winning their last six games by a combined score of 131-14, the Boilermakers finished with a perfect 8-0 record, and only Notre Dame’s remarkable perfect season played entirely on the road prevented the West Lafayette men from copping the national championship.

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William Shakespeare Was More Than Writer

There have been more than a few “Game of the Century” contests by this time, but when in 1969 the sportswriters were polled on this question, the overwhelming choice was the 1935 thriller between unbeaten Notre Dame and unbeaten Ohio State, featuring a stunning fourth quarter comeback by the Irish that ranks right up there with the 1979 Cotton Bowl game against Houston in the annals of Houdinism.

Going into the game, the Buckeyes, led by their sophomore sensation Joe Williams, were slight favorites, on the basis of having the home field and because of their record of having lost but three games in the past four years, having polished off four previous 1935 opponents by a combined score of 160 to 26.

Not that the Ramblers (as they were then called) were exactly slouches, having gone unbeaten themselves at the expense of powerhouses such as previously unbeaten Pitt. Led by coach Elmer Layden, they featured stars such as halfbacks Andy Pilney and Bill Shakespeare, who was known variously as “The Bard of South Bend” and “The Merchant of Menace”. Shakespeare was truly a jack of all trades, known equally for his running, passing and punting skills – his 86-yard punt in the Pitt game remains a Notre Dame record to this day.

Once the game got underway, it was all Buckeyes in the first three quarters, as they raced to a 13-0 halftime lead while keeping the ball in the Ramblers’ side of the field. But as soon as the final quarter began, the Irish struck quickly. First Steve Miller raced in from the one-yard line to cut the margin to 13-6. Then after a Miller fumble on the one stifled a chance to tie the game, Andy Pilney capped a 78-yard march with a touchdown pass to Mike Layden. But for the second time the extra point failed, and after the Buckeyes recovered the onside kick, only a minute remained and Ohio State got set to run out the clock.

But here’s where the fun began. The Irish forced a fumble near midfield. Pilney escaped a ferocious pass rush and scrambled to the Ohio State 19, only to tear a ligament in his leg and be carried off the field in an ambulance. But with time about to expire, Bill Shakespeare entered the game, faked a reverse, and rifled the winning touchdown pass to Wayne Millner, who caught the pass in the end zone on his own two knees, while bringing the Buckeyes to theirs.

All during the game, there were reports of priests and nuns praying for Notre Dame touchdowns, but as it turned out, the winning touchdown came from a pass from a Protestant to a Jew. There were no reports of regrets or ambivalence on the part of the millions of Catholic faithful.

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Howell and Hutson Spark The Tide In Dazzling Aerial Show

With an astonishing total of 14 National Championships under its belt, trying to pick the “best” Alabama team is a futile exercise, as cross-era comparisons are virtually impossible.

But while there’s little doubt that one of the more recent champions would win a head-to-head matchup against its leather helmeted predecessors, for sheer star power and accomplishment it’d be hard to beat coach Frank Thomas’s unbeaten 1934 team, a storied eleven that capped a perfect season with one of the greatest aerial displays in Rose Bowl history.

Consider just three of the stars who wore the Crimson and White that year. First there was quarterback Dixie Howell, a consensus All-American, later named on the roster of the all-time Rose Bowl team and picked for the College Football Hall of Fame. Then there was Howell’s main receiver, Don Hutson, who was named by Sports Illustrated as the greatest player in NFL history — not the greatest end, but the greatest player, period.

Oh, and that “other” end? Just some Arkansas country boy named Bryant. Christened as Paul, but sometimes answered to the name of “Bear.” You may have heard of him, too.

After storming through nine regular-season opponents by a combined score of 287 to 32 in an era not known for high powered offenses, the Tide accepted an invitation to meet Claude Thornhill’s Stanford Indians in the Rose Bowl. Stanford had also gone unbeaten, and was looking to avenge its stunning loss to Columbia in the previous year’s game.

But any hope the Indians had of taking out their frustrations on the Tide were quickly ended in the second quarter, when in rapid succession Howell shot a touchdown pass to Bryant, Riley Smith booted a field goal, Howell broke through with a 67-yard touchdown gallop, and then wound up by capitalizing on a Smith interception by hitting Hutson with another scoring pass just before the halftime gun went off.

By the time the dust had cleared and the teams went to their respective locker rooms, Stanford was seeing triple trouble, and when the second half proved a standoff the Tide went back to Tuscaloosa the proud owners of a 29-13 win. It was their fourth Rose Bowl victory in five tries, with the fifth being a tie, and needless to say there would be many more New Year’s Day triumphs to follow.

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Remembering dad’s day at Ohio Stadium

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