‘This game hurt’
Mother Nature literally rained on Alabama's parade on New Year's Eve of 1973. Torrential showers and thunderstorms left the field drenched by the beginning of the highly anticipated Sugar Bowl, making for a slippery artificial surface with puddles popping up all over the place.
Much like the weather, Alabama's offense was disastrous in the first quarter. The Tide finished the opening 15 minutes with less yards than they started with and a 6-0 deficit, prompting a change in footwear to allow for better traction.
“It made a big difference,” Eckenrod said of the switch.
Eckenrod didn't make his grand entrance on offense until Alabama's first scoring drive in the second quarter but found his way into living rooms all across the country shortly before kickoff. Each team's 11 starters were quickly featured as part of the national television broadcast, and even though Croom was selected to start at center, a 12th introduction was added to include Eckenrod.
“It was pretty neat,” he said. “I got my picture on TV.”
With Eckenrod on the O-line for the first time, the Tide's vaunted offense finally showed up, needing just seven plays, 2 minutes and 40 seconds to drive 52 yards for their first lead.
It only lasted about 13 seconds, however, as Notre Dame's Al Hunter returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for the go-ahead score. The Fighting Irish then converted a 2-point pass to go up 14-7.
From there, the battle between college football's creams of the crop transformed into a back-and-forth affair.
Kicker Bill Davis closed Alabama's gap to four with a 39-yard field goal right before halftime, and Wilbur Jackson put the Tide back on top with a 5-yard touchdown run not long into the third quarter.
Eric Penick responded with a six-point play of his own on the ground, giving Notre Dame a 21-17 advantage heading into the decisive fourth quarter, only to see Alabama answer with a perfectly timed trick play.
After receiving the handoff from quarterback Richard Todd, running back Mike Stock tossed the ball back to his signal-caller in the left flat, who sprinted 25 yards down the sideline and into the end zone.
Davis missed the extra-point attempt wide left, though, and the Tide's lead stood at just 23-21 with close to 10 minutes left on the clock.
The play proved costly.
“Bill Davis was a great kicker,” Eckenrod said. “I don't think he missed an extra point all year, but he missed one in this game. It had rained all that day, and it was still misty. The field was really slick.”
The Fighting Irish proceeded to march 79 yards in 5 minutes and 13 seconds, ending its lengthy possession with a successful 19-yard field goal by Bob Thomas.
The score was 24-23 in Notre Dame's favor, and only 4:26 remained in regulation. Time was running out for Alabama.
The Tide O failed to make much happen when they took over and were forced to boot the ball back to the Fighting Irish on fourth-and-20. Eckenrod downed Greg Gantt's booming 69-yard punt at the 1, and Bryant declined a 15-yard roughing-the-kicker penalty, deciding to put the game in the hands of his defense rather than try his luck on fourth-and-5 near midfield.
After two short running plays, everything was going according to the coach’s plan, and tight end Dave Casper only helped matters by jumping offside to send Notre Dame back to its own 3 facing a crucial third-and-9 attempt.
The wind was soon knocked out of Alabama's sails for good, however, as Irish quarterback Tom Clements completed a gutsy 55-yard heave out of his own end zone to his second option, rarely used tight end Robin Weber.
“He had only caught one pass all season, and that was his second,” Eckenrod said of Notre Dame's unlikely hero. “The ball floated to the guy, then it just hit him right in the hands. He caught it, fell down, and that was the end of the ballgame.”
Despite the respective 66-, 44-, 71-, 35-, 30- and 35-point thrashings Alabama had handed out to California, Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech, Mississippi State, Miami (Fla.) and Auburn earlier in the year, nothing could erase the Tide's lone loss in the single-biggest game of the 1973 season.
Eckenrod was crushed — and understandably so.
“You know, this game hurt. We hadn't lost. The defense was stout, but the offense set records that still stand today,” he said. “I still feel to this day we had a better team, but on that particular night, they won.
“I would've liked to have had another shot at these guys.”