I’ve thought many times trying to recall my first memories of college football. The first game I sat down to watch from beginning to end was the 1976 Liberty Bowl involving Alabama and UCLA. Before that, I can recall bits and pieces of games and I can never remember a time I didn’t know about coach Paul Bryant (known, of course, simply as the “Bear”) and Alabama’s crimson and white uniforms.
There’s also another picture seared into my earliest memories of this splendid sport, golden helmets filling a playing field beneath a perfectly blue sky. And I believe that memory comes from the Alabama and Notre Dame contest played on November 13, 1976 in Notre Dame Stadium. The Tide went on to lose that game 21-18. Though I don’t remember the game itself, out of it, for me, came a loathing of all things Fighting Irish.
With that game, coach Bryant dropped to 0-3 against the Irish. The 1976 loss came on the heels of losing the 1973 Sugar Bowl (24-23) and the 1975 Orange Bowl (13-11). Bryant’s last game against Notre Dame came in 1980, a 7-0 loss. Bama played the Irish two other times in the 1980s and AL.com has published a great look-back at all six games.
So how does that tie into what scares me about this version of Alabama vs. Notre Dame? Well, in the six previous meetings between the Tide and Irish, Alabama arguably fielded the better team in five of those games, with 1987 being the exception. Of the five, Bama won one (1986). That leaves Bama as the better team in all four of coach Bryant’s losses to the Irish. So, what happened?
A 25-yard touchdown pass from sophomore halfback Mike Stock to sophomore quarterback Richard Todd in the fourth quarter put Alabama ahead for a third time at 23-21, but Davis missed the point-after-touchdown kick. It was only his second miss in 53 attempts during his senior season.
Alabama mistakes enabled both of Notre Dame’s touchdowns.
The Fighting Irish took an early 7-0 lead after junior Willie Shelby’s fumbled punt return set up Notre Dame at Alabama’s 16-yard line midway through the first quarter. Fighting Irish fullback Wayne Bullock scored on a 4-yard run three plays later.
Alabama appeared to dodge a bullet in the second quarter, when Mike Washingtonblocked a 45-yard field goal attempt. Washington, though, was offsides, allowing the Notre Dame offense to return with a fresh set of downs. It capped a 17-play, 77-yard drive that spanned more than 7 minutes with a 9-yard Mark McLane touchdown run to take a 13-0 lead.
Todd’s pass hit Notre Dame’s Barnett square in the chest. The Fighting Irish cornerback snatched it, broke a tackle and ran all the way across the field and out of bounds.
On a second-and-goal play from the 7-yard line with a little more than four minutes left in the game and Alabama trailing by three points, Rutledge threw over the middle to Thad Flanagan, but Notre Dame’s Jim Browner stepped in front for an easy interception.
Just a few moments later, though, Notre Dame had the ball back at Alabama’s 4-yard line after another Jacobs fumble. Phil Carter plunged into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown run that ultimately served as the game-winning score with 36 minutes still left to play.
Fumbles. Interceptions. Missed extra points. In each of those games, Alabama was in position to win or tie, but did the things you can’t do if you expect to win a close game.
It’s the same game 30 or so years later and as coach Bryant would say, there are no new excuses, just the same mistakes that get you beat.
We’re the favorite heading into next Monday’s game. If both teams play their best, we should win and it might not even be close. But if we turn the ball over and play spotty on special teams we can expect something similar to the first four games in this series. And that’s what scares me.