Eric Penick (44) takes off on his historic 85 yard TD run against USC in 1973 (Notre Dame Archives)

On October 23, 1973 the undefeated and 8th ranked Irish hosted the 6th ranked and defending national champion USC Trojans in South Bend. The Trojans had tied 7-7 earlier in the season by then 8th ranked Oklahoma but were otherwise riding a 23 game unbeaten streak.

USC was led by QB Pat Hayden, future NFL All-Pro receiver Lynn Swann, and their outstanding running back, Anthony Davis, who had torched the Irish for 6 TDs the previous year although rushing for only 99 yards. Davis had the habit of sliding on his knees in the end zone after each score in typical USC showboat fashion. This rankled ND fans to no end.

The Irish, sporting a formidable ground game of their own, were led by QB Tom Clements and tri-captains Dave Casper (TE), Mike Townsend (S), and me, Frank Pomarico (OG). The team was thought to be a year away from title contention since the coaching staff had to replace 13 starters from the 1972 squad, not to mention that they had made position changes for All-Americans Casper and Townsend.

I had had not been able to get a scholarship from Villanova or Rhode Island at the beginning of his senior year in high school because of his size, 6’1″ and 200 lbs., but fulfilled a dream when I somehow managed to get the 41st and last scholarship offered by ND in 1970.

The 1973 Irish had been bolstered by the arrival of two true freshmen phenoms, defensive end Ross Browner and cornerback Luther Bradley, who both became starters for the Irish the minute they landed on campus.

Although a top ten team, the Irish had not faced a ranked opponent all year. They steamrollered Northwestern 44-0 in the opening game but struggled against Purdue 20-7 in an away game that was closer than the scored indicated and had their hands full at home versus Michigan State (what else is new?) before prevailing 14-10. “Patsies” Rice and Army fell easily 28-0 and 62-3 but the jury was still out on how good the Irish actually were.

The campus reached a predictable fever pitch in the days leading up to the showdown. The buildup was understandable given that the Irish had not beaten USC since 1966, although there had been two ties in between.

The game was played in a partial light mist and the tension in the stadium was palpable if not nearly unbearable at times. In the week leading up to the game word had leaked out of the Trojan camp that their coach, John McKay, had put in a special play for their first possession and had boasted that if it went for at least 5 yards, his team would win the game going away. This tidbit, true or not, had the Irish defenders smoking when the Trojans went to the line of scrimmage for the first time deep in their own territory.

As Hayden called the signals, Swann went in motion from left to right. Hayden dropped back and quickly threw a flare pass to Swann in the right flat. Bradley, playing at left cornerback, jammed the line, anticipated the play and hit Swann just as the ball arrived. Both the ball and Swann’s helmet bounced away as Swann recoiled from the hit.

The tone of the game had been set.

The first half was nearly a draw with the Trojans leading 7-6 until the closing minutes. A late drive by the Irish got them down to the one yard line and on 4th and goal the nimble Clements went in for the score. Coach Parseghian wanted to go for a two point conversion but he was out of timeouts and between the bedlam on the sidelines and the deafening noise in the stadium he couldn’t get anyone’s attention. As the team successfully kicked the extra point Ara covered his face with his hands.

QB Tom Clements sneaks in from the one yard line between the blocks of Frank Pomarico (56) and Steve Neece (64) (Photo Courtesy of Frank Pomarico)

The half ended with ND up 13-7.

The Irish kicked off to start the second half. After a stalled drive the Trojans punted and the Irish took over at their 15 yard line. What transpired next has been described by Blue & Gold Illustrated as the most famous run from scrimmage in the history of Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish lined up in a double tight end, double slot formation with only fullback Wayne “the train” Bullock in the backfield. Parseghian had inserted reserve tight end Robin Weber on the left side of the line to bolster the run blocking. It is the first time the Irish have used the formation all year. Weber at 6’5″ and 247 lbs is the tallest and one of the heavier players on the team.

The Trojans were in a 3-4-4 defense. As Clements called the signals halfback Eric Penick lined up in the right slot, then went in motion to the left. Clements took the snap and faked to Bullock on a run up the middle, freezing the linebackers. He then handed off to Penick running a sweep to the left. Most of the blocking appears to support the run by Bullock. Only the two guards, All- American Gerry DiNardo and Me, pulled to the left to run interference for Penick.

The blocking was near perfect. Halfback Art Best, lined up in the left slot, took out the right outside linebacker. Weber forced the defensive end out of the play. The pulling guards hit the cornerback and the safety who had come up for run support and pushed them to the outside, opening up a seam for Penick. Penick turns the corner, accelerates to warp speed and outran the speedy USC defense for an 85 yard score.

The play would not have gone the distance but for the efforts of left tackle Steve Neece who fired off the line, pushed the right inside linebacker out of the way and then just caught enough of the left inside linebacker, Richard Wood, coming across the field to prevent him from getting his arms around Penick. Only two USC players got a hand on Penick – linebacker Wood and cornerback Danny Reece. Neither could slow Penick down.

Long time TV broadcaster and Indiana native Chris Schenkel makes a great call on the play and goes on to praise Penick. (watch it here)

It was the signature play of the regular season for the Irish and the defining moment of Penick’s career. The score gave the Irish a 20-7 advantage but the game was far from over. The Trojans added a TD on a great catch by Swann in the end zone, but the Irish countered with a field goal to make the score 23-14 as the third period ends.

The Irish benefited from two Trojan fumbles and a critical off-side penalty on an Irish punt. Because of the Trojans’ quick strike capability the tension in the stadium continued to mount in the 4th quarter as the two heavyweights slugged it out. Neither team was able to score again. The difference in the game is the 3 field goals by Irish placekicker Bob Thomas.

USC coach McKay walked off the field humming the Irish Victory March. “There was nothing else to hum,” he quips.

Penick finished the game with 118 rushing yards, 50 more than the USC team. Davis is held to 55 yards on 19 carries. The game marks the last time the goal posts are torn down in ND Stadium. (IT SHOULD BE MENTIONED HERE THAT THE GOAL POST WAS LATER TAKEN TO THE SENIOR BAR AND GIVEN TO TONY Z ! )

The following week Sports Illustrated featured Browner, nose guard Gary Potempa and linebacker Drew Mahalic gang-tackling Davis. The caption reads, Notre Dame Stacks Up USC – Anthony Davis goes nowhere.

The Irish easily won out the rest of the season, defeating their opponents by a combined score of 167-32, including a 31-10 victory over a 20th ranked Pitt team led by Tony Dorsett.

The 1973 team holds the record, likely never to be broken, for rushing yardage, averaging 350.2 yards per game. Their undefeated record earned them a spot in the Sugar Bowl versus top-ranked Alabama.

In a see-saw battle the Irish prevailed 24-23 and are awarded the National Championship.

Dave Casper, an academic All-American, went on to become only the 5th Irish player to be inducted into both the college and professional football halls of fame. Kicker Thomas, referred to as a “sidewinder” in the Sports Illustrated article, got his law degree while handling kicking duties for the Chicago Bears and went on to serve as the Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court. Pat Hayden, a Rhodes Scholar, studied at Oxford and got his law degree from Loyola University. He spent many years doing color commentary for ND home games on the NBC network before leaving in 2010 to become the athletic director at USC. His mother always wanted him to go to Notre Dame.

Despite limited playing time, reserve tight end Robin Weber achieved ND football immortality by making a clutch catch in the final minutes of the Sugar Bowl, sealing the victory for the Irish. It was only the second catch for Weber that season.

The last word in the Sports Illustrated article on the USC game went to Penick. When asked by a reporter why he didn’t slide on his knees to celebrate his big run he replies, “I’m no hot dog. This is Notre Dame.”

Amen Eric, AMEN.

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