Alabama Coach Paul William Bryant, 67, surrounded by state police troopers, supported on each arm by an aide, walked slowly to the center of the field, his face as dark as the misty skies above. Notre Dame Coach Dan Devine already was there, sitting atop his players' shoulders, having been swept to midfield by his joyous team.
That was the proper ending. Because today, Devine's players were always a step ahead of Bryant's players. Today, Devine's players were a bit quicker, a bit stronger and by the time dusk had fallen on ancient Legion Field they were all swept up in a tide of emotion while Bryant's players shuffled slowly off the artificial turf looking as old and as tired as their coach.
The final score was 7-0, but that did not begin to tell the story of the emotionally charged drama that unfolded here in front of 78,783 spectators on a day where rain and an Alabama score seemed constantly imminent but never happened.
The only score in the game came with 6:02 left in the first half, when tailback Phil Carter dove in from two yards out, two plays after defensive end Scott Zettek had recovered an Alabama fumble on its four.
First, the bottom line statistics: Sixth-ranked Notre Dame, by winning, earned a bid to the Sugar Bowl New Year's Day where it will face top-ranked Georgia.The Irish are 8-0-1 with games against Air Force and Southern California remaining.
Fifth-ranked Alabama, in galling defeat, accepted a bid to play Baylor in the Cotton Bowl after dropping its record to 8-2. The Tide has one game left, against Auburn.
But the statistic that will haunt Bryant, his players and the entire state is the Alabama-Notre Dame record, which now stands 4-0 for the Irish, each win coming with the entire nation watching, the last three with 'Bama vowing revenge and coming away foiled.
"This just hurts like crazy," said Alabama defensive end John Mauro, who grew up in South Bend. "We've all waited four years for today and now it's over and we came up empty. There were a lot of tears in here, but that's nothing compared to the way we're going to feel tomorrow."
The real story of this game may have unfolded almost two hours before kickoff. As they always do, the Notre Dame players and coaches came out in their street clothes to walk the field. In the far corner sat the Alabama students, primed and rowdy. Immediately, they began to boo and hoot. a
The Irish players responded by walking right over to them. Devine walked to the fence surrounding the field and shook a few hands.
"When we came back in that locker room we were so psyched it was hard for us to wait until kickoff," said linebacker Bob Crable, who went on to make nine unassisted tackles. "I had chills up and down my spine."
Having established before kickoff that the crowd would not intimidate them, the Irish soon made it clear that the red-and-white jerseys weren't going to bother them either.
On the first play from scrimmage, Zettek introduced himself to the Alabama backfield, with special regards to halfback Major Ogilvie, whom he slammed to the turf for a two-yard loss. That set the tone for the day. Alabama's wishbone picked up 204 yards rushing but never got inside the Irish 20 as the Notre Dame defense held the opposition without a touchdown for the fifth straight week.
"We came in here undefeated but with something to prove," said Zettek, whose eloquence matches his play. "All week long we heard, 'Alabama-this, Alabama-that, Bear-this, Bear-that.' For the first time, we were out-mystiqued.
"But we came in here and played more emotionally than they did. That was the difference. The talent in a game like this is even. Emotion wins a game like this. That's how we won it."
And, they won it by making one less mistake than Alabama during the one period of the game when everyone seemed to have a tight collar. The first 20 minutes had been a punting battle, Notre Dame having a slight edge. The Irish had blown a chance to get a field goal when freshman quarterback Blair Kiel was sacked for a 15-yard loss on third and five from the Alabama 24.
Kiel, who also does the punting, made up for the sack by dropping a hanging punt on the Crimson Tide six. Alabama's coaches had decided prior to the punt to put in their second-team running backs for the next series and were not swayed by the field position.
That was a mistake. On third down from the 12, senior quarterback Don Jacobs missed connections on a handoff to Linnie Patrick and Notre Dame's John Hankerd jumped on the ball at the 12.
From there, Carter, who finished the day with 84 hard-earned yards on 31 carries, went up the middle three times to fourth and inches at the two. Kiel then sneaked for the first down. Carter got the ball inside the one but on the next play Kiel dropped the snap and Warren Lyles recovered for Alabama.
"Just a foolish mistake," Kiel said. "I felt so awful I can't even think about it.But when I came off, everyone came over and said, 'Don't worry, we'll get it back.'"
Two plays later, they did. This time Jacobs couldn't connect on a handoff to Billy Jackson at the four. Zettek jumped on the ball.
"It was just lying there," Zettek said. "Hardly heroic."
But good enough. This time, Kiel handled two snaps, got the ball to Carter twice and on the second plunge he made the end zone for the touchdown that would, as it turned out, stand up for the remaining 36:02.
Alabama had two real chances to score. The first came on the series immediately after Notre Dame's touchdown. Bryant replaced Jacobs with freshman Walter Lewis and, with a first down on their 39, the Tide ran a gorgeous play-action fake into the middle.
Tight end Bart Krout was 20 yards behind the Notre Dame defense but Lewis overthrew him. Then, on its first possession of the third quarter, Alabama drove from its 26 to the Irish 20 but stalled. Peter Kim's field-goal attempt was wide right and Bryant's team never threatened again. Crable, then Mark Zavagnin came up with stopping tackles in the fourth quarter, first on fourth and two at the 35, then on fourth and two at the 37 with 3:26 left. "It's an understatement to say the best team won," Bryant said. "We never established anything offensively. Dan had his team well prepared. He did a much better job than I did."
Devine, who had told the Notre Dame student body Thursday night that, "We're going to have the damnedest celebration you've ever seen come Saturday," put it simply: "I feel lucky, humble and grateful."