Oct. 31, 2013
By Lou Somogyi
Blue & Gold Illustrated
Note: Many of the game accounts and facts came from author Frank Maggio’s 2007 book Notre Dame And The Game That Changed Football.
The United States Military Academy Class of 1915 is known as “The Class The Stars Fell On.”
There were 164 graduates from that group, and 59 of them (36 percent) achieved the rank of general, the most of any class at West Point. Two of them — future United States President Dwight David Eisenhower and Omar Bradley — achieved five stars (only 10 in history) while leading the crucial Normandy invasion forces on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
On a different and far less world-changing field of battle 100 years ago, Nov. 1, 1913, the heavy underdog Notre Dame football team had its program-changing moment at West Point, with Eisenhower and Bradley also present.
The future five-star generals both played football at West Point, although Bradley had a more prominent role in baseball. Eisenhower was a running back/linebacker for the 1912 Army football team, and his claim to athletic fane included tackling the legendary Jim Thorpe of the Carlisle Indians.
Unfortunately, a knee injury truncated his football career and he could only watch from the sidelines, along with Bradley (who would play in 1914) when the unheralded Catholic school from the Midwest came to town in 1913.
It was the day that “the stars fell on Notre Dame,” and it can actually be considered the first “military coup” in the University’s history.
“GREAT MOMENTS ARE BORN FROM GREAT OPPORTUNITY”
The details of how Notre Dame’s road to West Point and the journey to prominence took place can be found on page 89. Over the years, though, some perceptions about the 1913 matchup with Army get skewed or overdramatized.
One of them is that it was the first upset victory in Notre Dame football history. That honor actually belongs to the 1909 team that defeated the “Champions of The West,” Michigan head coach Fielding Yost’s Michigan juggernaut. The 11-3 victory alerted the Midwest that a new power was forming in South Bend, Ind. Consequently it also made Notre Dame a pariah to the Western Conference (later Big Ten), forcing the school to eventually go national with its schedule and get teams such as Army, Penn State and Texas on to the 1913 slate.
Another myth is that Notre Dame introduced the forward pass to college football in the upset against Army. The NCAA’s legalization of the forward pass actually occurred in 1906 and had been used effectively by many schools, most notably St. Louis University. Furthermore, first-year Notre Dame head coach Jesse Harper had studied, developed and expanded the attack during his stints at Alma and Wabash prior to arriving at Notre Dame in 1913.
While it is true that quarterback Gus Dorais and receiver/captain Knute Rockne spent many a summer day on the beach at Cedar Point, Ohio perfecting their timing on pass plays, it was Harper who introduced the overall passing sophistication to the team.
“We worked on those pass plays that beat Army as a team and during the regular practice season,” Harper told San Francisco Examiner writer Prescott Sullivan in 1951. “It is true, Dorais and Rockne did a little of it on their own. Rockne, an end, wasn’t much of a pass receiver to start with. His style, fashioned after that of the day, was to catch the ball with his arms and stomach, and I told him he’d never be a good receiver until he learned to catch the ball with his hands.
“So, Rockne got Dorais to throw him a few. Together they spent perhaps a couple of afternoons at it. The pass plays were rehearsed for weeks by the entire squad.”
Finally, Notre Dame did not overwhelm Army with the pass right away. It did connect early on a Dorais-to-Rockne touchdown, but then Army responded to take a 13-7 lead before Notre Dame held a 14-13 halftime advantage. In the second half, the run was equally as vital as the pass for Notre Dame, creating a true, balanced attack.
Nevertheless, the game to Notre Dame was an epic, watershed moment, akin to its football history to when the Team USA hockey team shocked the invincible Red Army team of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, which resulted in the 2004 movie “Miracle.”
In the movie, the pregame speech by coach Herb Brooks to his United States team best captured the importance: “Great moments are born from great opportunity.”
Notre Dame’s opportunity arrived on Nov. 1, 1913.
THE FIRST HALF
On the mostly overcast and cold day at West Point’s Cullum Field, about 5,000 spectators have been listed as the official attendance for the game. Admission was free, and it was comprised almost entirely of Cadets or fans of the Academy.
Wireless telegraphy — better known now as radio — was still in its embryonic stages, so no Notre Dame Broadcast Network was in the works yet. Television was still decades away. For the Notre Dame students back home, the sole method of communicating what was transpiring in West Point was via telegraph every hour or so that would post the score in the window at the South Bend News-Times downtown.
On the game’s opening series, a Notre Dame fumble set up Army in good field position, but the defense by the “Catholics,” overshadowed throughout the day, held its ground and didn’t permit the Cadets to score.
With the smaller Notre Dame team getting pushed around some along the line of scrimmage, it began to resort to the pass on its next two series, but both attempts fell incomplete, according to one game account.
Later in the quarter, though, Dorais began finding his rhythm while Notre Dame drove down to the Army. He connected on three straight passes with halfback Joe Pliska while Rockne was playing possum. On an earlier running play, Rockne came out of the pile limping, feigning injury. On the pass plays to Pliska, he showed the defense that he was barely ambulatory. “After the third [pass] play the Army halfback covering me figured I wasn’t worth watching,” Rockne wrote years later. “…Finally, Dorais called my number, meaning that he was to throw a long forward pass to me as I ran down the field and out toward the sideline. I started limping down the field and the Army halfback covering me almost yawned in my face, he was that bored. I put on full speed and left him standing there flat-footed.”
Dorais’ completion to Rockne is officially listed as a 25-yard touchdown play, but the ball traveled about 35 yards in the air, with Rockne catching the pass near the goal line on the run before easily crossing over for the score.
It wasn’t so much a pass that stunned those in attendance but the sophistication for its time. Most pass plays were robotic and of the buttonhook pattern variety. The one with Rockne involved a receiver catching the ball while running in stride.
“Everybody seemed astonished,” Rockne noted. “There had been no hurdling, no tackling, no plunging, no crushing of fiber and sinew. Just a long-distance touchdown by rapid transit.”
Although Army was shaken it also became stirred after getting shown up by the little-known school. It answered right back with a pair of touchdowns — with even its own pass mixed in, albeit not as exciting — to take a 13-7 lead in the second quarter, after a missed extra point.
With Notre Dame backed up at its 15, Dorais unleashed Notre Dame’s air power again with the 1913 version of the “spread offense. First he completed a 25-yard toss to Rockne and then 35 yards to Pliska.
Reported the New York Times: “Dorais fell back and the Notre Dame team spread out across the field. Dorais hurled the ball far and straight for twenty- five yards and Rockne, on the dead run, grabbed the ball out of the air and was downed in midfield …
“The ball went high and straight and Pliska was far out of Army’s reach when he caught it. The partisan Army crowd forgot for the moment that the Army was being defeated, and burst forth in a sincere cheer for the marvelous little quarterback Dorais and his record toss of thirty-five yards.” Another pass, this one to Charles Finegan, was completed before Pliska scored on a five-yard run. Dorais’ extra point provided Notre Dame with a surprising 14-13 lead at halftime.
THE SECOND HALF
The game became more “grounded” during the scoreless third quarter with Notre Dame attempting only one pass, which fell incomplete.
Army put together the lone scoring threat when it drove to the Notre Dame two-yard line before two tackles for loss, one by Rockne, forced a pass by Vernon Prichard that the multi-talented Dorais intercepted.
With Army still wary of the pass, Notre Dame became more effective with the run, highlighted by a 25-yard sweep by Finegan that set up fullback Ray Eichenlaub’s short scoring run and Dorais’ PAT for a 21-13 cushion. At 6-0, 210 pounds, Eichenlaub could comfortably still fit into a 2013 backfield, but in his day, he was considered a behemoth (the largest starter along the Notre Dame line was 190 pounds).
On the next series, with Army now more focused on stopping the run, Dorais returned to the air and capped the scoring drive with a five-yard pass to Pliska.
Frustrated and befuddled on how to defend Harper’s attack, Army became mentally drained when Notre Dame mixed the run and pass a final time, concluding with an eight-yard Eichenlaub run through the middle that made the final score 35-13, highlighted by the 21-0 fourth quarter.
“Army had its usual great team, but the passes demoralized them completely,” said Harper several decades later. “By the time it ended, we could do anything we pleased, running or passing. They didn’t know what to expect, or what to think about it.”
Wrote the New York Times in its coverage: “The Westerners flashed the most sensational football ever seen in the East.”
Authors Jim Beach and Daniel Moore in their book Army vs. Notre Dame, The Big Game: “The feature of the game that most amazed the sports fans in the East was the length of Dorais’ passes. Some of the spiral throws traveled 35 to 40 yards to the receiver, an unheard of distance in those days.” Back home, when the final score was finally posted downtown the South Bend News-Times reported, “pandemonium broke loose among the students.
With wild shrieks of delight they turned into Main Street and in a few moments 300 had gathered to celebrate the overwhelming victory. A snake dance was quickly formed and the men invaded Michigan Street winding from curb to curb and yelling like demons.”
Maybe someone watching the scene might have mused, “One hundred years from now, who’ll know or care?”
One hundred years later, the answer is clear. The great opportunity became the vehicle for many more great moments.
Unofficially, Dorais is listed with having finished 14 of 17 for 243 yards against Army. Based on different reports, that might not be quite accurate because at least one game account had Dorais missing two passes in the first quarter, two in the second quarter (including an interception) and his lone attempt in the third. Suffice to say, Notre Dame had the better passing day.
Notre Dame improved to 4-0 with the win and then completed November with victories on the road against Penn State (14-7), Christian Brothers in St. Louis St. Louis (20-7) and Texas (29-7) to complete a perfect season.
Dorais became the first Notre Dame player named a first-team All-American (Frank Menke Syndicate and International News Service). Eichenlaub was named second team on the prestigious Walter Camp team, while Rockne made the third team.
Eager for revenge Army signed on to play Notre Dame the next year (the Cadets won 20-7) — and the series would be uninterrupted through 1947. The Irish also were able to expand their national scheduling with superpower Yale added in 2014 with Syracuse. Later, Nebraska was added as a regular and the cool relationship with the Big Ten began to thaw.