Nov. 12, 2010
By Lou Somogyi
One of the more trite phrases in college football is “The Game Of The Century.”
These type of contests have become almost yearly rituals to promote an event for revenue purposes.
Yet in 1969, when football celebrated its centennial year, a forum was established to rate what were the greatest games in the sport’s first 100 years, or since Rutgers defeated Princeton, 6-4, on Nov. 6, 1869 in what is regarded as the first game of intercollegiate football.
In January 1969, Sport magazine asked dozens of distinguished football luminaries to choose the greatest single football game, pro or college.
Finishing No. 1 was the 1958 Baltimore-New York Giants NFL title game that was won in sudden-death overtime by the Colts, 23-17. It is consistently regarded as the game that brought the NFL to the national consciousness.
No. 2 was the 1967 playoff between Green Bay and Dallas on the “frozen tundra of Lambeau Field,” with the Packers winning in the closing seconds on a fourth-down quarterback sneak by Bart Starr.
The third choice was the top college game — Notre Dame versus Ohio State, played 75 years ago this month on Nov. 2, 1935.
In the years after 1935 and into 1969, the Fighting Irish were involved in at least two other contests that received “The Game Of The Century” moniker, but both resulted in unfulfilling ties — although each still resulted in national championships for Notre Dame.
The first was the scoreless deadlock in 1946 against two-time defending national champion No. 1 Army and No. 2 Notre Dame, which resulted in one headline stating, “Much Ado About 0-0.”
Twenty years later in 1966, No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State engaged in a 10-10 slugfest in East Lansing that elicited debate and controversy before the Irish eventually earned the nod to remain No. 1. However, the clash in 1935 between the Irish and Buckeyes weathered the test of time and remained seared in the minds of anyone with a long-time allegiance to football.
Setting The Table
In the midst of The Great Depression and in need of some form of economic stimulus, Notre Dame and Ohio State announced in 1932 that the two programs would meet for the first time in a 1935-36 home-and-home series.
Two years earlier, 1930, the 50,000-plus seat Notre Dame Stadium had been dedicated under head coach Knute Rockne, who would finish that season with his third consensus national title and fifth unbeaten campaign in 13 seasons.
On March 31, 1931, though, Rockne perished in a plane crash, and suddenly life at Notre Dame without the master coach, motivator and salesman began to take on a pall, and Notre Dame Stadium seemed like a white elephant, a waste of money and resources.
With the United States economy in dire straits, Notre Dame’s four home games in 1932 averaged only 15,725 fans in attendance, so it needed a boost by luring attractive opponents into the edifice. Ohio State was one of the choices, mainly because it was last of the current Big Ten members that agreed to play the Irish. However, the first game in 1935 would be played in Ohio Stadium, which had an enormous capacity of 81,018.
Even though Notre Dame no longer had Rockne as the coach, second-year boss Elmer Layden — one of the legendary Four Horsemen on the 1924 consensus national champs — was beginning to make the program relevant again on the national scene after a 3-5-1 finish in 1933 and a 6-3 debut under Layden in 1934.
The Irish opened the 1935 campaign 5-0, highlighted by a 9-6 upset of Pitt, the superpower of the 1930s under head coach Jock Sutherland.
Nevertheless, the Buckeyes were riding a 10-game winning streak and were the odds-on favorite to capture the national title under head coach Francis “Close The Gates of Mercy” Schmidt.
Physically, the Buckeyes featured a massive line relative to those days, an average weight of 210 pounds. In comparison, the Irish line was 194.7 pounds per man.
Schematically, Layden and the traditional “Notre Dame Box” employed since the days of Rockne was considered passé compared to Schmidt’s scheme that reportedly had 300 plays from seven different formation
Taking a cue from his former mentor Rockne in the art of gamesmanship, Layden told reporters the day before the game “off the record” and “confidentially” that the Irish would be lucky to hold the Buckeyes to 40 points. During their 10-game winning streak, Ohio State had averaged 38 points. Meanwhile, the Irish scored only 32 points during the entire nine-game season in 1933, averaged 12 points per contest in Layden’s first season (1934), and had an 18.5 average while riding the 5-0 streak in 1935.
Naturally, the comments made headlines in Columbus, Ohio.
The day before the game, Layden wanted to avoid distractions that inevitably would occur if the Irish practiced in Ohio Stadium with Buckeye partisans waiting to jeer them. So he chose a secluded seminary outside Columbus, Ohio for the Irish to engage in their dress rehearsal.
“I’ll never forget that afternoon,” recalled Notre Dame reserve halfback Andy Pilney years later. “We went by buses, and when we got off, there must have been 15,000 people there. That’s how big a secret we had. And of course, they were yelling, `Catholics, go home!’ It didn’t shock me, but it kind of made me feel tense and tight.”
The frayed nerves carried over to the next afternoon while the Buckeyes built a 13-0 halftime lead. Ohio State’s Arthur Boucher opened the scoring with a 70-yard interception return of a pass by Mike Layden — the coach’s younger brother. In the second quarter, Notre Dame All-American Bill Shakespeare’s punt was blocked to set up a short drive that was capped by a touchdown from OSU’s Joe Williams for a 13-0 cushion.
So stymied were the Irish, that long-time Notre Dame follower and football historian Francis Wallace commented, “I had never seen a Notre Dame offense so completely stopped.” This from a man who had witnessed the 1932 Notre Dame offense finish the year with 32 total points.
Furthermore, comebacks from two-score deficits in those days were unheard of. It was akin to a World Cup match in men’s soccer these days seeing one opponent trail the other 2-0 with only 15 minutes left.
With Layden inserting the second unit to start the second half, the Irish took control defensively and began to show signs of life offensively. Late in the third quarter, Pilney was overheard to say from the Irish bench, “If they put me in there now, I’ll win this game for them.”
“Knowing Andy, I knew that meant something,” said head coach Layden of the former high school All-American whose career at Notre Dame had been mainly a disappointment and plagued by fumble-itis. A dazzling runner, Pilney began to become more of a factor behind left halfback Shakespeare during his senior year in 1935.
Ironically, though, the week of the Ohio State game, Layden believed Pilney’s ego needed to be taken down a notch. Thus, taking another page from the Rockne football book of psychology, Layden had a mysterious “Bearskin” column written in the South Bend Tribune about Pilney.
Rockne began that “Bearskin” tradition in which he was the ghostwriter with inside information on the team. This time, Layden had Notre Dame sports publicity director Joe Petritz author an anonymous “Bearskin” column that noted Pilney’s penchant for saving newspaper clippings about his exploits and keeping them in a large scrapbook.
When Pilney made the statement on the bench late in the third quarter, head coach Layden sensed it was time to unleash the frustrated senior.
One For The Ages
The first time Notre Dame received the ball in the fourth quarter, Pilney caught a punt at the Irish 40 and returned it 47 yards to Ohio State’s 13. Pilney then passed for a first down before fullback Steve Miller scored from the one. Alas, Ken Stilley’s extra point attempt hit the crossbar and bounced back on to the field, leaving the score 13-6 and a best-case scenario of Notre Dame salvaging a tie (the two-point conversion wouldn’t be introduced to college football until 1958).
Another potentially deflating situation occurred on Notre Dame’s ensuing possession, after the Irish defense threw Ohio State’s vaunted offense for minus-15 yards to force a punt. Pilney’s running and passing drove the Irish all the way down to the Ohio State one — where this time Miller fumbled into the end zone and the Buckeyes recovered.
The “final chance” to tie the game occurred when Notre Dame took possession at its 20 with about three minutes remaining. Remarkably, the Irish were in the end zone a minute later on the strength of Pilney’s passing and running. He connected with Wally Fromhart on a 40-yard pass, and ended it with a 15-yard scoring toss to the younger Layden.
This time, Fromhart’s extra point was blocked, leaving the score 13-12. Instead of self-pity, Pilney viewed the second PAT snafu as more inspiration.
“It was a break,” Pilney said later, “because we would’ve been tickled to death to have settled for a tie after coming from so far behind. That one-point deficit jolted us out of an emotional letdown and provided the incentive to give it one more all-out effort.”
With about 1:30 left, Notre Dame’s on-side kick was recovered by Ohio State, and by that time even the head coach Layden was about to concede defeat.
“They were ready (for the on-side kick) and they got the ball about midfield,” recalled Layden years later. “Now, there was about a minute and a half left, or so — and what could we do to stop them?”
Fortunately for Notre Dame, “taking a knee” was not in vogue back then, so when the Buckeyes tried to run out the clock with a running play, Notre Dame’s Pilney and Henry Pojman combined to force and recover a fumble by the Buckeyes’ Dick Beltz at the Notre Dame 45.
From a pass formation, Pilney then evaded would-be tacklers with a run of 36 yards down to the OSU 19.
“It was the climax play of the game,” said Notre Dame end Wayne Millner, a future All-Pro receiver with the Washington Redskins quarterbacked by Slingin’ Sammy Baugh. “He faked a pass, raced through a hole at center, dodged eight separate Ohio State men, and was finally pinned on the 19-yard line by three Buckeyes … [it] included every trick of ball-carrying, perfectly executed.”
It also would be the last play of Pilney’s college career because he tore knee ligaments when he was stopped, and had to be carried off the field on a stretcher.
Sending in Shakespeare for the injured Pilney, the Irish also needed an assist from the often-fickle Lady Luck.
On the play following Pilney’s run, Shakespeare’s pass went right into the waiting hands of Ohio State’s Beltz, who dropped it. Given new life, Shakespeare hurled a pass that traveled about 35 yards in the air to a leaping Millner in the end zone.
With 32 seconds left, the two future National Football Foundation College Football Hall of Fame inductees had connected on a scoring pass that provided a miraculous 18-13 victory. This time, a botched PAT was irrelevant.
Pilney did not see the winning play while being carried into the dressing room. However, he recounted that he heard the crowd noise after the play was complete, and knew the Irish had won, thanks in huge parts to his efforts. Only after the game-winning play did he pass out on the stretcher with his excruciating injury.
“I’ve thought a lot about the pass,” Shakespeare said years later. ” But I wake up nights dreaming about the one before it — the one the Ohio State guy had in his hands and dropped. If he’d held it, Wayne and I both would have been bums.”
Instead, Bill Shakespeare and the Irish lived a line made famous by another William Shakespeare centuries earlier: “All’s well that ends well.”
It didn’t quite end perfectly, though. In a classic letdown the following week, Notre Dame lost at home, 14-7, to a 2-3 Northwestern team coached by Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf. The following year, the first year of the AP poll, Notre Dame stunned No. 1 Northwestern, 26-6, its first victory against a top-ranked team.
However, it still paled in comparison to the previous year’s upset in Columbus. The Irish finished 7-1-1 in 1935 but still posted their “Game of the Decade” upset, versus the Buckeyes.
As it turned out, it would even be selected as college football’s “Game of The Century” 34 years later.