Nov. 17, 2006
Florida- Florida State, 1996. Nebraska-Oklahoma, 1971. Texas-Arkansas, 1969. Notre Dame-Michigan State, 1966… They have all been classified as college football “Game of the Century” matchups late in the regular season, as have several others, but there can be only one original. That one took place on Nov. 9, 1946 in New York’s Yankee Stadium when No. 1 Army faced No. 2 Notre Dame. The Outland Trophy winner that year, Notre Dame’s George Connor, who is in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fames summarized it best. “It was almost eerie along the sideline,” said Connor many years later prior to passing away in 2003. “I’ve never felt like I did that day on a football field. Everybody was very tense, everything was electric.” And as often happens in highly anticipated events, the anticipation usually outweighs the actual event.
The 0-0 final result was unfulfilling, prompting even one headline story to read, “Much Ado About Nothing-Nothing.” It wasn’t the first time Notre Dame was involved in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown. Frank Leahy’s No. 1 Irish won at No. 2 Michigan (35-12) in 1943 and also defeated No. 2 Iowa Pre-Flight (14-13) – a World War II semi-pro team – six weeks later en route to the first national title for “The Master.”
Oh, and in 1945, No. 1 Army did meet No. 2 Notre Dame in Yankee Stadium, resulting in a 48-0 victory for the Black Knights. To this day, it remains the second worst defeat ever administered on an Irish team – behind only the 59-0 drubbing that the same Army Cadets put on Notre Dame in 1944. Along with dozens of his finest players from his 1943 national champions, Leahy was overseas with the military during the 1944 and 1945 campaigns, while Earl “Red” Blaik built a juggernaut at West Point that has since been unrivaled in college football annals as far as point disparity. The 1944 Army team outscored the opposition 504-35, or an average of 56-4. In 1945, the margin was “only” 412-46, or 45.8-5 per contest as the Cadets marched to their second straight national title.
It was the epitome of “Men against Boys” as Army veterans often played against youth-laden or makeshift college programs whose top athletes were serving overseas. Meanwhile, Army’s best players were in officer’s training school at West Point.
Leading the Cadets’ charge was the greatest college football running back duo ever in 1945 Heisman Trophy winner Felix “Doc” Blanchard and 1946 Heisman recipient Glenn Davis. To this day, Davis’ 8.26 yards per carry during his career remains an NCAA record.
But by 1946, at least 20 Notre Dame regulars from the 1943 national champs with college eligibility remaining were back, highlighted by quarterback John Lujack and lineman Ziggy Czarobski. Meanwhile, Leahy did plenty of recruiting while overseas, reeling in stalwart athletes such as Holy Cross transfer Connor as well as 21-year old freshman Jim Martin, who received the Bronze Star for his work in reconnaissance missions during World War II. Leahy also assembled an amazing freshman group in 1946 that featured 1949 Heisman Trophy winner Leon Hart and would never taste defeat during their four seasons at Notre Dame.
Now, Leahy mused, 1946 would be men against other men versus Army – or as one writer put it “a vengeful vendetta in which Leahy and his legions who had listened to those (1944 and 1945) games overseas would demand repayment in kind for the humiliation.”
As the Irish players prepared for the showdown, their chant was “Fifty-nine and forty- eight, this is the year we retaliate!.” Meanwhile, Notre Dame students sent daily postcards to Army coach Blaik that were signed SPATNC, the acronym for “Society for the Prevention of Army’s Third National Championship.”
There was national buzz for this game unlike any other previous to it, and aiding it was the fact it was played in New York City, the epicenter of media coverage.
Five months before the Nov. 9 game, it was sold out, even though tickets didn’t go on sale publicly until August 1. More than $500,000 in refund checks were issued to those denied access, and an overflow crowd of 74,121 filled Yankee Stadium after the scalpers had extracted $200 per ticket, a ridiculous sum in an era when $1 to $5 was a sensible going rate. *****
The game itself was a titanic defensive clash, but it also was a case of two of the greatest coaches ever becoming more afraid to lose than playing to win.
“Both coaches choked,” said Connor, summarizing a consensus opinion from the players that day. “They were like two heavyweight boxers who just felt each other out for 15 rounds.”
It had been Leahy’s policy to play the first unit with Lujack in the first quarter, followed by the second unit with George Ratterman – a 10-year future pro mainstay – in the second quarter. Leahy would then continue with that rotation in the second half until Notre Dame’s incomparable depth wore down the opposition. In fact, 28 of Notre Dame’s touchdowns in 1946 came in the second and fourth quarters, while only 12 were tallied in the first and third. Much of that was attributed to the first team softening up the opposition, and the almost equally talented second unit taking advantage of it.
Against Army, though, Lujack played the full 60 minutes (offense and defense) despite suffering an ankle injury three days before the game. Ratterman was a daring talent whose style didn’t make Leahy totally confident in him against the Cadets.
“I’ve always felt that if Ratterman had played, we’d have won by 30 points – or lost by 30,” said Connor laughing.
Statistically, the game was a wash. Notre Dame had 10 first downs to Army’s nine. The Cadets totaled 224 yards of offense (172 rushing and 52 passing) and Notre Dame 219 (167 rushing and 52 passing). Army completed four passes in 16 attempts, while the Irish completed five on 17 attempts. There were two defining moments, both occurring in the second quarter. Notre Dame had a first down at the Army 12, but on 4th-and-1 from the Cadet 3, Bill Gompers was stopped short of the first down.
Why didn’t the Irish just kick the field goal?
“Leahy didn’t believe in kicking field goals,” Irish fullback Jim Mello told author Steve Delsohn in his 1998 book Talking Irish. “If you couldn’t ram it in, he thought taking three points would be an insult. He thought Notre Dame was too tough for that.”
However, long-time South Bend Tribune sports editor Joe Doyle told Delsohn of an incident about seven years later.
“It was 1952 or 1953,” Doyle said. “I would always go into the coaches’ room before practice while they were ready to go outside. One day Leahy was sitting there. He was just lost in thought. Then he said out loud, `If only we’d kick the field goal!’ “
The decision haunted Leahy years later – even though the Irish would go on to win the national title.
Later in the quarter, Lujack, injured ankle and all, as well as incurring a kick in the head in the game, made the most famous tackle in Notre Dame history.
From his 37, Blanchard found an opening on a sweep and had only Lujack to beat for a touchdown. But Lujack grabbed him by the ankles after a 26-yard gain.
“I really can’t understand all the fuss,” said Lujack after the game. “I simply pinned him against the sideline and dropped him with a routine tackle.”
Regardless, the tackle preserved the scoreless tie, and it would help win Notre Dame the national title that year. After the game, Army remained No. 1 and Notre Dame No. 2. In a heavyweight fight, if the verdict is a draw, the champion still retains the title. However, at the end of the regular season, 8-0-1 Notre Dame received the nod over 9-0-1 Army for the AP national title. Why?
Army finished the year with a 21-18 victory over 1-7-1 Navy, a loser of six straight, and the Midshipmen had the ball at the Cadet four when time ran out just before a final play could be run. Earlier in the season, Notre Dame defeated Navy 28-0.
Meanwhile, the week after the Army game, Notre Dame trounced Pappy Waldorf’s 4-2-1 Northwestern team (27-0), crushed a rising Tulane program (41-0) and closed with a 26-6 win against No. 16 USC (26-6). Consequently, in the final AP balloting Notre Dame received 100 first-place votes and Army 48, while nine selectors named the two co-champions. Meanwhile, undefeated Georgia (11-0), which would defeat North Carolina 20-10 in the New Year’s Day Sugar Bowl, finished third with 23 first place votes
Maybe the electorate wanted to see a new champion. Or maybe upon further review, Notre Dame was deemed the best in 1946. After all, it is one of only four teams in history to finish No. 1 nationally in both total offense (441.3 yards per game) and total defense (141.7, still a school record). The 24 points yielded (2.7 per game) also were the fewest nationally. Ultimately, nothing-nothing resulted in something special for Notre Dame’s dynasty in the 1940s.