Sept. 27, 2013
By Craig Chval, Sr.
In many ways it makes perfect sense.
Nobody had ever done what the Oklahoma football had accomplished, winning 47 games in a row. And in the 56 years since Notre Dame ended that winning streak with a 7-0 upset in Norman, on November 16, 1957, nobody has approached the Sooners’ record.
Excluding a 35-game winning streak by Toledo against overwhelmingly mid-major competition, nobody has come any closer to matching the standard set by Oklahoma than a pair of 34-game winning streaks by USC and Miami in the early 2000’s.
That means nobody has been within a month of victories of winning 40 straight, let alone 47. ESPN hasn’t seen fit to start 24/7 coverage of anybody’s attempt to equal the Sooners’ mark.
It also means that nobody has claimed Notre Dame’s mantle as giant-killer. And, apparently, very few people in the state of Oklahoma have lost sight of that fact – including a fair number of people who weren’t even alive in 1957.
Neither the passage of time nor the four consensus national championships Oklahoma has claimed over those 56 years have dampened the passion of Sooner fans for that long-ago run of perfection – or the team that brought it to a crashing halt.
Last fall, Notre Dame made only its third visit to Norman since 1957. The Sooners were hoping for their first win over Notre Dame since 1956, but the Irish prevailed 30-13, improving their advantage in the all-time series between the two schools to 9-1.
The build-up to last fall’s matchup in Memorial Stadium exposed the depth of the decades-old passion of Oklahoma’s fans. In anticipation of the prime-time battle between the fifth-ranked Fighting Irish and the eighth-ranked Sooners, national media revisited the end of the 47-game winning streak at the hands of the Irish.
Of course, Notre Dame’s victory to end the 47-game winning streak was prominently on the minds of many Sooner fans, including many who hadn’t even been born in 1957. “I’m a third generation hater,” boasted one. Another confessed that he never voted for Ronald Reagan, not as a matter of politics, but because the 40th President of the United States portrayed Notre Dame legend George Gipp in the movie, Knute Rockne: All-American. Another remembered seeing his mother crying after the game because, “A bunch of papist hooligans had stolen the game from the mighty Sooners.”
And it wasn’t just that Oklahoma was viewed as Goliath – the November 18, 1957 edition of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands prior to the game, carried the headline, “Why Oklahoma Is Unbeatable.” But that Irish team, despite Notre Dame’s own championship legacy, fit the role of David to a “T.”
In 1956, Oklahoma had paid a visit to Notre Dame Stadium and left with a 40-0 victory, the Sooners’ only victory over Notre Dame to this day. And while many of the youngsters on that ’56 Irish team were back, a year older, wiser and stronger after enduring those growing pains, the Irish did lose All-American back Paul Hornung, who graduated after winning the Heisman Trophy in 1956.
On top of all that, Notre Dame was the last team to defeat Oklahoma prior to the 47-game winning streak. In fact, starting with a victory over Kansas on October 20, 1951, until a loss to Texas on October 11, 1958, Oklahoma played 62 games – winning 57, tying two and losing just three – all three to Notre Dame.
But as much sense as the Oklahoma passion might make, it still is a head-scratcher for some of the Notre Dame players and coaches who produced the upset.
Dick Royer was a starting end on the Irish team that stunned not only the Sooners, but the college football world in 1957, and he was startled to learn how brightly that memory burns in Oklahoma, more than half a century later.
“I was surprised,” Royer says. “It’s been a long time … they must have a long memory.”
Notre Dame head coach Terry Brennan was the mastermind of the upset, diagramming the X’s-and-O’s and also instilling in his players the confidence that they could stun the Sooners despite the results of the ’56 game and the fact that the Irish had lost two straight heading into Norman after starting the ’57 season 4-0.
“Whenever I meet somebody from Oklahoma, that’s the first thing they say,” says Brennan. “What do you say? We were fortunate to win. Certainly that people are remembering it for 56 years must mean that it’s a pretty big deal.”
While Brennan modestly argues that Lady Luck shined on Notre Dame that day, it might be more accurate to say that this was one of those days when luck was the by-product of preparation meeting opportunity. Specifically, Brennan had the Irish ready to put the clamps on Oklahoma’s high-powered offense, which came into the game averaging over 300 yards rushing, and which hadn’t been shutout in 123 games.
“Actually, it was pretty simple,” explains Brennan, pointing to tendencies he had observed on the part of famed Oklahoma head coach Bud Wilkinson. “I knew that if he had two yards to make a first down, he would instinctively go into a full-house tight “T” to go straight at you.”
To counter that, Brennan and his staff devised a twist on their 5-4 base formation, in which the linemen would slant one way, with the secondary going the other way. Brennan called that defense eight times that day, and eight times, Notre Dame stopped the Sooners in their tracks.
“There are days when you have to be lucky,” he simply says.
Despite the dominance of Notre Dame’s defense, which held Oklahoma to 98 yards rushing and 47 yards passing, the Sooners did have opportunities to score. Four times in the first half, Oklahoma drove deep into Notre Dame territory, reaching the Irish 13 on one drive. But Notre Dame forced and recovered a pair of fumbles, stopped the Sooners on downs once and forced a punt after driving the Sooners background on the fourth drive.
Meanwhile, the Irish were stopped on downs at the Oklahoma one yard line, and later had first-and-goal from the Sooner’s six yard line after a successful fake field goal, but were stymied by an interception in the OU endzone.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Irish got the ball on their own 20, and produced what Royer called, “the miracle drive.” Fullback Nick Pietrosante gained 35 yards on seven carries during the drive, including three third down conversions. Halfback Dick Lynch added two more first downs to keep the drive going.
Finally, the Irish faced fourth down at the Sooner three. Brennan didn’t give any thought to attempting a field goal, despite Notre Dame’s earlier failure to score from the OU one yard line.
“It never crossed my mind,” he says. “If we had kicked a field goal, they could have come back and beat us 7-3.”
According to Royer, Brennan’s players weren’t the least bit surprised at his decision to go for the touchdown.
“We never anticipated that we would go for the field goal,” he insists.
Instead, Irish quarterback Bob Williams faked a handoff up the middle to Pietrosante, and while the Sooners swarmed to try to hold the battering ram out of the endzone, Williams pitched to Lynch, who ran untouched around right end into the endzone. The PAT gave Notre Dame a 7-0 lead with 3:50 to play. Williams then sealed the upset by intercepting an Oklahoma pass in the Notre Dame endzone with 1:00 remaining in the game.
The rest, as they say, was history – a history that seems to burn brighter with each passing year.
Brennan cited Nick Saban’s Alabama program, with three national championships in the last four seasons, as a team that might approach the greatness of those Oklahoma teams, but only the first of those three teams (2009) finished the season with an undefeated record.
“That might be the only time anybody ever stops a 47-game winning streak,” observes Royer. “I’m proud to have been a part of it.”
Brennan, who starred as a halfback on head coach Frank Leahy’s Notre Dame national championship teams in 1946 and 1947, ranks the upset of the Sooners at the top of his list of highlights from his Notre Dame playing and coaching career.
“They had more talent,” he says of the Sooners. “Not that we didn’t have talent. But we had a lot of bounce that day, and we were really ready for the challenge.
“I think when you accomplish something that nobody expects you to accomplish, it makes it more memorable,” he says.
Fifty-six years later, it’s safe to say that Brennan’s Irish accomplished the unexpected against the Sooners, and that nobody – on either side – is ever going to forget it.