Nov. 21, 2013
By: Lou Somogyi Blue & Gold Illustrated
Handling success can often be one of the greater challenges in the athletic arena. The euphoria that comes with an extraordinary victory, upset or seminal moment many times is followed by the infamous letdown.
Notre Dame’s football program has served as such an example when you review some of its most memorable or emotion-laden moments the past 100 years.
In 1928, the heavy underdog Irish were implored by head coach Knute Rockne to “Win One For The Gipper” against Army, which had an 11-game winning streak and whipped Notre Dame 18-0 a year earlier. Responding to Rockne’s talk, the Irish proceeded to earn a 12-6 upset victory that has become a part of Americana.
Guess what happened the following week? The Irish lost at home 27-7 to Carnegie Tech, and then finished with a 27-14 loss to USC.
Notre Dame’s dramatic 18-13 comeback victory at unbeaten Ohio State in 1935 was voted in 1969 as the greatest college football game in the sport’s centennial year (1869-1969).
The week after the win in Columbus, the unbeaten Irish were stunned at home by a struggling Northwestern team.
In 1957, the year after losing 40-0 at home to Oklahoma, the reeling and 19-point underdog Irish snapped the Sooners’ NCAA-record 47-game winning streak, 7-0, in Norman no less.
Sure enough, the next week Notre Dame lost at home to Iowa.
In its most recent No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown, the second-ranked Irish posted a thrilling 31-24 win against the mighty Florida State Seminoles. A week later, the 10-0 Notre Dame juggernaut lost at home to a Boston College team it had destroyed 54-7 a year earlier.
Epic wins during the course of the season can easily disintegrate into a vale of tears in ensuing weeks. Fortunately, exceptions also exist, and no more so for the Fighting Irish football program than in November 1913.
On Nov. 1, 1913, Notre Dame’s colossal 35-13 victory over Army, highlighted by the passing exploits of Charles “Gus” Dorais, the receiving artistry of Rockne and the running by the likes of Ray Eichenlaub and Joe Pliska to balance the unveiled and advanced aerial arsenal, signaled to college football the potential rise of a new power.
Notre Dame was the nouveau riche, and now the question would be how it would handle its newfound football fame with three more arduous road tests that same month.
All the more reason why the achievements in November 1913 might still rank as Notre Dame’s most amazing football month ever.
Because Notre Dame was not granted league affiliation with the esteemed Western Conference (now the Big 10), first-year head coach/athletics director Jesse Harper had no choice in 1913 but to assemble a national schedule in an effort to make a name for the program.
Four games had to be played from Nov. 1-27, all on the road. Such ambition likely would be mocked as suicidal today.
By Saturday evening of their seminal victory at Army, the Notre Dame players were headed by train to Buffalo, N.Y., spent Sunday at Niagara Falls and didn’t return back to campus until Monday.
Once there, they attended classes and had only two days of practice before having to travel 520 railroad miles to State College, Pa., to play the Penn State Nittany Lions, another first-time foe that had been 16-0-1 the previous two years and crushed first-year Western Conference member Ohio State on the road in 1912, 37-0, while out-scoring its foes 285-6.
The formula for a letdown was ideal: Notre Dame was coming off the hangover of the colossal triumph at Army, it had to go right back for a long road trip with little practice time, and a hungry Penn State team that had tasted its own success over the years was primed to take them down.
Avoiding the tailor-made letdown, Notre Dame squeezed out a 14-7 victory in Happy Valley. The first “Catholics” score came on an 80-yard, three-play drive that saw Dorais connect with Pliska for a 40-yard gain, followed by Dorais running around end for 35 yards and then Rockne catching a five-yard touchdown pass from Dorais.
In the third quarter, Eichenlaub provided Notre Dame a two-touchdown cushion. Penn State did cut the score to 14-7 later in the third quarter on a pass play — which had become popular at other schools as well by then — but head coach Jesse Harper’s Notre Dame team staved off an upset and held on to its seven-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame was scheduled to meet in-state Wabash College the following week. The two schools had played a home-and-home series in recent seasons, with Notre Dame cruising to a 41-6 victory at home a year earlier. However, heavy snowfall in November 1913 led Wabash to cancel the game, which Notre Dame found to be a blessing.
Wrote Frank Maggio in his 2007 book Notre Dame And The Game That Changed Football: “The snow and the cancellation were taken by the Notre Dame coaches with some relief. They knew Wabash would not have been up to giving them a competitive game, and the extra week would give Notre Dame time to recover from the bruising, physical battles the team had just gone through against Army and Penn State.
“The extra week also gave them time to recuperate and prepare for their upcoming 1,500-mile trip southwest to play Christian Brothers in St. Louis and the University of Texas in Austin. Harper gave his tired team five days off.”
TWO VICTORIES WITHIN ONE WEEK
During his six seasons as Notre Dame’s head coach from 1975-80, Dan Devine would note that the most underrated of his 53 victories were his first two. His Irish career opened with a 17-3 victory on Monday night at Boston College. After not getting back home to campus until Tuesday afternoon, the Irish still had to play at Purdue that Saturday, and earned a 17-0 victory. Such scheduling not been tried since then by Notre Dame — and likely won’t ever again in the future.
Two conquests within one week against quality foes, both on the road, were also achieved in Nov. 1913, after the Wabash cancellation.
Harper had agreed to play Christian Brothers in St. Louis on Saturday, Nov. 22, and then travel directly to Austin, Texas for a season-ending Thanksgiving Day showdown with the Longhorns on Nov. 27. Christian Brothers had not lost in two seasons, while Texas would be on a 12-game winning streak by the time Notre Dame came to town.
The chances for a letdown still remained, especially after an injury, although not debilitating, to Dorais during a Nov. 18 practice, or four days before the Christian Brothers contest.
At St. Louis, a 400-mile trip by rails, Harper chose to rest his starters early against Christian Brothers, partly to conserve some energy for the Texas finale, and also in an effort to protect Dorais from getting re-injured. Intense rain made the field a quagmire, and Christian Brothers scored on a 25-yard fumble return to take a 7-0-halftime lead.
With the starters inserted in full, Notre Dame tied the game in the third quarter on an Eichenlaub run, and then in the fourth quarter Dorais returned a punt for a 60-yard score and added a 25-yard scoring jaunt in the 20-7 victory. It was another conquest that had to be earned more through grit than finesse, even though Notre Dame’s passing attack was receiving the majority of publicity.
Another 840 railroad miles later, Notre Dame arrived in Austin to confront a 7-0 Texas team that in the previous two weeks defeated archrival Oklahoma 14-6 and crushed Kansas A&M (now known as Kansas State) 46-0, leading their fans to claim how the Longhorns “have the best team ever produced in the southwest,” according to Maggio.
Not leaving anything to chance, Harper had Notre Dame take its own water supply to Austin. Similar to the game at St. Louis, several days of rain had made the Texas field muddy and slow, but once again Dorais could not be stopped.
The quarterback who would become Notre Dame’s first consensus All-American demonstrated his versatility by kicking three field goals (in seven attempts) — a feat that would not be duplicated by an Irish kicker until 58 years later by Bob Thomas. Notre Dame’s three touchdowns in its 29-7 victory came on a 15-yard run by Dorais, a short run by Eichenlaub and a Rupe Mills interception return right in the shadow of Texas’ goal line.
Notre Dame had plenty to be thankful when it capped its 7-0 season. It had set a standard of national scheduling, proven that it can compete with the finest across the land and created a future template of football for itself.
Harper’s Notre Dame Express with Captain Rockne spent more than a week in railroad cars in November 1913 while covering 5,000-plus miles.
A little more than a decade later, head coach Rockne’s Notre Dame teams would become even more famous for their travel, leading sportswriters to refer to his teams in the 1920s as the “Ramblers.”
The tradition actually began 100 years ago in 1913 — as did so many other elements that have made Notre Dame one of the most famous brands in American athletics history.
OTHER MEMORABLE MONTHS
While the 4-0 November 1913 might have been the most important and impressive single calendar month in Notre Dame football annals, there are at least five others worth mentioning when combining relevance, impact, record and competition. Chronologically, they include:
At least two factors made this 5-0 stretch special. First, it clinched head coach Knute Rockne’s second consensus national title. Second, none of those five victories came at home. The Irish traveled the entire season while Notre Dame Stadium was under construction.
The stretch began Nov. 2 with a 26-6 victory at Georgia Tech — a team that had defeated Notre Dame 13-0 the previous season. The ensuing two victories were played at Chicago’s Soldier Field, 19-7 versus Drake (Nov. 9) and 13-12 against USC Nov. 16), another team that had defeated Notre Dame a year earlier (27-14).
Furthermore, the game versus the Trojans was played before a listed audience of 112,912, an astronomical number even today, but especially 84 years ago.
Finally, the month closed with a 26-6 victory at Northwestern (Nov. 23) and the national-title-clinching 7-0 win in Yankee Stadium against Army (Nov. 30).
No. 1-ranked Notre Dame vanquished three straight Top-10 ranked teams in as many weeks: No. 3 Army at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 6 (26-0), at No. 8 Northwestern on Nov. 13 (25-6) and then a pro-like World War II team and No. 2 Iowa Pre-Flight on Nov. 20 (14-13) in the school’s first-ever No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle.
Furthermore, head coach Frank Leahy’s Irish achieved this triple play with sophomore quarterback John Lujack, who had to replace Heisman Trophy winner Angelo Bertelli when he was called to begin officer’s training on Nov. 1 for World War II.
The Irish did lose the season finale to another pro wartime team, Great Lakes (19-14), on a “Hail Mary” pass in the closing seconds, but because they defeated the teams that finished Nos. 2-3-4-8-11-13, they still finished the year No. 1, the first of Leahy’s four consensus national titles.
Under first-year head coach Ara Parseghian, Notre Dame’s renaissance from a 2-7 record the year prior — and 34-45 mark from 1956-63 — reached a crescendo with a 5-0 record in October that elevated them at the end of the month to No. 1 in the polls for the first time in 10 years.
In consecutive weeks from Oct. 3 through Oct. 31, Notre Dame defeated Purdue (34-15), Air Force (34-7), UCLA (24-0), Stanford (28-6) and Navy (40-0) — the year after the Boilermakers, Cardinal (known as the Indians back then) and Midshipmen, still with Heisman Trophy winner and quarterback Roger Staubach, had all beaten Notre Dame.
The Irish make the front cover of Sports Illustrated in October, and a month later Parseghian even was on Time magazine’s cover.
Similar to the 1964 resurgence, this October had Notre Dame also finishing 5-0 — and reaching No. 1 right at the end of the month after a prolonged slump. The Irish had been 43-36-1 the previous seven years, losing a minimum of four games each time and finishing under .500 twice.
From Oct. 1-29, Notre Dame defeated five straight foes, highlighted by the memorable 31-30 victory at home versus No. 1 Miami (31-30), considered one of the greatest games in school history. Head coach Lou Holtz’s team defeated Stanford (42-14) and Pitt (30-20) before Miami, and Air Force (41-13) and Navy (22-7) afterwards.
In keeping with the 24-year (1964, 1988 and 2012), once-in-a-generation resurgence themes, this was another memorable November with a 4-0 mark, although none came against ranked teams. It capped a “where did that come from?” 12-0 regular season and a No. 1 ranking after having recorded a 32-31 ledger the previous five years, losing a minimum of five games each time.
From Nov. 3-24, Notre Dame first rallied from a 20-6 fourth-quarter deficit against Pitt to post a 29-26 triple-overtime victory in which it almost appeared that divine intervention had occurred. While the ensuing 21-6 and 38-0 victories against Boston College and Wake Forest were ho-hum affairs, Notre Dame climbed to No. 1 for the first time in 19 years, ending the longest drought in the program’s history.
The month was capped with a hard fought 22-13 victory at archrival USC — a traditional House of Horrors for past Irish teams — to earn the right to play in the BCS Championship. It felt like the magic had truly returned for the first time in decades.