History will be made Saturday night at Ann Arbor when Notre Dame takes on Michigan in the first night game in the history of Michigan Stadium.
It will be the first of a record five night games for the Irish this season, including the first night matchup against USC to be played at Notre Dame Stadium (October 22). Notre Dame has played four night games in a season six previous years, beginning in 1990 and including the past two seasons.
Overall, this will be Notre Dame’s 94th night game in history. The Irish have a record of 58-33-2 in the previous 93.
Ironically, the very first night game Notre Dame ever played was also in the state of Michigan, just shy of six decades ago.
On Saturday night, October 5, 1951, a capacity crowd of 52,371 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit watched the Irish romp past the University of Detroit Titans, 40-6.
The home to baseball’s Tigers at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull already had a long history. The site, first known as Bennett Park, hosted the first Tigers home game in 1896. On September 24 of that year, Bennett Park became the site of Detroit’s first night baseball game.
The park was later rebuilt as Navin Field; then, in 1938, it was expanded and renamed Briggs Stadium for new Tigers owner Walter Briggs. That season, it also started hosting pro football, and was home to the Lions until 1974 (having been renamed again as Tiger Stadium in 1961).
The University of Detroit Titans had a consistently respectable football program through the first half of the 20th century. Legendary Notre Dame quarterback Charles “Gus” Dorais led the Titans as head coach from 1925 through 1942, posting a record of 113-48-7. Detroit dropped football for the war years of 1943 and 1944, but Dorais continued coaching at Briggs, guiding the NFL’s Lions from 1943 through 1947.
In 1951, Coach Chuck Baer’s Titans were coming off a 6-3-1 mark in 1950, with wins against Villanova and Oklahoma State. They opened 1951 with three straight home games, defeating Toledo, 34-32, and falling to Houston, 33-7, before the Irish arrived.
The Irish were coming off the worst season in Coach Frank Leahy’s tenure, 4-4-1 in 1950, but started ’51 strong with a 48-6 thrashing of Indiana at Notre Dame Stadium. Neil Worden, sophomore fullback from Milwaukee making his varsity debut, smashed across for four touchdowns in a 35-point second quarter. Johnny Lattner contributed a TD and an interception.
The Irish had surprised the football world in the Indiana game by unveiling their new “I” formation backfield. All four backs –- quarterback John Mazur, halfbacks Bill Barrett and John Peitibon and fullback Worden — lined up in a row perpendicular to the line of scrimmage.
Under the lights of Briggs Stadium, Notre Dame got its first score before many in the huge crowd had settled into their seats. Petitbon, a senior sprinter from New Orleans coming off an injury-plagued junior year, took the opening kickoff and raced 85 yards down the right sideline for a TD. Before the first quarter was over, Petitbon added touchdown runs of 80 and 39 yards, and the Irish led 20-0; they made it 26-0 before halftime on a TD pass from Mazur to Jim Mutscheller.
Lattner, primarily a defensive specialist in ’51 before starring at right halfback the next two seasons, picked off Ed Gornak’s pass and raced 32 yards for a fourth-quarter score. Third-stringer Ralph Guglielmi snuck over for the final TD as the Irish triumphed, 40-6.
The loss would propel Detroit to a 4-7 record that season; Notre Dame finished 7-2-1.
During those years, Detroit was one of a number of Catholic universities playing major college football. The Titans’ schedule included regular matchups with fellow Jesuit institutions Marquette, San Francisco, Boston College and Fordham, as well as Villanova and Duquesne.
Notre Dame, on the other hand, was decades into a tradition of playing top schools nationwide, and leaving the other Catholic schools to battle it out with one another for the honor of being the nation’s No. 2-ranked Catholic football squad.
In fact, the Briggs Stadium game was Notre Dame’s only meeting with a fellow Catholic school during a stretch of nearly a half-century, between a 12-6 victory over Loyola of New Orleans to open the 1928 season (the last at Cartier Field) and the 1975 season opener against Boston College at Foxboro, Mass., a 17-3 Irish win.
Four years and two nights after the Detroit game, the Irish played their second night game, a 14-0 win at Miami. Most of ND’s earliest night games were away contests in Southern locations, and many seasons in the 1950s and 60s included no night games.
When the Irish won the 1973 national championship with a 24-23 triumph over Alabama in the 1973 Sugar Bowl, it was only the 15th night game in school history.
The era of night games at Notre Dame Stadium began on September 18, 1982, with a 23-17 season-opening victory against Michigan. The game was made possible with the advent of Musco Mobile Lighting, a company from Oskaloosa, Iowa. The ability to bring in portable lights also made possible late-afternoon kickoffs, in addition to a string of truly “prime time” night games from 1982 to 1990.
Two other night games in that stretch were victories over Michigan – 19-17 in 1988 and 28-24 in 1990 – giving Notre Dame an all-time record of 3-0 vs. the Wolverines in true night games going into Saturday.
Jim Lefebvre is the author of the award-winning book Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions. He also edits the website Forever Irish at www.NDFootballHistory.com, and the e-newsletter Irish Echoes.