By Jim Lefebvre
In the fall of 1957, the Notre Dame football team found itself in a most unusual situation – trying to recover from possibly the worst season in the history of the program.
The 1956 season had ended 2-8, and even though the Irish had produced the Heisman Trophy winner in Paul Hornung, they had suffered a string of one-sided losses to top teams: a 48-8 thrashing at the hands of No. 3 Iowa, and back-to-back home losses to No. 2 Michigan State (47-14) and No. 1 Oklahoma (40-0). The 87 points were easily the most ND ever allowed in consecutive home games.
When fourth-year head coach Terry Brennan gathered his troops together in the fall of 1957, there was a changed attitude. Greater dedication. A certain toughness. And more physical practices.
“In 1956, we had a younger team, and it was felt there wasn’t a great deal of depth,” says 1957 co-captain Ed Sullivan. “The coaches let up on scrimmaging, fearing for injuries. So we hit tackling dummies all week. Only come Saturday, those ‘dummies’ hit back, and moved in different directions that we weren’t used to from practice. And once that happens, it’s hard to adjust to.
“Football, then and now, is a game of fundamentals. You have to know how to block and tackle. And the only way to become proficient at that is to do it. Repetition. Day after day.”
In ’57, the renewed focus on physicality seemed to work as ND started the season by shutting out in-state Big 10 foes Purdue, 12-0, and Indiana, 26-0. The Irish zoomed to No. 12 in the nation, went to Philadelphia and won a squeaker over No. 10 Army, 23-21. They came home and edged Pittsburgh, 13-7, to sit 4-0 on the season, ranked No. 5 in the nation.
The euphoria wouldn’t last, however. On Nov. 2, No. 16 Navy came to rainy Notre Dame Stadium and whipped the Irish 20-6. A trip to No. 4 Michigan State was next, and the Spartans again had a field day against ND, winning 34-6.
So the Irish were now 4-2 on the season and, dating back to the final game of 1955, a 42-20 loss at USC, had lost 11 of their previous 17 games. It was little wonder that they were nearly three-touchdown underdogs as they boarded a plane and headed to Norman, Okla., to meet the three-time defending champion Oklahoma Sooners.
By 1957, Bud Wilkinson was already a football legend – a walking embodiment of college football excellence, having been a part of six national championship teams. The Minneapolis native was a guard and quarterback for head coach Bernie Bierman at Minnesota, helping lead the Golden Gophers to three consecutive national championships from 1934 to 1936.
Wilkinson’s overall record as head coach at Oklahoma from 1949 through Nov. 15, 1957 was a Rockne-like 101-8-2. The Sooners had not lost since the 1953 opener, when Coach Frank Leahy and his top-ranked Irish came to Norman and defeated No. 6 OU, 28-21. After a 7-7 tie against Pittsburgh the next week, the Sooners beat Texas, 19-14 to start the most dominating run in college football history.
After closing out 1953 with nine straight wins, Oklahoma went 10-0 in ’54, 11-0 in ’55 and 10-0 in ’56. So far in ’57, the Sooners had ripped through seven opponents, outscoring them, 200-48. That made 47 straight wins for the Sooners, the all-time record in major college football.
Sullivan, the Irish captain and center, injured his knee the previous week against Michigan State, and was not part of the Notre Dame traveling party headed to Oklahoma, as each available spot was filled by an able-bodied player. But he managed to find his own way to Norman, and before the game he reached the Notre Dame locker room, only to be stopped by a security guard.
“They had to go get someone to identify me, tell them I was the captain of Notre Dame,” Sullivan recalled recently. “When I got into the dressing room, I think it had an impact on the guys. They didn’t expect me to be there, and now all of a sudden it’s, ‘how did he get here?’ I think it blew a lot of them away to see me show up.”
And the Irish were further fired up when they saw what Sullivan carried with him.
“We rolled out (hundreds of) the telegrams pasted together,” he said. “The students had gotten organized and sent all these telegrams, and I took them with me to the locker room. My message was, ‘The student body is here with me, supporting you.’ Well, the fellows were so excited, they nearly crushed Coach Brennan leaving the locker room.”
As for the game, Oklahoma “was expected to annihilate us, especially after what they had done to us the previous year,” Sullivan said. But he recalls that teammate Nick Pietrosante was “a big factor all day, on offense and defense.” On the winning drive, “it was Pietrosante to the left, Pietrosante to the right, all the way down the field. Then, on the winning play, it was a fake to Pietrosante and a pitchout to Dick Lynch, and he got loose and did the rest.”
Not only was Sullivan unavailable for the Irish that day, but so was his backup Bob Scholtz. That left the center position to third-string Frank Kuchta, from Cleveland. Kuchta performed admirably, and was named AP Lineman of the Week.
“That was just fantastic for Frank,” said Sullivan. “I was tickled to death for him. It was certainly the highlight of his college career.”
The same could be said for a whole bunch of happy Irish headed back to South Bend that night.
Here is how the game was covered by the AP and UP on the scene that day….
Lynch’s Run In Final Four Minutes Gives Irish 7-O Win
Notre Dame Ends Oklahoma Win, Scoring Streaks
By SAUL FELDMAN
NORMAN, Okla, (AP)- Oklahoma’s all-time record of 47 straight football victories was shattered yesterday by an underdog Notre Dame team that marched 80 yards on the ground in the closing minutes for the all-important touchdown and a 7-0 triumph.
Oklahoma, No. 2 ranked in the nation and an 18-point favorite, couldn’t move against the rock-wall Notre Dame line and the Sooners saw another of its national records broken- scoring in 123 consecutive games.
The defeat was only the 9th for Oklahoma Coach Bud Wilkinson since he became head coach at Oklahoma in 1947 and virtually ended any chance for the Sooners getting a third straight national championship.
Although the partisan, sellout crowd of 62,000 came out for a Roman holiday, they were stunned into silence as the Sooners were unable to pull their usual last-quarter winning touchdowns- a Wilkinson team trademark. As the game ended, when Oklahoma’s desperation passing drive was cutoff by an intercepted aerial, the crowd rose as one and suddenly gave the Notre Dame team a rousing cheer.
It was a far cry from last year when the Sooners ran over Notre Dame 40-0. The victory gave the Irish a 3-1 edge in the five-year-old series dating back to 1952.
The smashing, rocking Notre Dame line didn’t permit the Sooners to get started either on the ground or in the air. The Sooners were able to make only 98 yards on the ground and, in the air, just 47. Notre Dame, paced by its brilliant, 210-pound fullback Nick Pietrosante, rolled up 169. In the air, the Irish gained 79 yards, hitting 9 of 20 passes, with Bob Williams doing most of the passing.
Notre Dame’s lone touchdown drive, biting off short but consistent yardage against the Sooners’ alternate team, carried from the 20 after an Oklahoma punt went into the end zone.
Time after time, Pietrosante picked up the necessary yard when he needed it as the Irish smashed through the Oklahoma line. Notre Dame moved to the 8 and the Sooner first team came in to try to make the third Sooner goal line stand of the day. Pietrosante smashed four yards through center and Dick Lynch was stopped for no gain. On the third down, Williams went a yard through center
Then Lynch, who had failed to score from the one-foot line in the second period, crossed up the Sooners and rolled around his right end to score standing up. Monty Stickles converted to give Notre Dame the upset and end collegiate football’s longest winning streak.
The closest Oklahoma could get to Notre Dame’s goal was in the first quarter when the Sooners’ alternate team moved to the 3 before being held on downs. In the third period, brilliant punting by first string halfback Clendon Thomas and alternate quarterback David Baker kept Notre Dame back on its own goal line but the Sooners couldn’t capitalize.
Thomas set punts down on the Notre Dame 15 and 4 and Baker put them down on the 3 and 7 and waited for the breaks that have come the Sooners’ way in the past to help them keep up their streak through 47 games. This time there were no breaks as Notre Dame shook off last week’s jitters that saw the Irish fumble away the ball five times to let Michigan State have an easy 34-6 victory.
Pietrosante scored almost a third of Notre Dame’s rushing yardage as he made 56 yards on 17 carries. Lynch was just two yards behind with 54 in 17 carries while the best any Oklahoma player could muster was 36 yards in 10 tries by first string halfback Clendon Thomas.
Williams completed 8 of 19 for 70 yards. In Oklahoma’s last minute desperation drive, third string quarterback Bennett Watts made 2 of 3 for 31. Notre Dame was the last team to beat Oklahoma, at the start of the 1953 season on the same field that it smothered the Sooners yesterday. Then coach Frank Leahy’s Irish beat Oklahoma 28-21. The next game, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh tied 7-7. Then, the Sooners set sail through the 47 games until Terry Brennan’s Irish stopped the string yesterday.
Wilkinson, the nation’s winningest, active coach, had amassed 101 victories in his 10 years at Oklahoma. There were 3 ties. Yesterday was his 8th loss.
Oklahoma started out as if it would stretch its string to 48 at the expense of the Irish. It marched the first time it got its hands on the ball from the Sooner 42 down to the Irish 13 but the big Notre Dame line stiffened on the 13.
Oklahoma continued to play in Notre Dame territory the rest of the first quarter and had another chance when a Notre Dame fumble with 9 minutes gone was recovered by right guard Dick Corbitt on the Notre Dame 34. However, the Sooners were stopped cold and finally Baker had to punt on fourth down.
In the second quarter another Sooner drive got down to the 23 but on the first play second quarter, starting back Carl Dodd fumbled. The ball was punched around in the Sooner backfield and Pietronsante finally smothered it on the Notre Dame 48.
Then Williams started his passing attack to three different receivers and piloted the Irish down to the 3 with first and goal. Pietrosante picked up a yard in each of two plunges, Frank Reynolds went to the one foot line and then Jim Just was held for no gain.
Then Notre Dame came back with its bruising ground game and moved to the 16. With fourth down, Stickles came in for his fake kick but instead hit Just on the six for a first down. It was then on the second play that Reynolds pass was intercepted by Baker in a desperation lunge in the end zone.
“They Were Just Better”: Wilkinson
Lynch scores winning touchdown around end.
NORMAN, Okla. (UP)- Some may have called Notre Dame’s upset 7-0 decision over Oklahoma yesterday “The luck of the Irish”, but victorious coach Terry Brennan said simply “we just played 60 minutes of good football against a great team.”
Brennan and the entire Notre Dame squad emphasized that the triumph was the result of a great team effort combined with superb scouting.
Coach Bud Wilkinson in his usual sober tone said it was a tough job to accept defeat in the face of his team’s brilliant 47-game winning streak. “They were just better than we were yesterday,” he said. “They deserved to win.”
Brennan said he could not single out any individual as the key player but said quarterback Bob Williams; guards James Schaaf and Allen Ecuyer and tackle Don Lawerence were the stalwarts “if anyone has to be mentioned personally.” “It feels great to beat a grand team and for the first time we played 60 minutes of football and we came down here to win,” Brennan said in a dressing room jammed with with wishers. “Oklahoma is a great team and must be considered as good as any we played. We just happened to have one of our best days and I don’t believe anyone could have beaten us.”
Brennan said that every play in Notre Dame’s touchdown drive was engineered by Williams. Dick Lynch, who scored the the touchdown was probably the happiest fellow among the Irish. “That is the shortest but best touchdown I’ve scored this season. Monty Stickles blocked out the end and Pietrosante took care of the outside halfback. I believe we could have gone 95 yards on the play if we had been at the other end of the field.”
Brennan, asked if he would have called a field goal on the fourth down play instead of a run, replied, “No, we decided at the half to go all the way. We were afraid Oklahoma could go all the way anytime they had the ball and felt that it would take a touchdown to win.”
Williams explained the winning play thusly. “They were in tight, real tight, just waiting for me to give the ball to Pietrosante. Well, I just faked it to him and tossed out to Lynch and it worked like a charm.”
Wilkinson said Oklahoma really never had a chance to score. ”They had our pass receivers covered very well,” he added. “We had time to throw the ball but couldn’t get anybody open.”
Asked why he put his third and fourth stringers into the game near the finish, Wilkinson said, “I just thought they might do better.”
Jim Lefebvre writes at Forever Irish (www.NDFootballHistory.com). He is author of the award-winning book Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions, and is currently working on the definitive biography of Knute Rockne, entitled Coach For A Nation: The Life and Times of Knute Rockne, scheduled for release in 2013.