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Notre Dame vs. Southern California -- Part One

by RocketShark, Monday, October 10, 2011, 09:37

Notre Dame vs. Southern California -- Part One: The Game is On

Much of the history of Notre Dame football is basically known to fans of the Fighting Irish. In 1887 players from the University of Michigan traveled to South Bend to teach ND students about the game followed by a friendly scrimmage. For years afterward the sport gradually found traction and schedules grew along with interest among students and locals. But by the time Jesse Harper became the head coach of the football team in 1913 the program was at a crossroads. There were questions about the financial sustainability of the sport at Notre Dame in addition to concerns about its overall value for the University.

Harper's plan to schedule and defeat Army became a signature moment for Notre Dame football, not only financially but by introducing the University to the nation through the sport. Later schedules would expand to include Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Coach Harper's protege and successor, Knute K. Rockne, took over a program in 1918 that had a firm foundation but still had room to grow. Conventional means to do this, such as joining a conference, proved to be a futile strategy. So Coach Rockne, with a keen mind for innovation, ventured into a scheduling philosophy that garnered success around the country and cultivated a nationwide fan base.


In 1924, the football program enjoyed it's most successful reign since the days of George Gipp. With the Four Horsemen running the new box shift formation, the Fighting Irish won every regular season game. When the decision was made to participate in the Rose Bowl (due in part to providing a positive image of the University to combat Ku Klux Klan/anti-Catholic propaganda stemming from a clash in May that year), Notre Dame cemented its claim to the national championship after defeating Pop Warner's Stanford team.

But then some things began to unravel. There were reports of anti-Catholic taunts in Nebraska and the administration there was looking to change some compensation agreements to their benefit. After the 1925 game, the Notre Dame administration decided it was time to part ways with the Cornhuskers on the grid iron.

Two thousand miles away on the West Coast an eager young graduate manager for the University of Southern California football team named Gwynn Wilson had been repeatedly turning over an idea in his head. While the Trojans were enjoying some success in the Pacific Coast Conference, they were hungry for the national stage. Of all the teams that could provide a prestigious match-up, there was only one choice. Wilson sold his idea to the executive secretary of USC, Harold Stonier, who advised the graduate manager to personally present the idea of a home-and-away series to Knute Rockne, who was relatively close in Nebraska for their annual game. Stonier encouraged Wilson to bring his new bride along for the trip.

Notre Dame lost to Nebraska 17-0. Coach Rockne was not in the best of moods on the train trip home. Wilson repeatedly tried to broach the subject of a ND-USC series but he found Rockne to be evasive. Finally, Rockne rejected the idea on the grounds that he was no longer interested in so many away games, especially in initiating one even further away than Omaha. And, so it seemed, that was that. Except that while the two men were discussing the idea, so were their better halves. Bonnie Rockne was charmed by Marion Wilson and enjoyed hearing of the Southern California climate and vacation potential. It was said that years earlier USC had tried to hire Rockne as their new football coach and Bonnie was all for the idea. But apparently while Rock had the final say in not moving to Southern California, Bonnie exercised her authority in demanding a sunny vacation at the end of the season every other year.

Wilson was approached by Rockne who wanted more details about the series. After discussing the idea with University president Father Matthew Walsh, he telephoned Wilson with his decision.

"The game is on."

Knute Rockne

1926 - The Fighting Irish seemed to be back to their winning ways and were on-course for their second national championship. They had dispatched eight opponents, shutting out seven of them. Coach Rockne had decided the match with Carnegie Tech could be handled by his second-in-command, Hunk Anderson, while he went off to scout future opponent Navy. But CT turned the tables on ND, blanking them 19-0. Rockne was devastated, and the team went through a gauntlet of practices. They continued even on the train trip west, making a couple of scheduled stops.

For their part, USC had only lost a close decision to Stanford, and the Trojans were eager to face the high profile Irish.


The first quarter ended without a score as the two teams tested each other to find weaknesses. Finally in the second quarter, the Irish managed to march 75 yards to the end zone. Down 7-0, the Trojans fought back two series later and drove 71 yards to answer. But the point after was blocked. USC scored again when Don Williams, a big quarterback in those days, carried the ball nine consecutive times for 57 yards. But again, the point after attempt was no good.

With time running out for Notre Dame, Coach Rockne did the unthinkable. He replaced the reliable Chuck Riley at QB with undersized Art Parisien, who had been seriously injured six weeks prior and advised not to play. Rock needed the scrappy left-hander and in he went. He completed a long pass play to Butch Niemiec for 35 yards. Later, at 3rd down on USC's 23 yard line, Parisien took the snap and ran to his left, pulling in the Trojan defense, then he let fly and found Niemiec by himself on the 5 yard line for the winning touchdown. The point after attempt was blocked and the final score was 13-12, Irish.

Coach Jones offered his congratulations to Coach Rockne, who thanked his opponent while beaming with pride and excitement.

"It was the greatest game I ever saw!"

Click here for the Associated Press account of the game.

Click here for film highlights of the game (from tjnd88's vault of classic Notre Dame film and video).

1927 - Unbeaten (once tied) USC traveled to Chicago to face Notre Dame at Soldier Field. Legend has this as the largest attended college football game in history, with 120,000 packed in to watch the marquee match-up. It was defensive battle, with USC finally breaking the plane on a 4th-and-goal pass play. A missed extra point attempt made it 6-0, Trojans. The Irish eventually evened the score before going ahead with a successful extra point kick. But a controversy ensued after ND benefited from a bad call when an apparent safety was incorrectly nullified. What happened was a potential interception by Notre Dame was knocked loose and the ball flew out the back of the end zone. But the referee ruled the interception was incomplete. For all who saw the film afterwards, including the referee, it was deemed that a bad call had been made.

1929 - As a stadium was finally being constructed, Rockne's Ramblers played every game this season on the road, with the "home" games all played at Soldier Field. The Irish were rebounding from Rock's worst season, a 5-4 campaign that at least included winning the Army game for the Gipper. But USC had finally managed a victory over the Rockmen and had claimed a share of the national championship in the process.


Rockne and his Irish were not about to let the tough road schedule get the best of them. They were firing on all cylinders, prompting their head coach to admit to Curly Lambeau that this was the best team he'd ever coached. "But I can't tell them that...they might believe me."

The issues with the kicking game continued to plague the Trojans. They scored first and had to settle for a 6-0 lead. Then Notre Dame almost immediately tied the game, but also missed the extra point. A few series later the Irish punched in the go-ahead score and the extra point was good. But the ensuing kick-off was returned 95 yards for a touchdown. And the extra point? Missed again, securing victory for Notre Dame and their second national championship.


1930 - On the verge of his second consecutive undefeated season and third career national championship, the greatest coach in college football history masterfully did what he did best: outfox everyone. While the Irish were squeaking by opponents like SMU and Army, the Trojans were outscoring opponents 376 - 32 (plus dropping a 6-7 decision to Washington State). With everyone in the country predicting an end to Notre Dame's 18-game winning streak, Rockne decided to make the 3rd string fullback, Bucky O'Connor, the starter. But to keep the idea quiet, he had him switch jerseys with the assumed starter, Dan Hanley. While stopped in Tucson for the traditional practice during the train trip, newspaper reporters watched "Hanley" and weren't impressed as O'Connor was held back from running his game routes. One even interviewed him and never caught on he was really talking to O'Connor.


But Rockne also put one or two over his players. First, he threatened to quit on the spot when the team wasn't dressed for practice. Their excuse was the locker room was locked. But it was Rockne himself who had bolted the door and unlocked it just before coming out to feign disgust over the team's unpreparedness. They begged for another chance, and he begrudgingly agreed. Now he had the team inspired to practice even harder. For a little extra incentive, he had a popular former assistant named Tom Lieb publicly predict a USC victory. The players felt betrayed and vowed to win the game.

In the final master stroke, he accepted an invitation by none other than Southern California to address the Trojan team at a rally. As if already conceding defeat, he asked the soon-to-be-victorious Trojans if they'd at least shake hands with the fallen Irish after the game. It'd mean a lot to them.

The game itself was a surprise to everyone but Knute Rockne. In a 27-0 rout, the Irish dominated the Trojans from start to finish. O'Connor, unleashed to his full potential, scored twice. The only blemish was a mixed extra point attempt. Chicago held a welcoming parade for the national champions. ND students stormed South Bend in jubilation.

Less than four months later the celebration turned to horror after Knute Rockne was tragically killed in a plane crash. His successor, Hunk Anderson, would not beat USC in three attempts.

Tomorrow: The Thin Man



The Game is On: Notre Dame vs. USC by Cameron Applegate
The Glamour Game by Bill Cromartie and Jody Brown
Scholastic Football Review (assorted issues)
The Notre Dame Football Scrapbook by R.M. Cohen, J.A. Deutsch and D.S. Neet
The Fighting Irish Football Encyclopedia by Michael Steele
Out of Bounds by Michael Bonifer and L.G. Weaver



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