Friday, November 16, 2007

the Greatest Upset | by Jay

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of Notre Dame's all-time great victories. In one of the biggest upsets in college football history, coach Terry Brennan's Irish defeated the Oklahoma Sooners, 7-0 in Norman. The victory broke the Sooners' 47-game winning streak, which is still the longest-ever in football history.

Following is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for Maple Street Press' Here Come the Irish about some of the big Irish football anniversaries we'd be celebrating in 2007: Brown's Heisman in '87, the '77 championship, the '47 team (maybe ND's best ever), the first ND football game in 1887, and the like. The Oklahoma upset in '57 ranks right up there among the greatest of ND milestones:

Ironically, Notre Dame had also been the last team to defeat the Sooners, in the 1953 season opener. Bud Wilkinson, the Sooners coach (who had already had strung together a 31-game streak once before at Oklahoma) launched the record run after the 1953 loss to Notre Dame and a subsequent tie to Pittsburgh. Oklahoma then rattled off 47 straight victories, including undefeated seasons in 1954, '55, and '56. They had won consecutive National Championships in '55 and '56.

The Irish arrived in Norman on November 16th as 19-point underdogs. The stout Notre Dame defense never allowed the Sooners offense to get on track, stymieing them for 98 rushing yards and only 47 through the air. The game was a war of attrition, with ND finally breaking a 0-0 stalemate with a touchdown with 3:50 left on the clock. Led by their brilliant fullback Nick Pietrosante, Notre Dame drove from their own 20, setting up a third-down touchdown by halfback Dick Lynch, the only player from either team to see the end zone all day.

On the last drive of the game, Oklahoma reached Notre Dame's 36 yard line, but was intercepted in the end zone to end the game. The sellout crowd of 62,000 was stunned into silence.

Zero points for Oklahoma also ended another record for the Sooners, who had scored in 123 consecutive games. It was only the ninth defeat for Wilkinson in his Oklahoma career to date, going back to 1947.
Oklahoma had been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated that very week, in what has to be one of the earliest examples of the SI cover jinx. The cover title, "Why Oklahoma Is Unbeatable", appears just below the issue date of November 18th, two days after the fateful game. Cosmic karma, indeed.

Tom Coyne has an AP piece this morning on the game, recounting some of the memories of that day:
Several members of the 1957 team said the thing they remember best about the victory was how quiet the stadium got after Lynch scored.

"The silence was deafening," then Irish coach Terry Brennan said last week.

They also recalled how thousands of Sooners fans stayed in the stands long after the game was over.

"After we dressed and came out to leave the stadium, half the stadium was full," Schaaf said. "I think they just couldn't believe it happened. That's a big memory, all those people still there. I remember that very clearly."

Left end Dick Prendergast said Sooner fans helped inspire the victory.

"When we got down there, there was a lot of graffiti on the walls and signs up saying, 'Don't feel bad, you're going to lose,'" he recalled. "It really got the team turned up."

Brennan, who is 79, said the Irish were so young when they lost to the Sooners in 1956 that he took some chances that didn't work out. He felt more confident of his team's ability in 1957 so he played the game more conservatively. He also said he got "lucky."

"In a game like that, you guess you right," he said.

It wasn't all guessing, though. Brennan described Wilkinson as "predictable."

"So I thought, 'Here's our shot,'" he said...

Notre Dame drove 80 yards for the game-winning score. Brennan said he never thought about attempting a field goal on fourth-and-3.

"Because we felt we could score. If you kick the field goal, they could still get you 7-3," he said.

When the Irish returned to South Bend there were thousands of waiting.

"The students were going bananas. It was a long night, but it was a fun night," Brennan said.
Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman had a great article and mailbag roundup this week, with lots of folks from in and around Norman writing in with their memories of the loss. Here's one of the most interesting anecdotes, from a student press box attendant who was working the game:
My other assignment on game day was to cover the Notre Dame dressing room after the game for quotes to be handed out to the reporters in the pressbox... I left the pressbox after Dick Lynch scored (with less than four minutes left in the game) and made my way on the concrete walk between the south end zone and the scoreboard to the east side of the stadium where the visiting team’s dressing room was then located.

“When I walked in, there was not a single person inside. About three minutes remained in the game. There was a large chalkboard at the front of the room. It looked as if someone had taken an eraser and wiped out the X’s and O’s from the coach’s halftime talk. Instead, the only words in chalk on the board were, “WE WON THIS ONE FOR ALL THE CATHOLICS IN OKLAHOMA.” I don’t know whether a student manager or a priest or who knows who else ran in after Lynch’s touchdown and grabbed the chalk. Or, whether it was written as the Irish were leaving the room at halftime. Berry, the words on that board must have been erased as soon as the team reached the dressing room after the game. That one line on the board was never reported by anyone.

“My recollection of what I heard Jack Ogle say on the public address system when the game ended differs with what someone told you. The crowd of 55,000 was 98% Sooner, and the silence when the clock hit 0:00 was eerie. I heard Jack say, something like, ’Folks, if this team has given you any pleasure or joy in the last five years, let it be known now.’ And at that point the crowd stood and roared as the OU team left the field. The feeling of shock that day and for several days after that are still etched in my memory. Thanks for your column. It relived an eventful day in my life.
The Oklahoman also put together this poignant video feature, which gives you some insight into just how shattering the loss was for Oklahoma fans.

Finally, our man T.J. unearthed some rare film from the big upset. This is the game-winning, 80-yard drive, capped by Lynch's run for the touchdown, and the ensuing celebration by the Irish team.

T.J.: This is some truly rare footage from this game : COLOR film. You never see any color film when they show clips of this game on TV. I gotta believe only a handful of us have this in the archives. Unfortunately, it is silent film and no play-by-play is known to exist.