To me, college football became big business when Notre Dame beat Oklahoma 7 to 0 in 1957. This game was on national television on the Game of the Week on NBC. Lindsey Nelson and Red Grange were announcing. This game broke the Oklahoma Sooners 47 game winning streak dating back to 1953. Ironically, the Irish’s 27-21 win over the Sooners at South Bend in ’52 and their 28-21 victory in Norman in ’53 had been the only two losses suffered by Oklahoma in the last six seasons.
Since 1947, when Bud Wilkinson took over the head coaching position in Norman, the University of Oklahoma had won 101 football games, lost only eight, and tied another three. They had won 60 conference games and lost none, while being tied only twice. The Sooners had played in five bowl games, and emerged victorious in four of them. They were currently riding an NCAA-record 47-game winning streak, during which they had beaten nine ranked opponents, had shut out an amazing 22 opponents, and were averaging 34.5 points per game during the streak while permitting their opponents an average of 5.9. They had also scored in 123 consecutive games, another national record. Along the way, the Sooners had won three national championships, the first coming in 1950, and were currently two-time defending champs after winning in ’55 and ’56.
Despite all of this, including being the owners of a perfect 7-0 record, Oklahoma had lost the top ranking in the AP poll twice during the ’57 season. In the October 14th poll, Michigan State had jumped over the Sooners, only to immediately lose, and Oklahoma reclaimed the top spot. Then two weeks later, Bear Bryant’s Texas A&M team also jumped over the Sooners, and had held the spot the last three weeks.
Wilkinson was known for his refinement of the Split-T offensive formation, but he was also creative. He had invented the no-huddle offense, known as “Go-Go”, a scheme that often confounded opponents. And he also helped break the color barrier on the field when in ’57, Prentice Gautt became the first African-American player at Oklahoma as a sophomore fullback. But Wilkinson had also built the Sooners into a college football dynasty, and they were a team that was so big, so strong, so disciplined, and just so good, that many opponents often entered games with a goal of merely staying competitive all day.
Leading the team offensively was senior halfback Clendon Thomas, who had scored 18 touchdowns in ’56, the most in the nation, and rushed for 817 yards. The offense also featured senior guard Bill Krisher, junior center Bob Harrison, and junior end Ross Coyle, and at the helm was quarterback Brewster Hobby. Wilkinson and his #2 Sooners were averaging 300 yards a game rushing, and entered their next game against Notre Dame game as 19-point favorites opposite one of college football’s storied teams.
The Irish had won more national championships than any team in the country, with three coming in seven seasons under Knute Rockne (’24, ’29 and ’30) before his untimely death, and then returning to glory with four more in the 40’s under Frank Leahy (’43, ’46, ’47 and ’49). It would be the fourth meeting between the two schools, with all three previous games coming in the 50’s, and Notre Dame winning two of them. In fact, the Irish’s 27-21 win over the Sooners at South Bend in ’52 and their 28-21 victory in Norman in ’53 had been the only two losses suffered by Oklahoma in the last six seasons.
Beleaguered fourth-year Irish coach Terry Brennan had been 9-1 and 8-2 with top-ten finishes in the polls in his first two seasons, but he was recently under fire after a dismal ’56 season when they went 2-8, including a 40-0 loss to Oklahoma at Notre Dame Stadium. Brennan he had bounced back and led the Irish to opening wins over Purdue, Indiana, tenth-ranked Army and Pittsburgh to begin the ’57 season 4-0 and climb to #5 in the AP poll. But then came consecutive blowout losses to two ranked opponents, #16 Navy (20-6) and #4 Michigan State (34-6), a former top-ranked team, dropping the Irish out of the poll.
Oklahoma had a lot of motivation to beat the Irish, coincidentally the last team to defeat them, coming back on September 26, 1953 by a 28-21 count. In addition to trying to win a third straight national title, the Sooners were still smarting over the Heisman Trophy selection for ’56, which went to Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung, who claimed the award as the only player to have won from a losing team. Oklahoma felt that the hardware should have gone to one of their stars, either halfback Tommy McDonald or linebacker Gerry Tubbs, who had received equal publicity from the school and finished third and fourth in the voting, but their combined total of 1,697 points easily surpassed Hornung’s 1,066 points.
Early in the nationally televised game and in front of a sellout crowd of 62,000, Notre Dame’s Pat Doyle fumbled and Oklahoma’s Dick Corbitt recovered at the Irish 34. But the Sooners lost five yards in three plays and had to punt. A few minutes later, a Sooners’ push to the Notre Dame 13 a few minutes later was stopped when Irish junior guard Allen Ecuyer broke up Carl Dodd’s fourth-down pass intended for Dennit Morris. On the first play of the second quarter, from the Irish 23, Dodd lost a fumble, and then midway through the same period, Notre Dame’s Nick Pietrosante recovered another Dodd fumble at the Oklahoma 49. The Sooners were self-destructing, as four potential scoring opportunities had vanished.
Until this point, the Notre Dame offense had been unable to move against the Sooners, but starting near midfield, Irish quarterback Bob Williams turned to the passing game and he found some weaknesses in the Oklahoma defense, and openings for some short passes. Williams completed three of five passes as Notre Dame drove to the Oklahoma one yard line, but the Sooners stiffened and stuffed runs by Pietrosante, Jim Just and Bob Reynolds were stopped short, and the Irish were forced to turn the ball over on downs.
Late in the half, Notre Dame reached the Oklahoma 16 and on fourth down, they faked a field goal as Williams tossed a ten-yard pass to Just for a first down. But again, Oklahoma turned the Irish away as David Baker intercepted a Reynolds pass intended for junior end Monte Stickles in the end zone. It sent the two teams into the locker rooms with a scoreless tie, and the closest Oklahoma had been to the goal line was 13 yards.
In the third quarter, neither team could move on offense, and as the game entered the fourth quarter, an impending draw seemed likely as the Irish took possession at their own 20 with just under 13 minutes to go in the game.Williams had a great day, calling every play except for the second quarter fake field goal, and he directed the Irish down the field. Pietrosante, a big 210-pound fullback, gained 35 yards in seven carries during the drive, three times carrying for a first down, and back Dick Lynch also ran for a pair of crucial first downs, as Notre Dame moved down the field.
Williams threw a jump pass to Dick Royer for a first down at the Oklahoma 17, and ultimately, the Irish closed to a first down-and-goal at the Oklahoma eight. Pietrosante followed his guard up the middle for a gain of four, Lynch was stopped for no gain, and then Williams picked up just one on a keeper up the middle. This brought up a fourth down and three, and Brennan decided against kicking a field goal because from so close, the angle was too steep.
The Oklahoma defense was bunched in the middle, covering every one of the gaps in the line, perhaps expecting that Pietrosante would bang inside. On the 20th play of the march, Williams faked an inside handoff to Pietrosante, and the Sooners attacked the fullback, but Lynch took a pitch from Williams, ran around the right end, and went in untouched for the touchdown. Stickles kicked the extra point, and Notre Dame led 7-0, with 3:50 remaining on the stadium’s clock.
Oklahoma punted on its ensuing possession, but they got the ball back when Williams threw incomplete on a fourth-and-14 play. Wilkinson sent in his third-string quarterback, Bennett Watts, and several other reserves, as they were in dire need of quickness at the end of the game. The Irish defense had been stingy all game, and now they needed to step it up even more.
It looked as if Wilkinson had penned a stroke of genius when Watts threw a pass in the direction of Joe Rector that was deflected and then caught by John Pellow, who then rambled 40 yards down to the Irish 36, awakening the stunned crowd. The Sooners were proving that they were not finished, and they were driving for a potential game-tying touchdown. But with less than a minute to play, and with the ball on the Notre Dame 24, Oklahoma’s Dale Sherrod tried to pass to Gautt in the end zone, but Williams, who doubled as a safety on defense, picked off the pass, sealing the victory.
When the dust cleared on this defensive battle, Notre Dame had the 7-0 upset win, ending the longest winning streak in NCAA history. They had been spearheaded by a tenacious defense, which held the Sooners to under 100 yards rushing and less than 50 yards passing, and most importantly, had kept them out of the end zone, suffering their first shutout in 123 games.
As the teams mingled on the field afterward, the sellout crowd gave the Irish a sportsmanlike round of applause for their efforts. Then, as they filed silently out of the stadium, they heard this pronouncement from the public address announcer, “Come back next Saturday folks. That’s when a new winning streak starts.”Afterwards, Wilkinson offered, “I guess we never really had a chance to score during the whole game. They covered our receivers well. We had time to pass, but we couldn’t get anyone open.
We played a fine game, but they played a better one. They were just better than we were today. They deserved to win.”“Oklahoma was a fine team and Bud Wilkinson was a fine coach,” Brennan said, who had spotted something in the Sooners’ game films, “but he was predictable. We prepared for them in detail. We didn’t have a whole lot of speed, we tried to be as basic as possible, and we felt if we could stop their four or five basic plays, we had a chance to win. We knew that Oklahoma might use an unbalanced line and flankers and even some single wing, but we knew, too, that whenever they had to move the ball they went back to their regular split-T, balanced-line offense. So we didn’t do anything too different on defense. We took our basic defense and adjusted it to fit. We played the gaps in their line to close up splits between their linemen and we sent the linebackers in to put pressure on the quarterback. We gave them the flat zone for passes that way, if they could take advantage of it, but we figured we could put enough pressure so that they couldn’t. They didn’t use anything we weren’t expecting.”
Back in South Bend, about 3,000 people greeted the team plane upon its arrival hours after the game, cheering so feverishly that the players were unable to deplane for 20 minutes. When the Irish players got back to campus, another 4,000 fans were waiting to bestow praise on their conquering heroes as the school band repeatedly played the Notre Dame Victory March. And for Monday, classes were cancelled at the university. School president Father Theodore Hesburgh had made the unprecedented decision in the aftermath of the wild celebration that had taken place, reasoning that the students would probably skip classes anyway.