Thursday, October 25, 2012

End of The Streak

One of the biggest college football games of this weekend, if not the biggest, is the matchup between Notre Dame and Oklahoma on Saturday night in Norman. Notre Dame, in its annual ritual of trying to recapture its past glory, comes into the game unbeaten and ranked #5, while the Sooners, losers only to Kansas State, are #8. This ought to be a terrific game, which means it will probably fall victim to ESPN’s hype machine and won’t come anywhere near the buildup.

These two teams have a history against each other, and this might be the most important meeting between the two since 1957. That game, however, made history, and this year’s edition will be hard-pressed to match it.

It was November 16, 1957, and the Fighting Irish brought a record of 4-2 into Norman against the 7-0 Sooners. But Oklahoma was more than undefeated in 1957 – they had not lost a game since 1953. They had been beaten 28-21 by Notre Dame early in 1953, then tied Pitt 7-7, before reeling off a string of 47 consecutive victories (including the tie against Pitt, a run of 48 without a loss).

Today, it’s staggering to think about: three consecutive undefeated seasons (1954, 1955 and 1956) and two national championships (1955 and 1956). Even considering that college football was much more regional in the 1950s, and that Oklahoma had dominated the Big 7 Conference for years, still – 47 straight victories. To put this in context, since World War I only four major college teams have had winning streaks of 30 games or more: Toledo (35 from 1969-1971), Miami (34 from 2000-2002), and – Oklahoma again (31 from 1948-50). For the 11 seasons from 1948 to 1958, Oklahoma posted a record of 107-8-2. Not bad.

Eh, maybe not so much?  The start of the
SI jinx - note the date of the issue
The 1957 game against Notre Dame became legendary, of course, because the Irish ended the streak, beating the Sooners 7-0. The game had everything you could ask for: tradition (two of the most storied teams in college football), mystique (the Golden Dome vs. the Unbeaten), and hatred (the South’s anti-Catholicism vs. the North’s scorn for redneck Okies). Sooner football was everything for a state whose biggest claim to fame was the musical Oklahoma, and the thought of Oklahoma losing was, well, unthinkable.

The Sooners started out strongly but were unable to convert. Notre Dame broke the scoreless tie in the 4th quarter on a short touchdown pass to Dick Lynch, and it began to sink in that Oklahoma might actually lose. In the waning minutes the Sooners started one last drive, knowing that although the winning streak might end, they could still salvage the undefeated run with a tie (in these days before the two-point conversion), but a late interception snuffed out even that hope. The Streak was over and the crowd shocked into silence, followed for many by tears.

Oklahoma would win out the rest of the way, defeating Duke in the Orange Bowl and finishing #4 in the country, but the seniors would carry the burden of being the class that failed to finish their college careers unbeaten. Notre Dame would lose the next week to Iowa and finish the year 7-3, ranked #12.

There’s quite a good book about that undefeated Oklahoma team, appropriately entitled The Undefeated, by Jim Dent, and you can read here for more about the game itself.

Will Saturday’s game have this level of drama? Doubtful – but Oklahoma and Notre Dame should still put on quite a show, in the very stadium in which, 55 years ago, a piece of college football history came to an end.

And here are the highlights of that historic game, narrated by Chris Schenkel.
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