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Heisler’s Last Word – Oklahoma Edition

Sep 26, 2013, 10:35 AM EDT

John Heisler is in his 36th year as a member of the Notre Dame athletic staff – including 16 years as sports information director at Notre Dame after spending 10 previous years as a member of the sports publicity staff. He added the title of assistant athletics director in 1995, and then was named an associate athletics director in 2001. Heisler was promoted to his current position as senior associate athletics director in October 2004. For each Notre Dame football game he pens a one-page article on the game. Here are his thoughts on the Oklahoma – Notre Dame football game…

It’s likely to have little if any effect on the outcome of today’s Notre Dame-Oklahoma clash—yet the short, if somewhat astounding, history of the Sooner-Irish football series may qualify it as remarkable as any in the 126 years worth of Notre Dame efforts on the gridiron.

These are two programs that rank among the elite names in college annals, and they never met until 1952. Yet, the manner in which the Irish over the years have managed to carve out wins over mostly very strong Sooner squads has left fans on both sides shaking their heads.

The results have been one-sided in Notre Dame’s favor (the Irish lead the overall series 9-1, including a 5-0 mark in games played in Norman), yet many of the circumstances of the individual games comprise what college football memories are made of.

Consider what has transpired:

* Notre Dame is 5-0 against Oklahoma in Norman, including wins over Sooner teams ranked second (1957), sixth (1953), eighth (2012) and 10th (1966) nationally.

* The Irish defeated Sooner teams coached by legendary College Football Hall of Fame coach Bud Wilkinson on five occasions—including Notre Dame victories over Oklahoma teams ranked second, fourth and sixth nationally. No program in America had a better record of success against Wilkinson (he lost only 29 games in 17 seasons at Oklahoma).

* The Notre Dame win in Norman in 1957 ended the longest winning streak in the history of college football at 47 games. The Irish under coach Terry Brennan not only won the game, they shut out the top-rated Sooners 7-0—an opponent that finished 10-1 that season after defeating Duke 48-21 in the Orange Bowl.

Here’s the litany of Irish success:

— 1952—Tenth-rated Notre Dame prevailed 27-21 in Notre Dame Stadium over a Wilkinson-coached Sooner squad that stood 6-0-1 (with 13 straight wins overall) and ended up 8-1-1 and ranked fourth in the last Associated Press poll. The Irish came in as three-touchdown underdogs against an Oklahoma team led by soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner Billy Vessels, who scored all three Sooner touchdowns and ran for 195 yards. It marked the first time an Irish football game was televised nationally.

The Notre Dame Football Media Guide for years included prose summaries of eight of the great games in Irish history (one of them the Notre Dame win over Oklahoma in 1957). A Notre Dame alumnus, Dave Metz, was convinced the ’52 Irish-Sooner game belonged on that list, so he hired a video crew to interview members of that team and produced his own two-hour highlight video on that individual game. The video is titled “A Duel Between a Wolfhound and a Bulldog” (from a line by a Cleveland sportswriter) and it includes commentary by Regis Philbin, then a Notre Dame student. Former South Bend Tribune sports editor Joe Doyle called it “the greatest Notre Dame game I ever saw.”

— 1953—The following year a top-rated Irish team went to Norman and won 28-21 in the season opener against another Wilkinson team that finished 9-1-1 and fourth in the last poll and defeated Maryland 7-0 in the Orange Bowl. Ralph Guglielmi and John Lattner interceptions helped cement the verdict. The Irish ended up 9-0-1 that season (tying Iowa), with Maryland winning the national title in both final polls (then taken before the bowl games).

— 1956—Oklahoma’s only series win came in South Bend as the 4-0 and second-ranked Sooners prevailed 40-0 and went on to go 10-0 and win the national title.

— 1957—Oklahoma came in 7-0 and rated second in the country, but Dick Lynch’s late score (3:50 remaining) enabled Terry Brennan’s squad to prevail 7-0 and end the most noteworthy win streak in the history of the game (plus, the Sooners had not been shut out in 123 games). More than 20 members of that Irish squad (as well as Brennan) are back this weekend to remember that 56-year-old contest and watch the latest rendition.

— 1961—In the Irish season opener, Notre Dame won 19-6 against an Oklahoma squad that finished 5-5.

— 1962—In Notre Dame’s second game of the season, the Irish won 13-7 in Norman against an Oklahoma team that ended up 8-3 and ranked eighth in the final poll, ahead of a 17-0 Orange Bowl loss to Alabama. The following season marked Wilkinson’s last in Norman.

— 1966—On their way to an unbeaten season and consensus national title, Ara Parseghian’s Irish vanquished the Sooners 38-0 in Norman in the most one-sided Irish win of the series. The Sooners ended up 6-4 that season.

— 1968—In another season opener for Notre Dame, the third-rated Irish defeated fifth-ranked Oklahoma 45-21, with the Sooners going on to finish 7-4 (11th nationally) with a 28-27 loss to SMU in the Bluebonnet bowl.

— 1999—In Bob Stoops’ first season at Oklahoma the Irish won 34-30 in Notre Dame Stadium over the 23rd-rated Sooners in one of the more entertaining games of the Bob Davie era with the Irish. Notre Dame rallied from a 16-point deficit. Oklahoma finished 7-5 that year, losing to Ole Miss in the Independence Bowl.

— 2012—Everett Golson launched a 50-yard pass to rookie Chris Brown as the Irish took control of a fourth-period tie game to defeat the once-beaten and eighth-ranked Sooners 30-13 in Norman and keep Notre Dame unbeaten on its way to the Bowl Championship Series title game.

How do you explain all that Notre Dame success? It probably ranks right there with the 4-0 Irish record all-time over Alabama teams coached by Bear Bryant.  Notre Dame defeated Tide teams ranked first (1973 in the Sugar Bowl), second (the next year in the Orange Bowl), 10th in 1976 in Notre Dame Stadium and fifth in 1980 at Legion Field in Birmingham in a game that sent the Irish on to the Sugar Bowl.

Six times against ranked Oklahoma teams the Irish have scored at least 27 points. Four times—twice versus rated Oklahoma squads—the Notre Dame defense has limited the Sooners to a touchdown or less.

If the current Irish can pull that trick again today, against yet another unbeaten and ranked Sooner team, it will mark their 11th straight overall win in Notre Dame Stadium—and that hasn’t happened since a 19-game string in all of ’87, ’88, ’89 and the first two home games in 1990.

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