It has been 46 years since Notre Dame’s gridiron gang last rolled onto Owen Field. Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, The Beatles stopped touring and the Vietnam War was being broadcast into our living rooms.
The Fighting Irish held a 4-0 record and had ascended to the top of the national rankings. The Sooners were 10th in the AP poll also with a 4-0 record, which included an upset over Texas. That victory snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Longhorns, and, suddenly, head coach Jim Mackenzie was a savior in the Sooner Nation.
The Irish overpowered Oklahoma, 38-0, and the crimson faithful fell back to earth from Cloud Nine. OU and Notre Dame met only twice in the next 33 years (1968 and 1969). They had met seven times in a span of 14 years before that. Two of the most storied football programs in college football history have met a total of nine times.
Since 1936, the modern era of awarding national championships, Notre Dame has won the crown eight times; Oklahoma seven times. The Irish have had seven Heisman Trophy winners; the Sooners have had five. Notre Dame boasts 184 All-Americans; OU claims 153. The Irish have 50 enshrinees in the College Football Hall of Fame; the Sooners have 22.
Once, in 1949, both teams were ranked one and two nationally in the final Associated Poll in 1949, with (you guessed it) Notre Dame on top. That year both teams defeated their opponents by an average score of 36-8. The Irish held a 10-0 record and OU did better with an 11-0 mark, which included a 35-0 victory over ninth-ranked LSU in the Sugar Bowl. The Irish did not play a bowl game that year. As a matter of fact, they didn’t play in a bowl game for 45 years (1924-1969). The school’s brass didn’t want athletics to outshine academics. But financial incentives got them back in the postseason beginning in 1969.
Still, there were plenty of opportunities for the two to meet up in a bowl game, but it never happened.
The first time OU and Notre Dame met was in 1952 in South Bend. Bud Wilkinson led the Sooners to a 5-0-1 record and fourth place in the AP poll. The Irish were 4-1-1 and ranked 10th under Frank Leahy. About 9,000 Sooner fans made the trip and NBC televised the game nationally.
Notre Dame came out on top, 27-21, but it was the game that vaulted OU’s Billy Vessels to all the way to the Heisman Trophy. He rushed 17 times for 195 yards and scored two touchdowns – one on a 62-yard run and the other on a 28-yard pass. Both teams battled to a 21-all stalemate through the first 46 minutes. Notre Dame capitalized on an Oklahoma fumble for the final tally.
The top-ranked Irish came to Norman a year later for the season opener for both squads. The Sooners were ranked sixth. Notre Dame did one point better than the previous year with a 28-21 victory. The Irish scored off OU errors—two fumbles, a blocked punt and an interception.
Oklahoma had a chance to tie the game with 5:11 remaining. Merrill Green intercepted an Irish pass on the OU 40. The comeback hope died two plays later when Notre Dame’s Johnny Lattner intercepted Buddy Leake’s pass.
Oklahoma returned to South Bend in 1956 and crushed the Irish, 40-0, en route to Bud Wilkinson’s third national championship and second straight.
Notre Dame brought a dismal 1-3 record to the fray. Irish quarterback Paul Hornung won the Heisman Trophy that year, but his performance against the Sooners was anything but stellar. He completed eight of 13 passes, but Oklahoma intercepted four of his throws—twice returning them for scores.
OU halfback Tommy McDonald, who finished third in the Heisman voting that year, was a menace to the trophy’s winner. Hornung also punted in the game. He already had one blocked by Steve Jennings that set up a 13-0 lead late in the first quarter. Early in the second period, McDonald smashed through the line and blocked Hornung’s kick that propelled OU to a 19-0 advantage.
Nine minutes later, McDonald intercepted Horning’s pass and flew 55 yards for a 26-0 lead. The Irish threatened to score early in the third quarter, but Clendon Thomas tipped Hornung’s pass and McDonald was there to clutch the pigskin at the OU 17. The Sooners marched 83 yards for a 33-0 lead.
Oklahoma’s final tally in this romp came early in the fourth period when Thomas stole Hornung’s pass and sailed 35 yards to pay dirt.
The Irish were embarrassed. They suffered their first shutout in five years, 26 years on their own turf. They returned to Norman a year later with vengeance on their minds. The Sooners, 7-0 and ranked No. 2, sought their 48th consecutive victory on the state’s golden anniversary. The Irish were unranked with a 4-2 record. Oklahoma had not lost a game since dropping that game to Notre Dame in 1953.
Defense ruled the first three quarters of the match-up. OU drove 45 yards on its first possession to the Irish 13, but turned the ball over on downs. The Irish threatened with a drive to the Oklahoma three-yard line, but David Baker intercepted a pass to end the threat.
Notre Dame drove 80 yards in 20 plays and milked 13 minutes off the clock for the winning score. On fourth-and-goal at the OU three, the Sooners stacked the middle of the line expecting the play to come straight up the middle again. Quarterback Bob Williams instead pitched wide to halfback Dick Lynch, who scooted around right end and across the goal line for a 7-0 lead with 3:50 remaining.
Oklahoma returned the kickoff to its 39. Wilkinson put in his alternate unit, believing a fresh set of legs could move the ball downfield more effectively. Passing moved the Sooners to the Irish 24, but Notre Dame intercepted Dale Sherrod’s pass in the end zone to end the threat.
Four years later, Sooner fans were chomping at the bit this time for revenge for ND breaking OU’s record 47-game win streak. It was the season opener for both teams and neither was found in the rankings. Coach Joe Kuharich led his Irish to a 19-6 victory in South Bend.
Notre Dame took a 6-0 lead late in the first quarter, and the Sooners answered with a 75-yard drive to even the score. Halfback Jackie Cowan scored on a four-yard run, but Karl Milstead misfired on the conversion.
Irish halfback Mike Lind scored touchdowns in the second and fourth periods to put the game away.
The Irish came to Norman in 1962 for their season opener, but it was the second game for the Sooners, who had scored a thrilling win over Syracuse the week before. Again, neither team was ranked, but Notre Dame extended its winning streak over Oklahoma with a 13-7 victory.
The Irish took the opening kickoff and marched 69 yards in 10 plays to take a 7-0 lead. Oklahoma later swept 58 yards in 10 plays to tie the game with 38 seconds left in the first period. Paul Lea scored OU’s lone touchdown on a one-yard run.
The Irish took the second-half kickoff and marched 89 yards in 19 plays for the final tally. The Sooners had a chance to possibly win the game when John Flynn recovered Daryl Lamonica’s fumble on the ND 34 with 2:27 remaining in the game. Norman Smith threw an interception on the next play to squelch any comeback effort.
When both teams met in 1966, the Irish scored all of their points in the second and third quarters, cashing in 17 of those points off Oklahoma turnovers. OU’s deepest penetration was a drive to the ND 27, but Mike Vachon missed a field goal.
The Sooners returned to South Bend in 1968. Jim Mackenzie died of a heart attack in the spring of 1967 and Chuck Fairbanks took over as the Sooner skipper. He led OU to a 10-1 record and No. 3 ranking in ’67. OU was ranked fifth and Notre Dame fourth in the season opener for both teams. Oklahoma quarterback Bob Warmack tossed three touchdown passes, and the first two gave the Sooners a 14-7 lead in the first period. The Irish scored four touchdowns in the middle quarters en route to a 45-21 victory.
The two teams did not meet again for 31 years. Bob Stoops, in his first year at OU, led the Sooners to a 3-0 mark and a No. 23 ranking before heading to South Bend. The Irish, coached by Bob Davie, were unranked with a 1-3 record. The Sooners blew a 16-point lead in a 34-30 loss.
Notre Dame drove 76 yards for a 7-0 lead on its first series. OU answered with Brandon Daniels’ 89-yard kickoff return to tie the game. Daniels returned five kickoffs for a school-record 229 yards in the game. Josh Heupel’s three TD passes helped OU to a 30-14 lead through the first 35 minutes. Then the Sooner defense went AWOL, giving up three touchdowns and 314 yards the rest of the way. Notre Dame drove 98 yards for the winning touchdown.
The Irish return to Owen Field’s sacred soil bringing an 8-1 series record, which includes five straight wins. They are currently undefeated and ranked fifth in all polls. And, Sooner fans are still chomping at the bit for a victory over them.