Irish go to Rose Bowl in 1925
By MIKE CONNOLLY
In rare instances, the product is as good as the hype.
Such was the case in 1925 when Knute Rockne took his 9-0 football team — with its famed Four Horsemen backfield — across the country and defeated the Stanford Indians, 27-10, in the 1925 Rose Bowl.
"The writers who have been describing their prowess must be sadly limited as to superlatives in their vocabularies," Eugene Nixon, head coach of Pomona College, wrote in the Jan. 20, 1925 edition of Scholastic Magazine. "For none of them have done the Irish justice."
Thanks to Grantland Rice's writing and George Strickler's photography, the Irish backfield of Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Don Miller and Elmer Layden achieved legendary status from coast to coast. Rice had begun the hype with his Oct. 24, 1924 article on Notre Dame's 13-7 victory over Army. Sports wires spread his story that began with the famed line, "Outlined against a blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again," to every newspaper in America.
Following Rice's story and the team's return to South Bend, Strickler posed the four players in uniform on the backs of four horses. The photo spread across the country and kept the Irish backfield on the lips of every football fan in the country.
When the Irish arrived in Los Angeles on Dec. 31, 1924, a crowd of thousands greeted Rockne's squad at the train station. The trip to the West coast was perhaps the most highly anticipated road game in the history of college football.
In the days before national radio broadcasts and highlights on Sportscenter, people on the West Coast could only read about Notre Dame's football prowess. The team's first trip to California gave West Coast fans their only chance to see Notre Dame in person.
In front of a crowd of 60,000, Stanford jumped out to a 3-0 first quarter lead after Murray Cuddleback's 27-yard field goal.
The Irish got on the board early in the second quarter with its special combination of powerful blocking by the front line — known as the Seven Mules — and elusive running by the Four Horseman. Traveling 46 yards, the Irish drive concluded when fullback Layden plunged three yards into the end zone. The extra point failed, however, and the Irish led 6-3.
The Stanford defense was caught completely off-guard by the unique Irish attack.
"Every play was something new and the combination of deceptive shift, hidden ball, effective interference and magnificent individual running was something that probably no team in the country could have solved at first sight," Bill Henry said to the Los Angeles Times.
Stanford effectively stopped the Notre Dame offense after that first drive — holding the Irish offense to just 140 yards for the rest of the game.
While the Irish offense might have been held in check, Layden dominated the Indians all afternoon. He stung Stanford for the second time five minutes after his first touchdown.
The Indians had driven into Irish territory when fullback Ernie Nevers got the ball and pulled up to pass. Layden stepped in front of the pass at the 22-yard line and returned the errant throw 78 yards for another Irish touchdown.
Despite their 13-3 halftime lead, the Irish came into the locker room tired and hurting from the pounding of the bigger, more physical Indians. Quarterback Struhldreher broke his ankle in the first quarter but continued to play. Rockne was concerned with his team's ability to hang with Stanford in the second half.
"I was quite worried between halves as my men seemed all tuckered out," he told the Los Angeles Times after the game. "And they frankly told me that they didn't think they could last the second half."
Although battered and bruised like the rest of the team, Layden kept up his spectacular play. In the third quarter, he boomed a punt to the Stanford 20-yard line. The punt return was fumbled and Ed Hunsinger picked up the loose ball and returned it for a touchdown and a commanding 20-3 Irish lead.
Stanford made one last stab at a comeback late in the third quarter. Nevers stopped an Irish drive at the Indian 20-yard line with an interception and returned the ball to midfield. Led by Nevers' powerful running, Stanford moved the ball to the Notre Dame 7-yard line.
Stanford quarterback Ed Walker hit Ted Shipkey for a 7-yard touchdown and cut the Notre Dame lead to 20-10.
Stanford threatened to cut into Notre Dame further when it drove within eight inches of the Irish goal line. But in the shadow of its own goalpost, the Irish defense dug in and stopped Nevers short of the goal line on fourth down.
Finally, Layden finished off Stanford with 30 seconds remaining in the game. Nevers again dropped back to pass and once again Layden stepped in front of the intended receiver and returned the ball 70 yards for a touchdown.
Despite gaining only seven first downs compared to Stanford's 17, Notre Dame left the West coast with its first national title and hailed as the first true "national" champion.
"For the first time in the history of the country," the Louisville Post wrote on Jan. 2, 1925. "It is possible to place a finger on a particular football team and say `This is the best.' The 11 from the University of Notre Dame, located in South Bend, Indiana, has earned this indisputable distinction."
All Sports Stories for Friday, September 17, 1999