Army-Notre Dame In Its Golden Age
Army doesn’t play Notre Dame this year, but if one is to appreciate the story of West Point football, the school in South Bend, Indiana, cannot be left out of the larger tale. One of the most famous pieces of American sportswriting – a work which has received iconic status and retains it today – is the review of the 1924 Army-Notre Dame game by one of the fathers of college football writing, Grantland Rice.
You know about The Four Horsemen and the blue-gray October sky, but have you read – as Paul Harvey likes to say – “the REST of the story”? Though Notre Dame did win that contest, 13-7, Army did have its moments, and that’s a larger way of accurately capturing the way the rivalry developed for most of the first half of the 20th century, with the 1930s being the exception, the time when Notre Dame established near-total control of the matchup.
Here’s Grantland Rice writing about Army’s touchdown from the 1924 game against Notre Dame:
Up to this point the Army had been outplayed by a crushing margin. Notre Dame had put underway four long marches and two of these had yielded touchdowns. Even the stout and experienced Army line was meeting more than it could hold. Notre Dame's brilliant backs had been provided with the finest possible interference, usually led by Stuhldreher, who cut down tackler after tackler by diving at some rival's flying knees. Against this, each Army attack had been smothered almost before it got underway. Even the great Wilson, the star from Penn State, one of the great backfield runners of his day and time, rarely had a chance to make any headway through a massed wall of tacklers who were blocking every open route.
The sudden change came late in the third quarter, when Wilson, raging like a wild man, suddenly shot through a tackle opening to run 34 yards before he was finally collared and thrown with a jolt. A few minutes later Wood, one of the best of all punters, kicked out of bounds on Notre Dame's 5 yard line. Here was the chance. Layden was forced to kick from behind his own goal. The punt soared up the field as Yeomans called for a free catch on the 35 yard line. As he caught the ball he was nailed and spilled by a Western tackler, and the penalty gave the Army 15 yards, with the ball on Notre Dame's 20-yard line.
At this point Harding was rushed to quarter in place of Yeomans, who had been one of the leading Army stars. On the first three plays the Army reached the 12 yard line, but it was now fourth down, with two yards to go. Harding's next play was the feature of the game.
As the ball was passed, he faked a play to Wood, diving through the line, held the oval for just a half breath, then, tucking the same under his arm, swung out around Notre Dame's right end. The brilliant fake worked to perfection. The entire Notre Dame defense had charged forward in a surging mass to check the line attack and Harding, with open territory, sailed on for a touchdown. He traveled those last 12 yards after the manner of food shot from guns. He was over the line before the Westerners knew what had taken place. It was a fine bit of strategy, brilliantly carried over by every member of the cast.
The cadet sector had a chance to rip open the chilly atmosphere at last, and most of the 55,000 present joined in the tribute to football art. But that was Army's last chance to score. From that point on, it was seesaw, up and down, back and forth, with the rivals fighting bitterly for every inch of ground. It was harder now to make a foot than it had been to make ten yards. Even the all-star South Bend cast could no longer continue to romp for any set distances, as Army tacklers, inspired by the touchdown, charged harder and faster than they had charged before.
When you look at the golden years of Army-Notre Dame games – specifically connected to the Army tenures of four coaches: Charles Daly, Biff Jones, Arthur Parmalee, and then Red Blaik – Army landed its share of punches. Under those four coaches and not anyone else, Army went 7-12-3. Out of 22 games, Army did not lose in 10 of them – this against some of Notre Dame’s very best teams and coaches, featuring Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy.
In 1913, Notre Dame unveiled the forward pass to surprise the Cadets. Army and coach Charles Daly adjusted in 1914 and won. After Army won in 1927, it was only then that Knute Rockne felt the need to tell his Irish to “win one for the Gipper” in 1928. Then came the scoreless tie in the “Game of the Century” in 1946. Notre Dame was voted No. 1 over Army (No. 2) at the end of the season, but with Army having thrashed Notre Dame the previous two years behind Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, Notre Dame’s inability to beat Army felt like more of a failure for the Irish than for West Point – it was like a boxing match in which the challenger could not defeat the champion, no matter how hard he tried.
Army-Notre Dame. Its best years belong to the past, but for all the mythology which surrounds Touchdown Jesus and everything else in South Bend, it’s very much worth remembering that Army belonged on the same field as the Irish, when the Irish were at their best.
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