It was a classic battle of No. 1 versus No. 2 in front of 74,000 at New York's Yankee Stadium. The outcome was a far cry from the offensive shootout predicted by the media, and one that left Notre Dame coach, Frank Leahy second guessing himself for years to come.
After Notre Dame won the national championship in 1943, the balance of power shifted in college football. As World War II intensified, coach Frank Leahy, along with many Notre Dame players, left to join the 16 million Americans serving in the United States military. With the absence of Leahy and their star players, Notre Dame struggled during 1944 and 1945. One team that did not struggle as a result of the war was Army.
Led by coach Red Blaik, Army steamrolled their opponents in 1944, winning by an average score of 56-4. They were led by "Mr. Inside," Doc Blanchard, and "Mr. Outside," Glenn Davis. Blanchard, a 205 pound fullback, had intended on enrolling in the Naval Academy, only to be denied due to poor eyesight and being overweight. If Blanchard was Army's tank, Davis was their missile. An extremely quick back, Davis possessed incredible speed, which aided his 11.5 yards per carry average in both 1944 and 1945. Together the "Touchdown Twins" handed Notre Dame their worst loss in school history, a 59-0 defeat in 1944, followed up by a 48-0 loss in 1945.
In 1946, Notre Dame's firepower returned to South Bend not only on the field, but also on the sidelines with the return of Leahy. Leahy's 1943 Irish squad was the last to defeat Army as the Cadets were in the midst of a 25 game winning streak.
The week leading up to game was one of Leahy's toughest as a football coach. The pressure was visibly getting the coach. During the week, Leahy claimed to reporters that he was convinced Army was sending spy planes over the practice fields to try and steal the plays he had specifically designed for the game. The fever spread to the Notre Dame student body as well. Students dubbed themselves S.P.A.T.N.C., which was short for the Society for the Prevention of Army's Third National Championship. Students littered Army coach Red Blaik's football office with postcards taunting Army and predicting an Irish victory. A large number of students also boarded the train to NYC and could be heard chanting as the teams entered the stadium: "59 and 48, this is the year we retaliate!"
Even before the start of the 1946, the nation had circled their calendars with the date of the Notre Dame-Army game. Army, represented American dominance: a strong powerful team that dominated both sides of the ball. They lifted the spirits of Americans during the war years, and showed no signs of slowing down in 1946. Notre Dame represented the Catholic Americans. Largely Irish in fan support, Notre Dame had developed the original subway alumni fan base with the Irish of New York City, which later spread into other major American cities. New York was the nation's biggest stage and had little problem hyping up this premier heavyweight match up.
Army and Notre Dame showcased the two best offenses in the country that year. The Cadets came into the game 7-0 and averaging 30 points a contest. On the other hand Notre Dame was 5-0 and putting up 35 points a contest. There was more star power combined on those two teams than perhaps in any other game ever played. Looking back the game featured four Heisman trophy winners, three Outland trophy winners, and twenty-three All-Americans.
Shortly after kickoff it became quite clear that both teams offenses would take a back seat to their defenses on this day. Army halfback Glenn Davis suggested that if either team had scored early, the game could have been a shootout. Instead, he said it became a chess match between coaches. Rather than offensive fireworks as predicted, Davis summed up both teams' offenses as simply, "three yards and a cloud of dust."
Late in the second quarter and the score still deadlocked at zero, it finally appeared that Notre Dame was going to score. After driving 85 yards down the field, the Irish faced a fourth-and-two from the Army four-yard line. Fans and Army expected Notre Dame to kick a field goal, but Leahy refused. It was a Leahy trademark. Notre Dame did not kick field goals—they were too tough to kick field goals. Instead, Lujack pitched the ball to Bill Gompers, who was dragged down at the 3-yard line, one yard short of the first down.
Army entered Irish territory ten times over the course of the game, but did not score a single time. As the fourth quarter came to a close, Notre Dame was once again driving. Deep in Army territory, Johnny Lujack threw towards the end zone. However, his Army counterpart, QB/DB Arnold Tucker picked the pass off and returned it out to the 20 yard line. It was Tucker's third interception of the game, and Notre Dame's last chance to score. As time was running out, it appeared that the game would end in a tie. However, Army had one last chance.
Army called Mr. Inside's number and handed the ball off to Blanchard. True to his name, Blanchard ran right up the middle, but the Notre Dame defense was ready for him. As the Irish defense piled up, Blanchard bounced off tackle and found an opening on the right side. As he turned the corner, he had an open field in front of him and an almost certain game-winning touchdown run. As Blanchard began to break away, Notre Dame's Johnny Lujack came from the opposite side of the field and made a diving attempt to bring down Blanchard. Had Lujack been a half-second slower, Blanchard would have scored easily, but an outstretched Lujack was able to swipe Blanchard's left leg and trip up the lumbering fullback at the 37-yard line. Despite the tremendous effort of Lujack to track down Blanchard, Army was still in good position to score. They continued to drive down to the 12-yard line of the Irish. Attempting to catch Notre Dame by surprise, Army gave the ball to Davis and called a halfback pass. However, the Irish weren't fooled and the pass was intercepted by Notre Dame's Terry Brennan at the 8-yard line. The Irish had held again. The game remained scoreless.
Fans booed both teams as the game ended in a 0-0 tie. Expecting offensive fireworks, fans saw Notre Dame rack up a mere 219 yards, while Army fared only a little better at 224. Despite the disappointing finish, both teams recovered and went on to finish their seasons undefeated. However, when Army struggled to close out their season against a 1-8 Navy team, voters rewarded the Irish with the national championship.
Despite the fact that there was no winner in the game, the power in college football returned to the Irish. Notre Dame would finish out the 1946 season undefeated, and then not lose again until the 1950 football season. Along the way they would pick up championships in 1946, 1947, and 1949. In 1948, a 14-14 tie to USC cost the Irish a shot at four consecutive national championships, as the associated press named Michigan the national champion. On the other hand, Army, who had dominated football for three years, would never again regain the No. 1 ranking in college football.
With three national championships and four consecutive undefeated seasons, the 1946-1949 Notre Dame football teams will go down as one of the greatest dynasties in college football history. However, the blemish that is the 1946 Army game still leaves a sour taste in their mouths. Nearly fifty years after the last down was played, a fullback on the 1946 team even went so far as to say, "If Coach Leahy had stayed at home that day, we would have beaten Army."
While Leahy had brought Notre Dame football back to the top, he could never quite live down the 1946 tie against Army. Six years later, in 1952, a young South Bend reporter stumbled across Leahy in the Notre Dame locker room. Leahy was talking to himself, which he often did, and kicking at the lockers. Wondering what was wrong, the reporter asked if he was alright. Leahy looked up with a frighteningly cold grimace and muttered, "We should have kicked the field goal!"