The First Stanford-Notre Game Football Game

Controversy has been a part of Stanford's rivalry with Notre Dame since its inception.

On fourth-and-goal in the deciding moments of an important game, Notre Dame stops an all-time Stanford great inches from the goal line. Cardinal fans blame officials’ ineptitude. The Irish rejoice and point to the scoreboard. But this isn’t rainy South Bend in 2012.

It’s the teams’ first meeting.

The deciding play of Stanford’s overtime defeat marked a sequel. The original occurred when the Cards met Notre Dame in the 1925 Rose Bowl, a stage only less legendary than the key figures involved. Thanks to a dramatic goal line stand as the sun faded behind the San Gabriel Mountains, Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen capped an undefeated season with a 27-10 victory against coach Pop Warner’s Pacific Coast Conference champs. 

A touchdown pass shaved a 20-3 deficit to 20-10 late in the third. Stanford soon stood first-and-goal at the Notre Dame 6. On fourth down, Ernie Nevers – nursing two broken ankles, one held up by a prosthetic Warner himself designed – went headlong into the pile. Touchdown, or so signaled the head linesman. “It appeared Nevers had plunged over the goal line,” according to the fullback’s obituary.

But the referee overruled. Notre Dame took over on downs and held on, leaving Stanford embittered over an effort filled with errors and missed chances.

Stanford gained more total yards (316-186). Notre Dame scored one offensive touchdown. But the Cards lost five fumbles. They threw three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Murray Cuddleback kicked Stanford to a 3-0 lead but barely missed two long field goals. 

Two fumbles proved quite costly: One halted a drive deep in Irish territory with Stanford trailing 13-3 late in the first half. Another occurred on a muffed punt, which Notre Dame scooped and ran 20 yards for a score and a 20-3 lead in the third. 

“The Cards were a revelation and disappointment all in one,” wrote The Daily Palo Alto, Stanford’s student paper. “Stanford played its most brilliant and most ragged game all in one afternoon.”

Imagine a game from the Roaring Twenties capturing today’s mass appeal of college football. By all accounts, it was the most widely followed football game to date. Eastern radio outlets broadcast a West Coast sporting event live for the first time. Telegraph stations nationwide stayed open to pass reports along to eager fans. The game not only represented each side’s place among the elite, but how far each had come to get there.

Stanford had regained prestige lost since its last visit to Pasadena. Three years after a 49-0 loss to Michigan in the first Rose Bowl, the school dropped football in 1905. Cal, the West Coast’s best team in the years following World War I, wouldn’t lose to Stanford in football until 1925. Stanford played its first conference game in 1919, three years after what’s now known as the Pac-12 was formed. 

Glenn S. Warner represented Stanford’s commitment to the big-time. He invented the tackling dummy – early versions were mannequins – to save stamina and the huddle to sharpen strategy. His original celebrity came from turning the tiny Carlisle Indian School, where he earned his nickname, into a barnstorming national power good enough to beat Penn and Army.  

He then moved to Cornell and Pittsburgh before coming west, lured by eager Stanford alumni who promoted the school’s new football stadium. Two years after Warner agreed in principle to the move (he had two years remaining on his contract at Pitt), the 1924 season was his first on The Farm.

Respect came hard-earned for a Catholic all-men’s college from Indiana. Notre Dame emerged as the original Boise State, eagerly facing established programs in high-profile settings like Yankee Stadium and Chicago’s Soldier Field. Rockne understood the value of mass media, an ambition that ushered four of his best players – the backfield of Jim Crowley, Elmer Layden, Don Miller and Harry Stuhldreher – to lifelong fame.

Notre Dame’s 1924 march to Pasadena featured a stop against Army at the Polo Grounds. A 13-7 Irish win inspired Grantland Rice to write the most famous lead in sportswriting history. Earning the Four Horsemen nickname “opened a lot of doors for us,” Miller said years later.  “It was the luckiest day of our lives that day. We may not have been the best backfield, but we became the best known.”

Their collective skill did, in fact, merit the hype. They averaged just 160 pounds but were lighting quick for their time, able to run 100 yards in 10.4 seconds in full uniform. Notre Dame went 27-2-1 during its three varsity seasons (1922-24). The list of 1924’s consensus All-Americans featured all but Miller, who totaled 1,983 career rushing yards. His career 6.8 yard per-carry average was still a Notre Dame record when he died in 1979. 

Nevers was Stanford's contribution to a sports era defined by stars. A 6-foot-2, 210 pounder who also passed and punted, he outweighed every All-American lineman in 1924. But he missed nearly the entire regular season with a broken ankle. Upon returning to play the penultimate game against Montana, he broke his other ankle. Ignoring poor circulation in his legs, the junior carried 35 times for 114 rushing yards against the Irish, more than the Four Horsemen combined.

But no one player made a bigger impact than Layden. The future NFL commissioner totaled an all-around Rose Bowl performance on par with Christian McCaffrey’s: A three-yard touchdown run, an 80-yard punt, together with pick-sixes of 70 and 78 yards. The first was particularly impressive.

Nevers dropped back to pass and aimed for Ted Shipkey in the flat. In sprinted Layden, who batted the ball to himself before sprinting 78 yards the other way for a 13-3 Irish lead. “I made two of my longest runs that day,” Nevers told Layden years later. “Both times chasing you.”

Warner’s remaining six years here featured two more Rose Bowls against unbeaten foes, neither of which he lost (though a tie in 1927 against Alabama cost Stanford a perfect season). 
Only in 1969, once the wire services began exclusively crowning national champion after the bowls, did Notre Dame accept a postseason bid.  

And unlike its most famous play, the greatness of their inaugural game remains unquestioned.

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