How would you like to see a matchup between the coach with the highest win percentage against the coach with the second most wins in a career? Would you like to see the most storied backfields in history against a player rated as one of the twenty-five all-time great players?
The Rose Bowl in 1925 achieved that matchup between Knute Rockne's undefeated Fighting Irish and Glenn "Pop" Warner's undefeated, Pacific Coast Conference champion Stanford Indians. Grantland Rice had famously compared the Irish backfield to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse after the Irish upset Army that year -"Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsement rode again. In dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence, and Famine. But those are aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden."
Rockne's team had perfected the forward pass and the backfield shift. Warner was a coaching legend, who had invented the screen play, the single and double-wing formations, the crouching three-point stance and the reverse. Ernie Nevers, Stanford's acclaimed fullback, was better than Jim Thorpe, according to Warner. He had coached both players. He has been chosen as one of the twenty-five best college football players of all time.
The Fighting Irish, who had never played west of Kansas and Nebraska, were convinced by the Rose Bowl to come to Pasadena. The Irish's west coast alumni had lobbied for such a game. Stanford had outscored their eight opponents, 169-42. The Irish had outscored their nine opponents, 258-44. Southern California awaited to see how Rockne's famous team would do against Warner's Stanford team.
Rockne, as he often did, started his second team. Players played both ways at the time and Rockne liked to bring in fresh legs later. However, he had to substitute the first team as Stanford drove down the field. The only score of the first quarter was a 27 yard field goal by Stanford's Murray Cuddleback.
Early in the second quarter, Notre Dame drove 46 yards behind their offensive line's blocking and the running of the Four Horsemen. Fullback Elmer Layden dove over from the 3 yard line for a touchdown, but the Irish missed the extra point - score 6-3. Bill Henry described the action to the LA Times: "Every play was something new and the combination of deceptive shift, hidden ball, effective interference and magnificent individual running was that probably no team in the country could have solved at first sight."
Stanford drove back into Irish territory. Nevers took the ball, faked a run and pulled up for a pass. Layden intercepted the ball on the 22 yard line and ran it back for a 78 yard touchdown - 13-3, Irish at halftime.
Stanford had taken its toll. Rockne was concerned and described it for the Times: "I was quite worried between halves as my men seemed all tuckered out. And they frankly told me that they didn't think they could last the second half."
In the third quarter, Layden sailed a punt to Stanford's 20 yard line. The return was fumbled. The Irish cashed in when Ed Hunsinger picked up the ball and ran it in for a touchdown - 20-3, Irish. Late in the third quarter, the Irish were driving when their pass was intercepted by Nevers at the 20 yard line and returned to midfield. The Indians marched downfield to the 7 yard line and scored with a pass from quarterback Ed Walker to Ted Shipkey with one minute left in the third quarter - 20-10, Irish.
Stanford threatened another score, driving to within eight inches of the goal line. With the game on the line, the Irish defense stiffened and stopped Nevers short of the goal line. With only thirty seconds remaining, Layden administered the final blow, another interception on the Irish 30 yard line, which he returned for a touchdown - 27-10, Irish. Final.
The game was significant in many ways. The game marked the first time a wirephoto was sent of a bowl game. Southern Californians wanted to see more of the Irish. On the heels of this, the USC-Notre Dame rivalry was begun the next year. From the $52,000 proceeds of the game, Notre Dame built Dillon Hall. While this was the first bowl game for the Irish, they would not appear again in a bowl until 1970, forty-five years later. Nevers outgained the Four Horseman, who were held in check by a stout Stanford defense after the half. But mistakes proved to be too costly for Stanford. Rockne's Irish were hailed as national champions, the school's first football championship.