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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Fighting Irish VS SMU Mustangs, 1949

“Notre Dame met their match in Rote and Southern Methodist but fought back in champion style to a hard-earned victory.”— Paul Neville, South Bend Tribune

Head coach Frank Leahy on the practice field with several Irish players.
University of Notre Dame Archive

This week is the seventh week in my series on Notre Dame Fighting Irish national championship winning seasons, and this week I’m going to highlight the 1949 match-up between Notre Dame and SMU. In the 1949 season, coached by Frank Leahy, the season ended with ten wins and zero losses. It was the fourth national title for Leahy and his lads.

Below is the Notre Dame vs. SMU game summary from the 1949 Notre Dame Football Review, written by Ralph Wright.

But first I’d like to share this little snippet on Coach Leahy from the 1949 Notre Dame Football Review:

Dr. Pessimism Puts ND on Top

Francis W. Leahy . . . head coach of the Fighting Irish . . . has just ended one of his most successful football seasons at Notre Dame, turning out one of his greatest teams in the process. He achieved the ultimate in pessimism at the beginning of the ‘49 season, predicting the Irish would lose seven games. Rather his team piled up more records and added more glory to his name. Leahy first entered the coaching game in 1931, as line coach at Georgetown the same Fall after his graduation from Notre Dame. Ten years later, after successful stints at Fordham and Boston College, he returned to Notre Dame, head coach of his alma mater. His record with the Irish prior to this season showed only three losses in six seasons, while his lads captured the national championship three times. Frank Leahy was born August 27 ,1908, in O’Neill, Neb. He is married and has six children, four boys and two girls.

Irish Take 10th after SMU Scare

(By Ralph Wright)

Dallas, Texas, Dec. 3.—Mighty Notre Dame battled against Southern Methodist for its championship life today, and, like a champion, it won.

Powering 56 yards on the ground to break a 20-all fourth period tie and then stand off a furious Mustang drive on their own four-yard line, the Irish defeated SMU, 27-20, in the biggest thriller of the 1949 season.

The 75,428 who sat in the drizzling rain at the Cotton Bowl here expected Coach Frank Leahy’s team to roll to an easy win. Instead, they saw Matty Bell’s aroused Texans give Notre Dame its toughest contest in an unbeaten string that now stands at 38 games. Notre Dame has gone four consecutive seasons without losing and Coach Leahy’s record stands at 60 wins, three losses and five ties.

When the Kyle Rote-led Mustangs tied the score at 20-20, there were less than ten minutes to play. Left half Frank Spaniel ran the kickoff back all the way to the ND 46. Emil Sitko, All-American senior, and soph star. Bill Barrett, took the ball to the 26 in five plays. Then, another All-American, end Leon Hart, moved to the fullback post and slammed to the 20. Barrett followed with six yards. Bill Gay with six more and Barrett with another two. The SMU line couldn’t hold the ND backs and Barrett swung wide on the next play, chugged for the corner and went over. Steve Oracko’s third conversion practically assured the Irish of at least a tie.

But SMU hadn’t given up all afternoon and they didn’t this time either. Rote ran and passed the Texans to the ND 28. Kyle was momentarily hurt, but Fred Benners came in and threw to H. R. Russell on the five. Here the great Irish line held, and Rote’s fourth down jump-pass was grabbed by both Jerry Groom and Bob Lally, two tremendous line backers all afternoon. The Irish moved out of danger, punted and the game ended shortly thereafter.

The first half was a tea party compared to the second 30 minutes. Both Notre Dame’s first half scores came on Williams passes. One went to Bill Wightkin who got behind Rote, caught the pass and ran 10 more yards to complete a 42 yard play. The other TD pass was caught by Ernie Zalejski on a play that started from the SMU 35. An opponent reflected the ball, but Ernie was behind him and caught it in the end zone.

“Notre Dame met their match in Rote and Southern Methodist but fought back in champion style to a hard-earned victory.”— Paul Neville, South Bend “Tribune.”

John Petitbon set up the first scoring drive by intercepting a pass on his 27. Gay started the second by spearing another stray Mustang pass and running 20 yards to the home team’s 35.

SMU’s only first half threat was Rote.

After ND’s first touchdown, sawed-off Johnny Champion threw to end Zohn Milam for 78 yards and a first down on the six. However, four Rote rushes at the line left SMU a foot shy.

Notre Dame vs. SMU 1949 Cotton Bowl program cover.

If the first half was like a tea party, the second half resembled a barroom brawl. Notre Dame’s attack looked sharp and twice they marched toward the SMU only to lose the ball on Zalejski fumbles —once on the 12 and once on the 38. The second muff gave the Mustangs the life needed.

Rote, now running like a madman, streaked for 18, then for 23 more. Then he handed off to little Champion who squirmed all the way to the three-yard line. Rote hit the line for one and followed with a touchdown plunge.

ND crossed the goal again in a hurry. Soph Jim Mutscheller intercepted Rote’s toss on the 22 and, in four plays, the Irish were on the three. Barrett made the first of his game-winning touchdowns by jamming through right tackle.

Less than a minute later Champion ran a Rote pass all the way to the ND one and hard-running Kyle smashed over.

A 15-yard penalty pushed the Irish back to their one-yard line shortly after the kickoff, and Bill Richards ran Williams’ punt down on the 14. In three plays. Rote bounded into the end zone for the third time. Bill Sullivan, who kicked the first two extra points, booted again, but Groom burst through to block the attempt and keep SMU from going ahead.

This afternoon there were heroes all over the place. ND’s whole line, especially Hart, Groom and Lally did a tremendous job. In the defensive backfield, Petitbon was sensational until he had to leave the game with injuries. On offense. Bob Williams connected on 11 passes to break an ND record for passes completed in one season—83. And Barrett, Larry Coutre, Sitko, Spaniel and Hart stood out among the ball-carriers.

Grover Walker, Franklin and I. D. Russell played their hearts out for the Mustang defensive unit, but the man of the hour was Rote. The 190-pound San Antonio junior ran for 115 yards on the ground and passed for 168 more. The injured All-American, Doak Walker, couldn’t have been better—it was impossible.

These Irish won this season with nonchalance, but, when they had to fight, they did. They’re the Fighting Irish and they’re still winning.

Next week I’ll look back at the 1966 season!

Cheers & GO IRISH!