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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football - The 1920 Season

It has not been by good luck at all, but in virtue of sheer superiority that the great machine of 1920 has credited itself as being the best team in the business this year. 

2019 University of Notre Dame Spring Football
Plaque of Notre Dame legend, George Gipp

This is week two of my series looking back on Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football’s “unclaimed” national championship years. Today I’m going to share an excerpt from the 1920 Notre Dame Football Review. The 1920 season was the second undefeated season in a row, and only the third season with Knute K. Rockne as head coach.

“Thursday afternoon at East Lansing, Mich., Knute K. Rockne closed his third year as head coach of Notre Dame football with a record which surpasses that of any coach in these United States. He took charge of Notre Dame football in September, 1918, after acting as assistant to Jesse Harper since 1914. Since that time Notre Dame has lost one game in three years.”

A Review of the Games

Kalamazoo, the first opponent of the season, was easily overwhelmed by the Varsity. It was evident from the very start, that they were not equal to the task. They fought tenaciously up to the very last minute of play, but it was a fight against impossible odds. To mention the Varsity men whose play came well up to the expectation of the “fans” would be to give the whole personnel of the team. The feats of that afternoon augured well for victory in the big battles to come. Early in the second quarter, the backs showed greed for yards and Gipp, hurtling through the Wolverine tacklers struck a spectacular gallop for thirty yards to the second touchdown. Wynne making the first. In the second half there came a shower of touchdowns -by Barry, Brandy, Kasper and Mohardt.

The next visitor to Cartier field, the Western Normal eleven, also succumbed to the crushing offensive and impregnable defensive play of the Varsity. Except for occasional flashes of fairly good defensive work, the Normals were pitifully helpless, Whether in their effort to curb the advances of Rockne’s plunging aces or in their failure to make an impression on the Varsity forward wall. The final score, 41 to 0, would undoubtedly have been doubled, had it not been for heavy penaIties imposed upon Notre Dame and the extreme heat.

Rockne’s men underwent their first reaI test of the season when they met the team of Nebraska at Lincoln. Coming from behind in the latter part of the game, they drove their way through to a 16-to-7 victory over the Cornhuskers, before the largest crowd that has ever attended a game in that city. The two teams fought evenly through the first half. Gipp, Castner, and Barry, after the Notre Dame aerial tactics had been temporarily frustrated, began a series of off-tackle crashes and flank dashes which took the ball to the Cornhuskers’ two foot line. Here the Westerners fought like madmen and held. Shaw spilled the attempted punt, which was recovered by a Nebraskan behind his goal line, thus giving the Varsity two points on a safety. Hubka went over for a touchdown in the second period for the Cornhuskers. Brandy cut his way through the Red and White line for our first touchdown. In the third quarter, Gipp’s dash for a touchdown, in execution of Rockne’s yearly “stunt,” prepared especially for Nebraska, was disallowed, because of holding. The last touchdown followed a series of counter-skirmishes, Gipp going through tackle for the score.

A week later eight thousand spectators crammed into Cartier field and saw the “Rockmen’’ humble the grim, fighting team of Valparaiso. The “Valps,” in proud possession of a three-point lead at the end of the first period, were worn to shreds in their bitter attempts to withstand the continual pounding of the local shock squad. Early in the second period Rockne withdrew his reserves and soon the Valpo defensive was crumbling before the onslaughts of the Aces. Plunge after plunge netted long gains. Wynne went over the top, followed by Gipp a few minutes later. Gipp found the enemy trench again in the fourth quarter, and “Johnny” Mohardt wriggled over for the fourth touchdown of the game, following Hayes’ scoop of Kercheval’s wild delivery.

Eastern cities are still sounding the well-deserved praises of the “Hoosier” eleven which invaded the East late in October and, for the third consecutive time, defeated the Cadets of West Point. “It was the struggle of a good team against a great one,” writes a prominent New York critic. “Beaten though the Army was by a score of 27 to 17, the glory of a gallant fight against a too powerful foe remains with West Point. Against a machine capable of pounding its way for successive marches of seventy-five and eighty-five yards, the Cadets went down-as almost any other eleven in the East must have if it had faced the Notre Dame eleven that took the field today.” Notre Dame supporters at the game were legion, and they saw a Gold and Blue eleven fighting in its best manner. They saw Mohardt and Gipp gain yard after yard around the ends and off-tackle, and they left the plains convinced that the men of today are keeping up the traditions of their beloved Notre Dame in a very efficient manner.

Postcard featuring captain Frank Coughlin and scores from Notre Dame’s 1920 games against Army and Purdue.
University of Notre Dame Archive

Long before the whistle blew for the opening of hostilities, it was necessary to turn away the crowd at the gate. After the reserves had fought the Boilermakers to a standstill for a greater part of the first half, it was no surprise that the Varsity ran rough-shod over the lads from down-state, after they entered the contest just before the close of the first half. The score was no indication of the strength of the Notre Dame team. The versatile Gipp was at his best in this contest. His eighty yard run off tackle for a touchdown was the feature of the game, and his frequent passes to Anderson and Kiley were spectacles to watch. Capt. Coughlin, Hunk Anderson, Shaw and Smith opened great holes for Wynne, Barry, Mohardt, Coughlin and Castner, who. either walked gracefully through the Boilermakers’ defense or trotted around the end, advancing the ball for good gains on every play.

Next came the gruelling battle with Indiana, which taxed all the resources of the champions. Coach Steim, who has been a close observer of the Notre Dame system, particularly during the last season, was all set for the fray. The Indiana stands went wild with joy when the last quarter opened with their team ten points in the lead, but their lead was to he short-lived. On the first play of the fourth quarter Gipp crossed the last white line, and soon after added another point with a goal. After this there was no stopping the “Rockmen,” and before the end of the game the Gold and Blue warriors had made another touchdown, which meant defeat for a team that had been coached for two years with but one end in view-to beat Notre Dame. The comeback staged by our men at a time when an ordinary team would have given up the ghost and looked forward to the evening banquet as the next thing on the program, is proof sufficient of the wonderful morale and team play they possess and the keen-edged brand of coaching they had received.

After the first few minutes of play at Evanston, we wondered what right the Northwestern coach had to publish a statement before the Notre Dame game to the effect that he was having a hard time to keep his men from being overconfident. Just then it dawned upon us that it was meant for a joke-and we smiled. The Varsity scoring spree began in the second quarter, and the whistle at the end found the locals with fourteen points to the good. Grausnick, of the Purple squad, in the third quarter, got away to a pretty dash which meant a touchdown and goal. Gipp, handicapped with his bad shoulder, entered the game in the last quarter and was given a rousing ovation. Each of two passes by this wonder man resulted in a touchdown.

Probably the prettiest run of the season was made in this game, when Dannie Coughlin received the kick-off from the Aggies, and ran eighty yards through the entire Aggie team for the first touchdown of the game. In the third quarter Castner made the “Aggies” goal line for two touchdowns, and in the final period “Eddie” Anderson galloped across the last while line, following his recovery of a blocked punt. Notre Dame, by virtue of her remarkable record of eighteen consecutive victories with no defeat and no tie, has won a permanent place in the athletic sun. It has not been by good luck at all, but in virtue of sheer superiority that the great machine of 1920 has credited itself as being the best team in the business this year.

Next week ... 1927.

Cheers & GO IRISH!