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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football - 1953 Season

Lattner Leads ND to Win Over Penn

Portrait of Four Notre Dame Football Players

Happy Thursday! Here we are at week five in my series of “unclaimed” Notre Dame Fighting Irish football national championships, and this week I’m looking at the 1953 season, in particular Notre Dame’s game against Penn. The following excerpt is from the 1953 Notre Dame Football Review, and was written by Bill Noonan.

JOHN LATTNER, Notre Dame’s unanimous All-American choice and most-feared ball carrier, again led his teammates. His scintillating touchdown runs on punt returns in the Purdue and Penn contests sparked the Irish to early leads in those games. Again his tremendous tackling, clever pass defense, and adequate punting paced the Irish. John is a senior accounting major.

Lattner Leads ND to Win Over Penn


Philadelphia, Pa., Nov. 7—An All-American exhibition by All-American Johnny Lattner nullified Pennsylvania’s gallant upset bid on snow-fringed Franklin Field this afternoon as Notre Dame marched unsteadily to its sixth straight win of the season, 28-20.

A shivering but appreciative crowd of 69,071 saw the 21 year old Chicago senior do just about everything a football player can do. He ran kicks back for huge amounts of yardage, smashed for first downs, caught passes, made key tackles and intercepted a Penn pass that seemed touchdown bound.

Lattner’s most spectacular contribution to ND’s cause came immediately after Penn stunned the crowd and the Irish by rambling down the field for seven points the first time they got their hands on the ball. With the crowd still buzzing their amazement over Penn’s drive, Lattner gathered in the ensuing Quaker kickoff on his own eight yard line, sped up the sidelines, received two nice blocks from Art Hunter and Don Penza on the 20, swivel-hipped his way out of the grasps of two would-be tacklers at the 40 and broke into the open towards the center of the field. Penn’s John Cannon missed a desperate lunge on the Red and Blue 25, and the ND halfback sauntered the rest of the way unchallenged.

The game started with an oddity as the Irish were penalized 15 yards when they were late, coming out on the field. When the kickoff finally was made by Penn, the nation’s No. 1 team could do no better than one first down and was forced to punt.

Penn took possession of the ball and 61 yards and seven plays later scored the first touchdown of the game. Ed Gramigna, a daring signal-caller and effective passer all day, completed two passes in the drive which was capped by Walt Hynoski’s five yard burst into the end zone. Gramigna converted.

Penn quick-kicked after receiving the post-Lattner touchdown kickoff and the Irish promptly churned 68 yards for their second touchdown and a 14-7 lead. The march was one of short methodical punches at the Penn line, coupled with two Ralph Guglielmi passes, one to Penza, the other to Lattner who made a beauty of a catch on the Quaker six. On a third down keep play, Guglielmi sprung off tackle from the three for the tally. Minnie Mavraides split the uprights for the second straight time.

The greenshirts moved goalward again the next time they had the ball. Penn, their attack completely bottled up, punted to Heap who handed off to Lattner. The deceptive Irish star again brought the crowd to its feet by bringing the ball back 38 yards before Hynoski bumped him out of bounds on the Penn 36. In four plays, Guglielmi directed his team to the Penn three yard line as the period ended.

Coach Leahy sent in his second team at the start of the second quarter and Don Schaefer, reserve quarterback, sneaked over for the score on the first play for the third Irish TD. On a controversial play, Schaefer ran the extra point over for a 21-7 lead.

The second team almost engineered a touchdown of their own in the second quarter when it moved 53 yards only to have Schaefer fumble on the Penn two yard line shortly before the half ended.

The second half started off almost exactly as did the first half. The Red and Blue took the kickoff and marched 67 yards in 12 plays for their second touchdown. The drive which took six minutes was climaxed by a beautiful seven yard pass on fourth down from Gramigna to Bob Felver. Here Gramigna missed what proved to be an important extra point, and Penn trailed 21-13.

Another spectacular Lattner run back and two plays from scrimmage and Notre Dame had regained their two touchdown lead. The incomparable Lattner almost duplicated his first quarter feat when he carried the Penn kickoff back 56 yards before being pushed into a snow bank on the Penn 26. After Lattner had picked up three, Guglielmi passed 11 yards to Heap who darted away from three Quakers for the remaining 12 yards and the score. Mavraides again converted, and the situation seemed well under control.

Eleven plays after Heap’s tally, Pennsylvania scored their third touchdown. Varaitis was the workhorse of the drive, but the highlight was a 41 yard pass play from Gramigna to Felver. Varaitis scored the touchdown from the one, and Gramigna converted.

Both teams threatened in the fourth quarter, the Irish led by Lattner, Heap, and Sam Palumbo, stopping three Penn assaults deep in their own territory. Lattner leaped high in the air to intercept a Gramigna pass on the goal line to end-the first of these threats.

The game ended with ND on Penn’s 15 after moving 55 yards in 11 plays following an interception by Heap.

And one more excerpt for you ...

Head Coach Frank Leahy

The 1953 season has been a rough one for Notre Dame’s head coach Frank Leahy, despite the fact that he again guided his Fighting Irish to the heights of college football. The coach was stricken with a severe muscular spasm between the halves of the Georgia Tech game on Oct. 24 which caused him to miss two of the six remaining games.

The illness, however, did not interfere with the Irish mastermind’s desire to coach his team. When sufficiently recovered from his attack, Leahy watched his team practice for Navy from his sick bed through the courtesy of WSBT-TV. The station arranged a special closed hookup between Cartier Field and the coach’s home. That Saturday he also used television to see his charges easily dispose of the Middies, 38-7.

The coach returned to the sidelines for the next three games but by order of his personal physician, he was forced to forego the trip to Los Angeles for the Southern California game. Again his “lads” came through for him, stomping the Trojans, 48-14.

Coach Leahy has become an institution at Notre Dame similar to Knute Rockne. In fact, a check of the records will show a striking resemblance between Leahy’s career and that of Rockne’s.

In 11 seasons, Leahy-coached Notre Dame teams have won 87 games, lost. 11 and tied nine for an .888 percentage excluding ties. Rockne’s first 11 Notre Dame teams won 86, lost 12 and tied five for a percentage of .878.

Leahy started his football career at Notre Dame as a freshman in 1927. He saw brief varsity action at center in 1928 and was switched to tackle the following year. He played first string that season on an undefeated Rockne team. His playing days were cut short however when he injured his knee in the 1930 pre-season practice sessions. He did not play at all that year.

The following fall, Leahy was signed as line coach at Georgetown under the late Tommy Mills. Jim Crowley was so impressed with the play of Leahy’s linemen in the 1931 Michigan State game that he hired him in 1932. Leahy went along with Crowley to Fordham in ‘33 where he stayed till 1939. During this stretch, Leahy, as line coach helped develop one of football’s all-time great defensive lines, the Seven Blocks of Granite.

After the 1938 season, Leahy was named head coach at Boston college.

In two seasons at BC, he directed the Eagles to 20 wins in 22 games and a 19-13 victory over Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1941.

A little over a month later, Notre Dame signed Leahy to guide the Irish in 1941. He succeeded Elmer Layden.

Leahy set a pattern for future years in his first season by leading the Irish through the schedule unbeaten. Only a 0-0 tie with Army in the mud at Yankee Stadium prevented a perfect record.

The 1942 season was similar to this year in that the coach was forced to miss several games because of illness. The Irish started slowly that season but recovered sufficiently to wind up with a 7-2-2 record.

Leahy gained his first National Championship in 1943, winning the first nine games on the schedule before losing to Great Lakes in the finale, 19-14, on a last-minute TD pass.

After two years in the navy, Leahy returned in 1946 with another National Championship team. A 0-0 tie with mighty Army in the so-called “Game of the Century” marred the record.

Leahy and the Irish made it two straight by gaining the championship again in 1947 with nary a challenge. In ‘48, ND had to settle for second behind Michigan because of a 14-14 tie with Southern Cal on the final Saturday.

In 1949, Leahy had what many considered his greatest team. The Irish swept through nine opponents to walk away with the Championship.

The season of 1950 was the coach’s worst as ND won four, lost four and tied one. Notre Dame came back in 1951, however, with a young team and had a successful 7-2-1 season.

Notre Dame and Leahy were back in the national limelight in 1952 as the Irish rebounded from an early season tie with Penn and an upset by Pitt to whip some of the nation’s best teams.

Before this season, the majority of the sportswriters chose Notre Dame as the most likely team to win the National Championship. But the tie with Iowa upset the apple cart, and ND was forced to settle for second place behind Maryland.

Next week I’ll take a look at the 1964 season (... also my dad’s senior year at ND!)

Cheers & GO IRISH!