By Gary King
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Gary King’s book “An Autumn Remembered: Bud Wilkinson’s Legendary ’56 Sooners.” It tells the story of how the Sooners achieved their only victory (in nine tries) over the Irish in 1956.
A record crowd of 60,128 was packed into the Notre Dame stadium to see this game. Red Grange and Lindsey Nelson were there to broadcast the event to a national television audience. This was the only time the Sooners appeared on television in 1956.
Notre Dame had been the last team to defeat OU when they stopped the Sooners 28-21 in Norman on Sept. 26, 1953. The following week, OU was tied by Pittsburgh 7-7 and then began their winning streak, which stood at 34 going into this game.
The Irish’s fortunes had not been so good. They had already lost to SMU and Purdue and just the week before had been pounded by Duffy Daugherty's Michigan State Spartans 47-14.
Michigan State had left Notre Dame battered and bruised. Paul Hornung, their All-American quarterback, had a very sore thumb, and there was some speculation that he might line up at halfback because he might be unable to take the snap from center due to his injury. This was not the case, however, as Hornung played quarterback and suffered four pass interceptions.
Hornung commented after the game, “This is the greatest team I’ve ever played against. It’s the fastest team I’ve ever seen, and they can really work the option play.”
Three of OU’s six touchdowns were provided by the defense. OU halfbacks Tommy McDonald and Clendon Thomas each picked off one of Hornung’s passes and returned it for a TD, and tackle Steve Jennings blocked an Irish punt to give the Sooner’s possession on the 3-yard line.
OU received the opening kickoff and marched 69 yards to establish their dominance at the outset. Quarterback Jimmy Harris rolled out and connected with his right end, John Bell, for a 14-yard TD pass. This impressive drive prompted the venerable sports writer Red Smith to observe, “If there is an abler, wiser unit anywhere than Wilkinson’s first 11, it must be kept under armed guard. If there has been a college team in recent years with greater overall speed, these eyes did not see it.”
On Notre Dame’s first play from scrimmage, Hornung took the snap from center and moved laterally down the line where, as the Daily Oklahoman put it, Jerry Tubbs “hit him like a freight train.” This was, without doubt, the single most memorable play of the season. Tubbs’ hit made the national TV audience cringe in sympathy for the helpless Hornung.
Years later Sooner players vividly remembered this one single tackle. Halfback David Baker called it “probably the most outstanding tackle I ever saw in college football. Tubbs just literally killed him.”
Clendon Thomas called it the “keynote tackle” because it set the tone for the entire game. This play was certainly symbolic of OU’s superiority over Notre Dame on this day. If one were to select one isolated play to put into a time capsule that would represent the excellence of the ’56 Sooners, “Tubbs’ Tackle” would surely be the play.
After David Baker boomed a quick-kick 60 yards and Steve Jennings blocked Notre Dame’s punt, alternate team quarterback Jay O’Neal scored on a quarterback sneak. Halfback Carl Dodd kicked the extra point and the Sooners led 13-0. By now, all of the 60,128 watching in person and the entire national television audience knew that only the final margin of OU’s victory was in doubt.
When the starting team got their hands on the ball for the second time in the game, they covered the 64 yards needed for a score in only eight plays. Clendon Thomas carried through a large hole opened by linemen Bell, Emerson and Krisher for 11 yards and the TD.
In his weekly letter to the Alumni Association, Bud praised the Sooner’s strong blocking in this contest: “I thought this game showed the tremendous importance of blocking in football offense. Billy Pricer, our senior fullback from Perry, did a truly outstanding job of blocking, as did all our linemen, Don Stiller, Ed Gray, Joe Oujesky, Jerry Tubbs, Bill Krisher, Tom Emerson, John Bell, Delbert Long, Ross Coyle, Byron Searcy, Steve Jennings, Bob Harrison, Doyle Jennings, Benton Ladd and Bob Timberlake. The men — who carry the ball, throw it and catch it — get their full share of publicity. Yet, football games are won by the outstanding play of unheralded linemen.”
Just before halftime, Tommy McDonald ran 55 yards with a theft of a Hornung pass to make the score 26-0. Paul Hornung, of course, had an outstanding career in professional football. He was obviously a great player, but for him to have won the Heisman Trophy in ’56 while playing on a team that went 2-8, in addition to suffering the indignity of four interceptions on national television, is almost as inexplicable as Don Larsen’s perfect game in the World Series just a few weeks earlier.
Jimmy Harris scored once in the third quarter and Clendon Thomas scored again in the fourth, when he returned an intercepted pass 36 yards to make the final score 40-0. Late in the game, the public address announcer gave this final score “Illinois 20, Michigan State 13.” Hearing this, the OU players celebrated jubilantly. Wilkinson may have even allowed himself a small smile, for OU would surely regain the top spot in the AP poll.
The Sooners went on to post a perfect 10-0 season and claimed their third National Championship under Wilkinson.
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