SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Heisman Trophy winners and national champions. One historic blowout. One historic upset. One of the most memorable collisions in college football history.
Notre Dame and Oklahoma have not played often, but they have produced some classics — most won by the Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame leads the series 8-1. No team has had as much success against the Sooners having played at least that many games.
“It’s a great trivia question because most people would be astounded,” said Jay Wilkinson, son of Bud Wilkinson, who coached the Sooners to three national championships in the 1950s.
The Sooners were ranked in the top 10 in six of those games, while the Irish were in the top 10 four times.
They are both in the top 10 again, and set to play for the first time since 1999 on Saturday night in Norman.
No. 8 Oklahoma (5-1) will try to hand No. 5 Notre Dame (7-0) its first loss of the season and derail the Irish’s national championship hopes.
The most memorable game between the two featured just one touchdown.
The Irish came into that 1957 game off consecutive losses to Navy and Michigan State, and arrived in Norman, as 18-point underdogs.
“I think deep down we thought we were going to get our fannies kicked,” said Dick Prendergast, an end on the Irish team, now a 75-year-old periodontist in Long Grove, Ill.
But he said the Irish, coached by Terry Brennan, were inspired by two things. When they arrived in Norman, they saw signs saying the Irish had no chance against the Sooners. Then when they went to the hotel in Oklahoma City, they were greeted warmly by the manager until he saw Notre Dame had a black player, halfback Aubrey Lewis.
“He said, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t have you as guests here.’ Everyone shut up. We wanted to know what he meant by that. He said, ‘Well, we don’t tolerate blacks,”’ Prendergast said.
Prendergast said the Irish got back on the bus and drove about 15 miles to what he described as a second-rate hotel where there was one shared bathroom.
“By this time, our feelings were getting emotional. It had an effect on us. Because we all liked Aubrey,” he said. “We were really pepped up for this game. It did more to get us up for this game than coach Brennan could have said or anyone else could say.”
The Irish won when Dick Lynch scored on a pitch, running wide to the right on fourth-and-3 with 3:50 left.
The loss likely cost the Sooners a third straight national championship as they finished 10-1.
“That would have been amazing,” Oklahoma running back Clendon Thomas said.
Brennan said the difference between the ’57 game and the loss the season before was that the chances the Irish took worked as opposed to the year before, when a young Irish team turned the ball over repeatedly, with Thomas and Tommy McDonald both scoring on interceptions.
“They beat the heck out of us,” said the 84-year-old Brennan, who still attends a game at Notre Dame Stadium every season. “If we played them straight up we’d lose 20-0, so I figured why not take some chances and go for it. We only lost 40-0.”
Paul Hornung, who won the Heisman at Notre Dame in 1956, remembers being in an all-star game after the season with Oklahoma center Jerry Tubbs, who had trouble snapping the ball back to him when Hornung was punting.
“He said, ‘Paul I’m sorry. You know we never punted at Oklahoma,”’ he said.