EDITOR’S NOTE – As we prepare for the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Notre Dame, this is the latest in a continuing series on the history of the rivalry between these two tradition-laden schools.
Even some 70 years later, the Ohio State-Notre Dame game of 1935 is still considered one of the biggest games in not only the history of Ohio Stadium but all of college football.
In a poll taken in 1950, it was voted by football writers as the Game of the Century.
The 1935 OSU-Notre Dame game was, of course, the first-ever meeting between these two proud Midwestern football powerhouses. And the fact it was decided by a late comeback by the Fighting Irish, who won this titantic struggle 18-13, makes it an even bigger piece in the football lore of both schools.
The scene was Nov. 2, 1935. Coach Elmer Layden brought his Fighting Irish team to Columbus to face Francis Schmidt’s powerful Buckeyes in mammoth, 13-year-old Ohio Stadium.
Coming in, both teams were undefeated and eyeing a possible national championship. But the Buckeyes (4-0) were heavily favored. After all, they held advantages over the Irish (5-0) in speed, size and depth. OSU also boasted a nifty passing attack.
One writer went so far as to say that the Buckeyes would roll by 40 points!
This all happened in the depths of the Great Depression and in an era long before television – let alone ESPN’s hype machine “Sports Center.” (In fact, OSU’s first televised game against Missouri would come 14 years later in 1949.)
Still, every available national radio outlet – CBS, NBC, Mutual and Chicago’s powerful WGN-AM – carried the game. Writers came from New York City and beyond to witness and report on this special event.
A then-record crowd of 81,018 jammed into Ohio Stadium. Reports had some spectators paying scalpers as high as $50 (the equivalent of roughly $350 today) a ticket. The FBI even got involved, tracking reports of 2,000 counterfeit tickets brought in from Philadelphia. OSU officials said they could have sold 200,000 tickets if they had the room.
Layden brought 47 players from South Bend to Columbus for the game and, upon arriving at the train station, was presented the key to the city by Columbus Mayor Henry Worley.
“This will get you in, but it might not get you out,” Worley joked to Layden as he presented him the key.
Boorish fan behavior did not begin with OSU’s game against Texas earlier this year. No, these Irish players in 1935 received a less than cordial welcome from throngs of Buckeye fans who followed their every move.
“Go home, Catholics!” the mobs yelled at the Irish as they practiced at what was supposed to be a secluded suburban seminary location.
A Different Kind Of Game
Obviously, the game of college football was a little bit different 60 years ago. For starters, players played both offense and defense. Also, there was no open substitution, meaning that once a player came out he was done for the rest of the half. There were no specialists, either. When it came time to punt or kick, the most qualified man on the field booted the ball.
The forward pass was only beginning to become a potent offensive weapon. Teams in those days allowed any number of backfield players to pass the ball, although OSU’s main passers, Tippy Dye and Stan Pincura, rarely ran the ball and the key runners, Joe Williams and Richard Heekin, rarely passed.
And, without the free flow of subs, the quarterback on the field called the plays. Teams rarely, if ever, substituted to fit a particular down-and-distance situation.
Just about every one of these “limitations,” as well as at least one key rules difference that came into play on a last-minute fumble, worked against the Buckeyes that fateful autumn Saturday when the Irish came calling.
Everything Looked So Good
Ohio State appeared to be in complete command just three minutes into the game, when Frank Antenucci stepped in front of a pass from ND’s Mike Layden and intercepted it. After running with it for 10 yards, Antenucci lateraled it to speedy teammate Frank Boucher. Boucher raced the remaining 65 yards untouched for the game’s first touchdown. Dick Beltz kicked the extra point and OSU quickly led 7-0.
Pincura helped set up Ohio State’s second score by intercepting a pass by ND’s William Shakespeare at midfield late in the first quarter.
From there, the Buckeyes used their solid ground attack to march toward the end zone. Williams went over the right side from 3 yards out for the score. Sam Busch’s PAT kick missed the mark, but the Buckeyes led 13-0 and the rout appeared to be on.
But Things Gradually Take A Turn
That 13-0 score stood at halftime and it remained that way after a scoreless third quarter. But the Tide slowly shifted toward Notre Dame in the second half.
Throughout much of the rest of the game, the Irish won the battle for field position behind the excellent punting of Shakespeare.
Throwing caution to the wind, Coach Layden used his second-team “Shock Troops” to start the second half. This move put fresh bodies in to attack the OSU line and allowed him to save his key players until late in the half when the game would be on the line.
Notre Dame’s miraculous comeback actually began in the third quarter when Andy Pilney made the first of a series of heroic plays.
Pilney returned an OSU punt 37 yards to the Buckeyes’ 13-yard line. After the teams exchanged ends to open the fourth quarter, Pilney rifled a third-down pass to Francis Gaul at the OSU 1-yard line. On the next play, Steve Miller crashed into the end zone for the touchdown. Ken Stilley’s PAT kick hit the crossbar and failed, but the Irish had gotten on the scoreboard at 13-6.
Notre Dame then drove all the way down to the 1-yard line. But Miller fumbled this time and OSU’s Jim Karcher pounced on it in the end zone for a touchback. But, again, the Irish forced an Ohio State punt with three minutes left.
The Irish went to the air and, looking like their future favorite son Joe Montana, they moved down the field with ease. Beginning at his own 21, Mike Layden hit Wally Fromhart and Pilney with a pair of long passes to put the ball at the OSU 15-yard line. The industrious Irish then reversed the passing combination with Pilney passing over the middle to Layden for the remaining 15 yards and a touchdown with just under two minutes left.
OSU QB Tippy Dye against Notre Dame in 1935
The crowd gasped, though, as Fromhart lined up to try the extra point. The snap was high, Fromhart slipped and his kick crashed into the wave of blockers. It was no good and Ohio State still held the slimmest of leads at 13-12.
In an effort to block the kick, OSU’s Schmidt had employed several reserves. They, along with Beltz, who he put in for the kickoff return, had to stay in the game for the final series. The OSU coach was roundly criticized later for putting his subs in and for electing to take the kickoff instead of kicking deep and pinning the Irish deep in their own territory. (In those times, teams could elect to kick off or receive after allowing touchdowns.)
The Irish naturally attempted an onside kick, but OSU’s Charles Gales secured the free ball at the OSU 48. The Buckeyes just needed to run out the clock.
Pincura could have frozen the ball with “kneel downs,” but they would have still had to punt it away on fourth down. He opted to push forward to try to get a game-clinching first down.
On the first play, Beltz took a handoff and was popped by ND’s Pilney. The ball squirted toward the sideline, where head linesman Ernie Vick ruled that ND’s Henry Pojman was the last man to touch it before it went out of bounds at OSU’s 49-yard line. This was critical because, in those days, the last team to touch a fumbled ball before it went out of bounds got possession. (Today, a team must have secure possession or it reverts back to the last team that had it.)
The OSU faithful were mortified as Notre Dame prepared to put the ball in play with just over a minute left. As legend has it, Coach Layden was on the sideline, nervously crouching and chain smoking as his team moved toward victory.
On first down, Pilney went back to pass but was flushed and took off running. He raced for 30 yards until he was forced out of bounds at the OSU 19. But the heroic Pilney’s day was done as he was injured and carted out after the play. Layden sent Shakespeare in to lead the Irish.
On the next play, Mike Layden threw a pass in and out of the hands of OSU’s Beltz in the end zone. Had he held on, OSU would have won.
Just 40 seconds remained as Coach Layden turned to Jim McKenna. Legend has it that McKenna, a fourth-team quarterback, snuck aboard the team’s train to Columbus and was hidden in a berth by his teammates. When he couldn’t buy a ticket to the game, he talked his way into the ND locker room and was promptly suited for play.
McKenna was sent in with the game’s pivotal play. He took the snap and pitched the ball to Shakespeare, who dropped back and threw deep into the end zone. There, Wayne Millner caught it on the dead run over the outstretched hands of Beltz for the game-winning touchdown. Marty Peters missed the PAT kick, but it didn’t matter – the Irish suddenly had a five-point lead with just 32 seconds left.
“I’ve thought a lot about the pass,” said Shakespeare, a native of Cincinnati, years later. “But I wake up nights dreaming about the one before it – the one the Ohio State guy had in his hands and dropped it. If he had held it, Wayne and I would have been bums.”
Wary of a long runback by Williams, ND kicked short and OSU guard Gus Zarnas received it. The Buckeyes had time for just one play. But it backfired when Pincura was sacked. The Game of the Century was over, and Notre Dame had won.
“If anybody has to be blamed, blame me and not the boys,” said Schmidt, admitting a day later that he had only an hour of sleep on the Saturday night after the game.
“I kept lying there thinking of how much easier it would have been to have won that game than to have lost it,” he said.
There were reports that Beltz – the man who fumbled and then dropped a sure game clinching interception – was so despondent after the game that he hurried into his clothes without showering and went home. Schmidt reportedly sent an assistant coach to console him. However, decades later a family member dispelled that report.
OSU fans stood in shocked silence as the Notre Dame throng stormed the Ohio Stadium turf, uprooted the goal posts and left with them. The goal posts ended up downtown at the Deshler Wallick Hotel at Broad and High as ND fans partied deep into the night.
And this one miraculous comeback, where the Irish had nine second-half first downs to OSU’s one, seemed to bring life to the words of Notre Dame’s longtime fight song: “What though the odds be great or small, old Notre Dame will win over all.”
Here are reactions from several of the participants and observers at Ohio Stadium for the 1935 OSU-ND game:
* New York Herald Tribune legendary columnist Grantland Rice – “This was one of the finest things I’ve ever seen in football.”
* Revered scribe Damon Runyan -- “I thought in the first half, Ohio was one of the best teams I had ever seen. In the second half, the Irish showed the fight that is the tradition of Notre Dame. What a game!”
* CBS Radio broadcaster Ted Husing, who called the action -- “I have never been so weak after a game.”
* Chicago Tribune columnist Wilfrid Smith -- “In the annals of gridiron lore are countless tales of famous rallies, but no Notre Dame team ever has written a more brilliant page in football’s history than these boys today.”
* OSU’s Schmidt -- “I’d rather give Notre Dame credit for winning a great game with one of the greatest comebacks I’ve ever seen than to discredit them by telling why we should have won.”
* When ND’s Coach Layden, a member of Notre Dame’s famed Four Horsemen in 1924, died at age 70 in July 1973, the Tribune still praised him for leading Notre Dame to its most stirring upset – “The win over Stanford (in the 1925 Rose Bowl) would have left Layden’s name enshrined in Notre Dame’s lore.
“But in 1935, in his second year as head coach, Layden took a weak Fighting Irish team to Columbus to battle Francis Schmidt’s Ohio State powerhouse. The most lopsided defeat in Notre Dame’s history was forecast.
“It still was 13-0 in the fourth quarter. Then, Layden’s team rallied as few football teams ever fought back, striking for three touchdowns that gave the Irish an 18-13 conquest.
“From then on, when pep talks were needed to rouse the Irish to superhuman performances, the Ohio State success was recounted with fervor.”
How They Finished
After winning at Ohio State, Notre Dame was proclaimed as a possible Rose Bowl team. This was, after all, in the days prior to the Big Ten/Pac-10 arrangement. But those hopes were dashed a week later when the Irish fell at home to Northwestern 14-7. ND then tied Army and beat Southern Cal to finish the year 7-1-1.
Ohio State closed with a flourish, winning at Chicago, at home against Illinois and at Michigan – in the first year that game ended the regular season – to finish 7-1 overall and co-champions with Minnesota in the Big Ten at 5-0.
We started the series on OSU-Notre Dame history with this story comparing the programs and providing capsule recaps of the four previous meetings:
OSU-Notre Dame Comparisons, Series History