The date: November 20, 1943
The matchup: No. 2 Iowa Pre-Flight (8-0) at No. 1 Notre Dame (8-0)
The stakes: This was college football’s national title game in 1943.
The back story: Because of enlistment, the 1943 season was one of the most immensely strange seasons in college football history. Tulsa, Dartmouth, Colorado College, and Pacific (coached by 81-year old Amos Alonzo Stagg) all finished ranked in the top 20, as did Navy (No. 4), Army (No. 11), and five military all-star teams: No. 17 Bainbridge Naval Training Station, No. 10 March Field, No. 8 Del Monte Pre-Flight, No. 6 Great Lakes Navy, and No. 2 Iowa Pre-Flight.
Despite featuring some pros, the Iowa Seahawks were eligible for the nation title, and they would have secured it with a win over Notre Dame.
How was Notre Dame still good during the war? From my 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time:
Another team benefited in its own way from wartime competitiveness adjustments. Notre Dame was struggling financially during the war, but the Navy made the school a training center for V-12 candidates and paid for usage of facilities. The Fighting Irish, then, were also able to maintain a stocked roster during this period. (This favor is why Notre Dame and Navy continue to play their long-running annual series and why they most likely always will.)
Frank Leahy’s Fighting Irish were dominant, but Don Faurot’s Seahawks were their equals, and the 1943 title would be decided by special teams.
The game: Again, from 50 Best*:
The fortified Irish were 8-0 and boasted both the 1943 Heisman winner (Angelo Bertelli) and the eventual 1947 Heisman winner (Johnny Lujack, who would have his career interrupted by two years of Navy service). They had torn through an eight-win Georgia Tech team by 42, whipped Army by 26 in the Bronx, and handed Michigan and Navy their lone respective losses by a combined score of 68-18. This was a wrecking machine, and in front of 45,000 in South Bend, Faurot’s Seahawks fought Notre Dame to a virtual draw.
An [Art] Guepe touchdown produced the only points of the first half; the second quarter ended with Notre Dame at the Seahawks’ 4, unable to get off one last snap. The angry Irish opened the second half with a quick, easy, 64-yard drive, finishing it with a three-yard plunge by Bob Kelly. With the game tied at 7-7, Lujack lost a fumble late in the quarter, however, and Todd opened the fourth quarter by finding Dick Burk for a touchdown.
Unfortunately, the extra point drifted and pinged off the right upright. A 13-7 lead didn’t feel nearly as safe as 14-7. Sure enough, Notre Dame quickly drove 55 yards for a score — [Iowa star Dick] Todd was knocked out of the game with a broken jaw on the drive — and a true PAT gave the Irish a one-point lead, 14-13.
Iowa wasn’t quite done. Guepe connected with California’s Perry Schwartz to advance to the Irish 11, but an eventual field goal attempt fell short. (Place-kicking was so much more of a crap shoot, and so much more of a potential advantage or disadvantage, decades ago.) Schwartz recovered a fumble in the final minutes, but a series of desperation passes couldn’t find their mark. Notre Dame survived. The Irish would go on to win the national title, despite a loss the following week to 10-2 Great Lakes Navy.
The box score:
Pre-Flight ended up being known mostly for its coaching staff. Faurot taught the ins and outs of his newfangled Split-T offense to assistants Bud Wilkinson and Jim Tatum, who would go on to combine for 245 career wins, 17 top-10 finishes, and four AP national titles. Faurot, meanwhile, would get Missouri’s field named after him, but his limited recruiting practices got him lapped by his former assistants.
If you want to watch some of Pre-Flight in action, here are highlights of the Seahawks’ win over Michigan.