The date: January 1, 1925
The matchup: Notre Dame (9-0) vs. Stanford (7-0-1)
The stakes: In the 1920s, the Rose Bowl was the de facto national title game, so this battle of Knute Rockne’s Fighting Irish and Pop Warner’s first Stanford team was for all the marbles.
The back story: This was Stanford’s first Rose Bowl, and the Indians (as they would soon be officially known) were about to embark on what would be their most successful decade until the 2010s. But the story was Notre Dame. It had taken years to get school officials, worried about the effect a perceived emphasis on an increasingly commercialized sport might have on its reputation, to agree to participate in the Rose Bowl at all. An earlier trip had been vetoes, and Rockne’s strained relationship with the school led to him looking around at other jobs a bit.
But the university’s No. 3 man in charge, Father John O’Hara, had spent time in South America growing up and had been wooed by the ways that sports and religion could intermingle with each other. He saw the football program as an incredible promotional tool. He won the decision makers over, and in the middle of a three-week publicity tour on the trip to and from Pasadena came Notre Dame’s first shot at a national title.
The Fighting Irish had the Four Horsemen — Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden — a backfield about which Grantland Rice had once waxed poetic. (It was an incredibly overrated backfield, really, not even Notre Dame’s best of the decade. But such were the power of Rice’s words.) But Stanford had the best player on the field, Ernie Nevers.
The Irish victory, based on the speed of its backfield, is told to a large extent in this sentence of the official summary: "Yards gained on intercepted passes, Stanford 7; Notre Dame 139 1-2."
"It is true we got the breaks, but we could have won anyway," said Coach Rockne, after the game. "It is one thing to get the breaks and another thing to take advantage of them. Stanford played a wonderful game but we won fairly, playing the ball as it came to us, and we hope to be given credit for that."
"Pop" Warner, Stanford mentor, has a different opinion. "I congratulate Notre Dame on her victory, but we spotted her 21 points," Warner said. They earned but six points and the statistics show we completely outplayed them except for those fatal errors. Notre Dame has a great team but I think I have a better one."
Indeed, the most significant win in Notre Dame’s history to date — and considering all that came from it, it’s still maybe the most significant — was defined by turnovers. Stanford gained 316 yards to Notre Dame’s 186 and converted 17 first downs to the Irish’s seven.
But as Stanford was driving for the go-ahead score midway through the second quarter, Layden stepped in front of a Nevers screen pass and returned it 78 yards for a score. Edward Hunsinger returned a muffed punt for a touchdown in the third quarter, and Layden capped the scoring with another pick six, this one returned 70 yards. If your three huge mistakes are huge enough, nothing else matters.
The box score: From the L.A. Times.
This was a tense time in the United States. Anti-Catholic sentiment was rising — Notre Dame had to stop playing Nebraska because of the nasty way Rockne’s players were treated on trips to Lincoln — as was the Ku Klux Klan. Notre Dame football gave Catholics something to be proud of, something to lean on. It wasn’t only that the Fighting Irish rose to prominence; it’s that they rose to prominence when they did that made them college football’s most important, most national football program.