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Game of the Year of the Day, 1947: Notre Dame 38, USC 7

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Frank Leahy’s 1947 Notre Dame Fighting Irish: one of the 50 best* of all time.

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Notre Dame athletics

The date: December 6, 1947

The matchup: No. 1 Notre Dame (8-0) at No. 3 USC (7-0-1)

The stakes: A win would give Notre Dame the mythical national title over a Michigan team that had refused to schedule the Irish for the last four years. A USC win would make the title picture blurry ahead of a Rose Bowl battle with Michigan.

The back story: College football's postwar attempts at civilizing itself was basically just tilting the playing field in favor of one particular green and gold program. From 50 Best*:

In 1947-48, the NCAA debated and passed what was initially called the Purity Code; upon receiving mockery for the hypocrisy and haughtiness of that name, it was changed to the Sanity Code. It barred both athletic scholarships and off-campus recruiting; the latter ban would soon be lifted, but the scholarship ban remained until the mid-1950s. It gave NCAA schools the ability to kick rules violators out, too. And in the “history repeats” department, Southern schools seriously debated seceding from the NCAA. [...]

The supposed intent of the Sanity Code was to ensure a level playing field. More than anything, it simply helped the national brand that didn’t have to cut too many corners to recruit. Surely there were payments and sketchy employment arrangements at Notre Dame, as in any other program, but Notre Dame was more well-equipped to compete in a “pure” environment than anyone.

At the same time, the Fighting Irish were finding it increasingly difficult to find opponents to play. Much of the Big Ten resented both the school’s on-field superiority and off-field attitude. Additionally, they dropped vague hints (or blind items in newspapers) about Irish improprieties. In January 1947, in fact, Notre Dame president Father John Cavanaugh responded, calling both these hints and the supposed need for a Sanity Code, “the mere publishing of noble, high-sounding codes which are often hypocritically evaded in actual practice.” [...]

Schools like Iowa, Purdue, and Northwestern continued scheduling the Irish, in part because they liked the big crowds. But Michigan refused, Illinois and Wisconsin wouldn’t play Notre Dame for 20 years, Ohio State didn’t play the Irish for nearly 60 years, etc. Even Army got in on the act; the famed Army-Notre Dame series went black from 1948-57.

For the 1947 slate, Notre Dame lined up three Big Ten schools, the two service academies, one-time power Pitt, fading SEC program Tulane, USC (of course), and, for the first time since Knute Rockne swore off trips to Lincoln in 1925, Nebraska. Many of those teams had been good recently, but few were in 1947. In fact, only three of nine would finish with a winning record.

Notre Dame had perhaps the most talented team in its history and almost no one to play.

The Irish had played only one ranked team -- No. 9 Army -- before heading to Los Angeles to finish the season against a talented USC squad. But they were so obscenely talented that they had rarely needed to leave even third gear. Could USC force them to at least hit the gas?

Technically, yes.

The game: From the Los Angeles Times:

Sawed-off Emil Sitko set sail down the sidelines on the first scrimmage play of the second half yesterday and when he had completed his 76-yard excursion to the promised land the Notre dame-Trojan football game was all over.

It wasn't all over as far as the scoring went, of course, because the Fighting Irish continued to score three more touchdowns for their smashing 38-to-7 triumph.

But it was all over as the Trojans were concerned.

Sitko's mad dash made the count 17 to 7 and so fired Frank Leahy's magnificent squad that nothing the Trojans could do thereafter made any difference.

Leahy graciously said that his boys were hot and lucky. Thanks, Frank, but even if they had been cold and unlucky it wouldn't have helped S.C. much.

The game was played in front of 104,953, then the fifth-largest crowd to ever attend a college football game. And to be sure, USC gave the Irish a fight for a while. It was only 10-7 at halftime, after all. But the second half counts, too, and Leahy's Irish did what they did all year: take their time and wear you down.

From a talent perspective, this was clearly one of the best teams of all time, but Notre Dame was patient enough — and Leahy gave his backups enough time — that the final scores didn’t always reflect the dominance the Irish could have laid on outmanned opponents.

The box score:

USC might have kept it close for a while, but considering the Trojans were the third-ranked team in the country, the final stats were devastating. Notre Dame won the yardage battle, 461-173, with Sitko and Bob Livingstone combining to rush 19 times for 264 yards. Eventual Heisman winner Johnny Lujack didn’t have to do much — he completed five of seven passes for 71 yards and rushed twice for five yards. That was enough.

Because Michigan and Notre Dame weren’t playing each other in these years, it did leave part of 1947 unanswered. As incomparably talented as the Irish were, Michigan also went unbeaten and ended up destroying USC, 49-0, in the Rose Bowl a month later. The Wolverines could have potentially given the Irish all they could handle, but a few years earlier, UM’s Fritz Crisler had decided he had no interest in continuing to play Notre Dame.