OU has chance at Irish redemption

NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma's 50-year statehood anniversary turned out to be among the worst days in state history.

On Nov. 16, 1957, Notre Dame's Dick Lynch scampered untouched into the north end zone of Owen Field in the final minutes, sealing the Fighting Irish's 7-0 victory while snapping Oklahoma's unprecedented 47-game winning streak.

After the loss, a crowd of 62,000 sat in silence.

"It was like President [John F.] Kennedy being assassinated or the [Space Shuttle] Challenger going down," recalled OU head coach Bud Wilkinson's youngest son Jay, who was in the stands that day. "Everybody still around that saw that game, and there are many of them, can tell you exactly where they were.

"It had that kind of dramatic effect."

No program has had OU's number like Notre Dame. Not only did the Irish end Wilkinson's winning streak, they were the last to defeat the Sooners before the streak began in 1953.

Over the years, the Sooners have gone toe-to-toe with the best of college football, compiling winning records against the likes of Nebraska, Florida State and Alabama.

But all-time against Notre Dame, the Sooners are 1-8. Which only makes OU's Oct. 27 home date with the Irish even bigger.

"People that have any recollection or remembrance, this is big time and very important," Jay Wilkinson said. "I think it's the most important game this year -- and normally I'd say it's Oklahoma-Texas."

The Sooners' schedule is chock-full of important games. Road tilts against Big 12 newcomers West Virginia and TCU will loom large late in the season. Even without Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State should contend for the Big 12 title again. Then of course there's the Red River Rivalry.

But to Sooners who recall the '50s and '60s, Notre Dame is the game of the year.

"All of us old players, we'd love to see us beat them," said Leon Cross, who lost to the Irish in 1961 and 1962 during his All-American OU career.

The genesis of the series goes back to 1949, when Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy visited Norman and ate dinner at the Wilkinson's. Leahy had won four national championships during the 1940s and was the most-storied coach in college football.

"Dad always wanted to compete against the very best," Jay Wilkinson said. "He had such a deep respect for coach Leahy and Notre Dame's marvelous tradition, and wanted to find a way to schedule them."

Soon after the Leahy visit, Bud Wilkinson had his wish. The Sooners played Notre Dame valiantly in their first ever meeting in 1952, losing 27-21 in South Bend. The following year, OU took Notre Dame to wire again before falling 28-21 in Norman. But by then, Wilkinson had the Sooners on equal footing with the Irish. And in 1956, on their way to a third national title, the Sooners routed Heisman winner Paul Hornung and Notre Dame 40-0 in South Bend.

"Coach Wilkinson really wanted to beat Notre Dame," said Jakie Sandefer, a sophomore halfback on OU's 1956 team. "That win was special."

But that remains OU's only victory in the series. The following year, the Irish ended OU's winning streak, then handed the Sooners four defeats in the '60s.

The Irish beat OU during Jim Mackenzie's only year in Norman in 1966, then in Chuck Fairbanks' second season in 1968. The two schools didn't meet again until 1999 -- Bob Stoops' fourth game with OU. Stoops' upstart Sooners led 30-14 in the second half in South Bend, but couldn't hold on as Notre Dame roared back to win 34-30.

"Both of those times in '66 and '99 that was a new coach coming in, resurrecting a program that was down, and talent-wise, not what you want it to be," said Merv Johnson, who left Notre Dame to join Barry Switzer's coaching staff at OU in 1979 and today is OU's director of football operations. "I think you have to take that into consideration."

Others point out that Notre Dame never had to face Switzer in the '70s and '80s.

"If we had played every year from then to now, I guarantee that record wouldn't be in Notre Dame's favor," Sandefer said. "That would have been the redemption right there."

This October, the Sooners finally have a chance at redemption. And a chance to finally vanquish the Irish.

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