Throwback Thursday: Irish, Buckeyes tangled in 'Game of the Century'

Depression-era game in Columbus wowed college football fans

Margaret Fosmoe
South Bend Tribune

It was "The Game of the Century" long before that phrase became a cliché.

That's how fans remembered the first meeting of Notre Dame and Ohio State University on the football field.

The highly anticipated match was Nov. 2, 1935, in Columbus, Ohio. Although the nation was in the midst of the Great Depression, Ohio State had no trouble selling more than 81,000 tickets to fans eager to see the contest between two undefeated college football powerhouses.

Ohio State was 4-0 going into the game. Notre Dame was 5-0, having beat Navy the previous week 14-0.

See the Tribune's coverage of the 1935 game: http://goo.gl/zx5uAj

Although officially known as the Fighting Irish by 1935, the Notre Dame squad often was referred to by its old nickname, the Ramblers, in newspaper headlines of that era. It was hard to fill the seats in Notre Dame Stadium during the Depression, so the Catholic school played on the road more often than not to help the financial balance.

For Elmer Layden, age 32, it was his second year as Notre Dame's head coach. As a player, he had been part of the famous "Four Horsemen" backfield on legendary coach Knute Rockne's 1924 team. Layden's squad had gone 9-3 the previous season.

Among the players Layden was coaching: halfback Mike Layden, his younger brother.

The Irish also were playing for a fallen teammate. Team captain Joe Sullivan had died March 20 in a New York hospital of a streptococcus infection caused by mastoiditis and pneumonia. "News of his death plunged the campus into grief," the South Bend Tribune reported the day of Sullivan's death. His teammates didn't elect another captain. Instead, they dedicated their season to Sullivan's memory.

It was OSU coach Francis Schmidt's second year leading the Buckeyes. His team had gone 7-1 in 1934.

"Nearly 1,000 local followers of the Irish are expected to take the $5.50 round trip excursion of the Pennsylvania Railroad," The Tribune reported a few days before the game. For those who couldn't attend, WSBT, the South Bend Tribune's radio station, would provide a live play-by-play broadcast.

"All Columbus is agog over the pending battle of the two great gridiron units. You can't buy a place to sleep in this town and the prices have skyrocketed to the absurd stage," the Tribune reported.

Scalpers were selling individual tickets for an astonishingly high $25.

"(Ohio) Gov. Martin Luther Davey, who angered every Ohio State fan with his recent charge that half the Buckeye players were on the state payroll, will not be at the game," United Press staff correspondent Henry McLemore wrote in an article published in The Tribune. "The governor says he won't go because he's sick; the fans say he won't go because he's afraid he'll be booed out of the place."

"The entire Notre Dame student body took special trains to the game but, in the Ohio capital, encountered extremely hostile crowds and anti-Catholic taunts," author Murray Sperber recounted in his 1993 book, "Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football."

There was no love lost between the two coaches. In advance of the game, Layden and Schmidt refused to shake hands for a cameraman.

Early in the first half, Notre Dame's Mike Layden dropped back to pass, but was intercepted by Frank Antenucci. He lateraled to Arthur "Frank" Boucher, who ran 65 yards for a touchdown. Dick Beltz's extra point gave OSU a 7-0 lead. Another Irish pass was intercepted in the second quarter, setting up Joe Williams' three-yard touchdown run. The Buckeyes missed the extra point, but led 13-0 at halftime.

As the second half got underway, Elmer Layden opted to put in his second-string offense. It was a risky move. Under NCAA rules at the time, any player removed from a game couldn't return until the following quarter. So Layden's starters were on the bench until the fourth quarter.

Neither team scored in that third quarter, but Irish halfback Andy Pilney returned a punt to the OSU 13-yard line before the start of the fourth quarter, setting up Steve Miller's one-yard touchdown run that cut Ohio State's lead to 13-6. Later, the Irish scored on a 15-yard pass from Pilney to Mike Layden to cut the deficit to 13-12. Then following an Ohio State fumble, the Irish scored on a pass from Bill Shakespeare to Wayne Millner, giving the visitors an 18-13 win.

Thousands of Fighting Irish fans rushed onto the field and tore down the goal posts, parading one post the length of the field in an impromptu celebratory snake dance.

"ND downs Ohio State, 18-13," proclaimed the front-page banner headline on the next day's South Bend Tribune.

"In one of the greatest reversals of form football has ever known, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame rose from the dregs of defeat and scored three quick touchdowns in the fourth quarter to nose out the Scarlet Scourge of Ohio State, 18-13, here this afternoon before 81,018 fans," Tribune sports editor Jack Ledden reported.

Famed sports writer Grantland Rice wrote: "Notre Dame won a football game today the equal of which even Knute Rockne never had a chance to see. By beating Ohio State, 18-13, before 81,000 persons, to gain the greatest football victory in the long and brilliant history of the Blue and Gold."

In 1950, a poll of veteran sportswriters declared the 1935 Notre Dame-OSU match "The Greatest College Football Game of the Half-Century." And in 1969, it was declared the greatest game in the first 100 years of NCAA football by the Associated Press.

The Irish lost at home the following week to Northwestern, 14-7, then tied Army 6-6, ending the season 7-1-1.

Ohio State finished the season 7-1.

The following year, the Buckeyes came to South Bend to play Notre Dame. The Irish won, 7-2.

The two teams have played three times in the modern era, with the Buckeyes the victors in each of those games: 1995 (in Columbus), 45-26; 1996 (in South Bend), 29-16; and at the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, 34-20.

Their sixth meeting will be in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at 1 p.m. EST Friday.

mfosmoe@sbtinfo.com

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A football (painted after the game) showing the score from the Nov. 2, 1935 Notre Dame vs. Ohio State football game, which for many years was considered the college football "Game of the Century." The ball remains on display in the Sports Heritage Hall of Fame in the Joyce Center at the University of Notre Dame. SBT Photo/Margaret Fosmoe
Here's the start of the Ohio State Buckeyes' first drive toward a touchdown during the 1935 game. This photo ran on the front page of the Nov. 3, 1935 South Bend Tribune. South Bend Tribune Archives
An image of Notre Dame head football coach Elmer Layden published Nov. 1, 1935, the day before the first-ever Notre Dame vs. Ohio State football game. South Bend Tribune Archives
Notre Dame player Mike Layden starts the play to score a touchdown against Ohio State in the Nov. 2, 1935 football game. This Associated Press photo was published in the next day's South Bend Tribune. South Bend Tribune Archives
An October 1935 illustration showing the star players of the Ohio State University football team a few days before the first-ever Notre Dame vs. OSU game. South Bend Tribune archives
A South Bend Tribune illustration published Nov. 1, 1935 showed Notre Dame center Fred Soari and Ohio State center Gomer Jones, who were expected to be key players in the next day's first-ever football game between the two schools. South Bend Tribune Archives
Notre Dame's Fred Miller punctures Ohio State's line on a march to score during the Nov. 2, 1935 Notre Dame vs. Ohio State football game. South Bend Tribune Archives