It’s time for another edition of “What Went Wrong,” the column in which The Open Man takes a look at teams that began college football seasons with so much promise, only to end it in disappointment. In this installment, we take a look at another defending national champion that struggled mightily — the 1950 Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
The 1949 Notre Dame football team might be one of the more dominating teams in the program’s history. Of their 10 wins, their defense allowed single-digit points seven times and that includes two shutouts.
Their win in the final week of the season over SMU gave Notre Dame a consensus national championship, their third in the previous four seasons (those other two were splits).
Leon Hart won the Heisman Trophy that season. And some consider the ’49 team to be one of the best. In fact, that era of Notre Dame football is considered one of the top dynasties.
With the new decade arriving, it was a chance for Notre Dame to continue its dominance and they had the hype to back it up. Not much has really changed in the past 70 years.
Of course, the AP Poll did its own thing, for the first time publishing its own preseason ranking. Make sure you keep that information handy in case you encounter it at some pub quiz or HQ Trivia or something.
With the new AP preseason poll, Notre Dame was picked as No. 1 in its first release Sept. 25, days before the season would start. The confidence was so high for Notre Dame that they received 101 first place votes.
The writers and editors bought the hype that came with Notre Dame (imagine that). However, Notre Dame Head Coach Frank Leahy was not as optimistic. Leahy reportedly predicted that they might lose 3-4 games during the ’50 season. Perhaps the sports media should’ve paid close attention to Leahy’s words. The signs were there early.
Notre Dame struggled in its season opener against North Carolina. The Tar Heels tied the game in the fourth quarter. However, a late touchdown pass by Bob Williams to Jim Mutscheller helped Notre Dame win, 14-7.
It all fell apart the very next week when Notre Dame lost at home, 28-14, to the Purdue Boilermakers, marking the program’s first loss since the 1945 season. Its unbeaten streak lasted 39 games.
Purdue came into the game as a 20-point underdog. The Boilermakers crushed the underdog narrative, jumping out to a 21-0 lead by halftime.
The Irish caught up and got the lead down to seven points by the fourth quarter. However, Purdue put the game away for good thanks to a Dale Samuels 56-yard touchdown pass to Mike Maccioyi.
After the loss, Notre Dame dropped to 10th in the poll. Amazingly, the Fighting Irish still got a first-place vote. Purdue sat ahead of them in ninth.
Ironically, Purdue’s celebration of Notre Dame was short-lived. They lost the following week to Miami.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, got back on the winning track by going to New Orleans and defeating Tulane 13-9. The game didn’t come easy for them, however. Tulane’s defense held the Notre Dame running game to 34 yards. It took two first half passing touchdowns by quarterback Bob Williams to get the victory.
Williams also gave up the final scoring play in the fourth quarter when Don Joyce sacked him for a safety.
The unimpressive win dropped Notre Dame to 11th in the AP poll. This time, there would be no first place vote. By the next week, Notre Dame wouldn’t be ranked in the poll. That’s because they lost 20-7 to Indiana in Bloomington.
Notre Dame found themselves going to East Lansing as they tried to save their season against the Spartans. Despite gaining 526 yards of total offense, the Fighting Irish lost to Michigan State 36-33. The loss was big for Notre Dame. They hadn’t lost a game to Michigan State since 1918.
To make matters worse, Notre Dame had three losses on the season, which hadn’t happened since 1934. All of this while they’re barely halfway through the season.
The losing skid ended the next week when Williams threw two touchdown passes to help Notre Dame defeat Navy 19-10. Williams helped Notre Dame win once more on Nov. 11 when they defeated Pittsburgh 18-7.
They would go winless in their remaining games. On Nov. 18, they finished in a 14-14 tie at Iowa. They wrapped up the season Dec. 2 when they lost 9-7 to USC in Los Angeles, thus completing Leahy’s preseason prediction. They finished the season 4-4-1. So what happened?
It’s hard to replace what Notre Dame had for that ’49 season. They had Hart, who was helpful on both sides of the ball. But, Williams didn’t have the same weapons in ’50. In addition to losing Hart, the offense lost leading rusher Emil Sitko, as well as Bill Wightkin and Larry Coutre. Both Wightkin and Coutre were favorite targets for Williams in ’49.
In 1949, Williams tossed for 1,374 yards along with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions. In 1950, without all of those offensive weapons, Williams had 1,035 yards passing with 10 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Notre Dame didn’t stay down for too long. They bounced back in ’51 with a 7-2-1 record, avenging three of their four losses from the previous season. The only one they couldn’t avenge was Michigan State. In fact, Notre Dame lost once more in ’52 before winning over the Spartans in ’54.