Sept. 22, 2005
By Benton Strong
The prestigious Notre Dame football program comes to town this weekend for the first time since 1995 and only the third time ever. For the record the Huskies have played the Irish five times in the long history of both programs.
However, the home team is hoping that history doesn't repeat itself.
Washington is 0-5 all-time against the boys from South Bend, Ind. It has been a rough ride for the Huskies, starting way back in 1948 at Notre Dame. The circumstances facing the Huskies coming into that 46-0 blowout loss and this year's upcoming game are eerily familiar.
The Huskies struggled in 1948, finishing the season 2-7-1, deep in the cellar of the Pacific Coast Conference. Heading into the Notre Dame game, they had just snapped a five-game losing streak by beating Idaho 34-7.
Fast-forward to the present and the Huskies are still a team learning how to win again. They are coming off of one of the toughest seasons in their history and just snapped an eight-game losing streak with a 34-6 win over none other than the Idaho Vandals.
There are clearly some differences as well, starting with the state of Notre Dame's program and the athletes that will be playing. While the game this upcoming Saturday features two coaches in the media spotlight, the games in 1948 and 1949 featured shining stars on both sides.
In '48, Notre Dame was nearing the end of a streak of three-of-four national championships and nine-straight top-10 finishes, all under coach Frank Leahy. The streak saw the Irish crown three Heisman Trophy winners in Angelo Bertelli ('43), John Lujack ('47) and Leon Hart ('49). Hart was a consensus All-American in '48 and '49, and eventually ended up in the Hall of Fame.
The Huskies had their own strong cast of players in both '48 and '49, starting with the freshman punter/quarterback Don Heinrich. Despite being injured for all of the 1951 season, Heinrich was twice named an All-American and is in the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame. Heinrich is joined in the NFFC Hall of Fame by Don Corywell ('47-'49) and Hugh McElhenny ('49-'51). McElhenny is also in the NFL Hall of Fame.
Despite the Huskies' star power, Washington, under coach Howard Odell, was moving in the opposite direction from the dominant Irish. The Huskies were mired in three-straight losing seasons, with the only consolation being victories in two-of-three games against rival Washington State.
The '48 season was particularly rough as Washington was winding down a frustrating campaign by heading to South Bend, only to be obliterated by a Notre Dame team that finished second in the nation that season and first the following season. The Irish did not lose a game from 1946-1949, including two lopsided wins against the Huskies.
A few other All-Americans and Hall of Fame players touched the field and had big performances in the two contests. Emil Sitko rushed 16 times for 98 yards for Notre Dame in `49, on his way to back-to-back All-American selections and the Hall of Fame. Bob Williams was the Irish quarterback, rushing for 20 yards, and throwing for 107 yards and a touchdown in the 27-7 win.
Washington actually led the 1949 affair after scoring in the first touchdown of the game, but was overtaken by a strong Notre Dame defense and a potent running game that racked up 321 yards on the ground. That same running game has doomed Washington in the other four meetings as the Irish have compiled at least 200 yards rushing all but once.
The upcoming game carries it's own history that intertwines the two schools. It will be the first time that Notre Dame will face a former, non-interim coach. It is also the first time the Irish will face the first and only African-American coach in the school's history in Tyrone Willingham. Many of the current players played for Willingham last season, including in a win over UW. Willingham now dons Husky purple and gold and has made it clear what his preference is on Saturday.
"When it comes to playing the game, I'd much prefer Washington to win than Notre Dame to win," Willingham has said.
Nearly 60 years of history, national championships, hall of fame players and high profile coaches will sprint onto the Husky Stadium turf on Saturday in front of what looks to be a capacity crowd. The only difference is that the current Huskies hope to write their own version of history this time.