- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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Oklahoma has never shied away from playing college football’s preeminent programs. And against every one of those programs, the Sooners have held their own.
Every program but the one the Sooners will face Saturday.
All-time, Oklahoma owns more wins than losses against Texas since the 1940s; is 45-38-3 against Nebraska; and holds a winning or even mark against the likes of Alabama, Florida State, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Oregon, Penn State and Tennessee.
No program, however, has gotten the better of the Sooners like Notre Dame, which is 9-1 in the series.
Not only did the Fighting Irish end Oklahoma’s famed 47-game winning streak in 1957, they were the last to defeat the Sooners before the streak began.
And not only did Notre Dame beat Bob Stoops in his first season with the Sooners, the Irish knocked Oklahoma out of the national title conversation for good last season with a 30-13 win in Norman.
Luck of the Irish or something else?
“It’s pretty simple to me,” said legendary Sooners head coach Barry Switzer, who only faced Notre Dame as an offensive coordinator.
“We’ve always caught them at the wrong time.”
Timing has rarely favored the Sooners when it’s come to beating Notre Dame.
Oklahoma faced the Irish four times in the '60s, just between the Bud Wilkinson and Switzer eras. Notre Dame also caught the Sooners twice before the Wilkinson dynasty had fully formed.
Then again, timing hasn’t always been the issue.
Oklahoma was a heavy favorite last season.
And an even heavier favorite in 1957.
The impetus for the series dates back to Wilkinson’s friendship with Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy. Under Leahy, the Irish had won four national championships during the 1940s to solidify their status as college football’s predominant program.
Wilkinson, who took over in 1947, wanted a benchmark for his program. So he scheduled Leahy and the Irish.
In 1952, the budding Sooners played the Irish tough in their first ever meeting, falling 27-21 in South Bend. Oklahoma gave Notre Dame another scare the following year, but lost again 28-21 in Norman.
By then, however, Wilkinson had built the Sooners into a powerhouse on equal footing with the Irish. And that would be the last game Oklahoma would lose to anyone for a long time. In 1956, the Sooners routed Heisman winner Paul Hornung and Notre Dame 40-0 in South Bend on the way to a third national title.
That, however, remains Oklahoma’s lone victory in the series.
The following year, the Sooners ran their winning streak up to 47 games heading into a rematch with the unranked Irish, who had gone 2-8 the previous season.
“We had been winning handily, had a great team,” said Bill Krisher, an All-American guard for the Sooners in 1957. “When you win that many in a row, you can become a little complacent. And we were the team they really wanted to beat, no matter what.”
The Sooners did come out complacent. And in the final minutes, Notre Dame halfback Dick Lynch took a pitch, followed fullback Nick Pietrosante’s block and on fourth-and-goal from the Oklahoma 3-yard line broke a scoreless tie with the game-winning touchdown.
The Irish have been dominating the series ever since.
“They really have been the spoiler for us,” Krisher said. “Those are just the facts.”
The Irish spoiled the Sooners’ season in 1966, as well. In Switzer’s first year as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator, the Sooners were unbeaten and coming off their first win over Texas in eight years.
But Notre Dame, ranked No. 1, crushed Oklahoma in Norman 38-0 -- a beating the Sooners never recovered from, as they fell into a tailspin the rest of the season.
“We weren’t as talented,” Switzer said. “They were the better team.”
Two years later in South Bend, Notre Dame again dominated the Sooners, who were still in rebuilding mode.
“Most of the time, they’ve had great teams when we’ve played them,” said Ken Mendenhall, an All-American center for the Sooners in the late 1960s. “And when we’ve had great teams, we haven’t played them.”
Indeed, Switzer led the Sooners to national titles in 1974, '75 and '85 but never once faced the Irish as a head coach.
The series was renewed in 1999. But again, Oklahoma was rebuilding in Stoops’ first year. The Sooners actually led in South Bend in the second half, but Notre Dame rallied and won 34-30.
“If they had played two years later, you think Notre Dame would have still won?” Mendenhall said. “Look at Switzer’s great teams. Had Notre Dame been scheduled during those years, OU would have hung half a hundred on them.”
The timing, however, seemed to be right last year. The Sooners, buoyed by a stomping of Texas, soared into their ESPN "College GameDay" showdown in Norman with Notre Dame as better-than-touchdown favorites.
Instead, Notre Dame controlled the line of scrimmage, then once again won the fourth quarter to win the game.
“I thought for sure we’d get that one,” said Krisher, who was in the stands. “But we didn’t. The luck of the Irish beat us again.”
The Sooners have another chance this weekend to conquer the luck of the Irish. And overcome the one program they haven't been able to yet.
6dBrandon Chatmon and Jake Trotter