USC football throwback: The original epic comeback vs. Notre Dame in 1931

2 Sep 2000: A general view of the stadium during the game between Notre Dame Fighting Irish and theTexas A&M Aggies at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. The Fighting Irish defeated the Aggies 24-10.Mandatory Credit: Tom Hauck /Allsport
2 Sep 2000: A general view of the stadium during the game between Notre Dame Fighting Irish and theTexas A&M Aggies at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. The Fighting Irish defeated the Aggies 24-10.Mandatory Credit: Tom Hauck /Allsport /

The original epic comeback by USC football against rival Notre Dame was in 1931, when the Trojans stormed back from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter.

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USC football’s epic comeback against Notre Dame in 1974 is rightly regarded as “one of the most dramatic and incredible comebacks in the history of college football,” as stated by the USC media guide.

Erasing a 24-0 first half deficit against the No. 5 Irish, the No. 6 Trojans stormed to a victory which would ultimately propel them to a national title.

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But it wasn’t the first time USC had accomplished such a feat, overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds against their rivals to secure championship glory.

Howard Jones’ Trojans did it first, back in 1931, under arguably greater circumstances.

“When Howard Jones is old and a darn sight grayer than now he will tell his grandchildren about the heroic fight his 1931 Trojans made against the undefeated Irish of Notre Dame,” wrote Braven Dyer in the Los Angeles Times on the morning after USC’s 16-14 triumph.

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“He will tell them how his boys, with the odds hopelessly against them and with a sound thumping staring them in the face, came back to do the impossible and score sixteen points in the last quarter to bring to an end the sensational winning streak of the greatest team in Irish history.

“And those who saw the Trojans come from behind when their task was seemingly impossible will for a long time have plenty to say about the courageous, ferocious, battling spirit of a team which refused to acknowledge defeat when there seemed no other human alternative.”

Hopeless odds and a one-point jinx

Notre Dame wasn’t just undefeated in 1931 when they welcomed USC to South Bend. They were undefeated going back more than two seasons.

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The back-to-back national champions of 1929 and 1930, the Irish hadn’t been bested since the Trojans themselves took them down in 1928.

They brought a 26-game unbeaten steak and their pursuit of a three-peat onto the field of Notre Dame Stadium that November Saturday.

USC, meanwhile, carried baggage with them to Indiana despite a strong 6-1-0 record including shutouts in five of their last six contests.

Though they had managed to beat Notre Dame for the first time in 1928, an apparent jinx of one-point losses to the Irish “hung over the men of Howard Jones like an ocean fog for six years,” as Paul Lowry described in the LA Times.

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The very first meeting between the two teams ended in a 13-12 loss in Los Angeles. The next year the Irish won again, 7-6, in Chicago. The 1928 victory broke the jinx for a time but in 1929 the Trojans went back to Illinois and returned on the wrong end of another 13-12 loss.

Not that any of those one-point losses were worse than the 27-0 drubbing Notre Dame gave them on their home field in 1930.

To add to the narrative, the Irish had incentive to battle for fallen head coach Knute Rockne, who had been killed in a plane crash that spring.

Notre Dame strikes first

Even though the forecast called for rain, the skies were clear and there was a “nip in the air” when USC took the field against the Irish.

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Still, rain from the days before left the field soggy, which was a problem for “the two speed merchants of the day,” USC’s Orv Mohler and Notre Dame’s Marchy Schwartz. Both slipped frequently as the two teams looked to gain a foothold in the game.

USC should have taken an early lead.

Jim Musick, Gus Shaver and Ernie Pinckert moved the Trojans down the field to the three-yard line, but Musick lost the ball at the two and Notre Dame recovered.

It wasn’t long before USC got the ball back and again they squandered an opportunity after a long Shaver punt return. With the ball at the ND 13-yard line, the Trojans went for it on a fourth-and-six, but were stopped after just two yards.

Later in the quarter, another prime chance went by the wayside as Shaver tossed a long attempt for end Garrett Arbelbide, but he couldn’t get under the pass and it fell incomplete.

At the start of the second quarter, the Trojans suffered a major setback as Shaver was hit in the head and missed two signals, blinded as he was in one eye from the blow. The All-American back was taken out of the game.

With USC’s offense ineffective, it was Notre Dame’s own long pass from Schwartz to Chuck Jaskwhich which set up the first touchdown of the game. On third-and-goal from the one-foot line, Steve Banas “plunged straight over center for the touchdown” with 90 seconds to go in the half.

They didn’t have the stuff

Trailing by just seven at halftime, USC was still in the game, but their first half performance left something to be desired on offense. The usually bright combo of Mohler and Musick was “not very effective.” They had little joy running at Notre Dame’s right end, which meant the ball inevitably ended up cramped closer to the right sideline, penning them in.

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The second half began with a three-and-out for the Trojans.

Then Notre Dame struck again with a series of chunk runs, including a 26-yarder from Banas who broke several weak tackles on his way to the three-yard line. From there, Schwartz punched across the goal line. An extra point put the Irish up 14-0.

“Notre Dame appeared to have the upper hand and when the Irish scored again with the dawn of the second half, you wouldn’t have given a plugged nickel for Southern California’s chances,” Dyer wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “They just didn’t seem to have the stuff.”

Musick seemed to know as much. On the third play of USC’s ensuing drive he was smashed after a two-yard gain and suffered a broken nose. As he was taken off the field, the LA Times quoted him as saying “they can’t win playing that kind of football.”

Indeed, they couldn’t, but Musick’s injury turned into “a blessing to the Trojan cause.” The combination of Mohler and Shaver proved far more dynamic. USC promptly drove down to the Notre Dame 15-yard line and looked likely to pull back within a score of the Irish. However, Tom Malory dropped the snap and was tackled for a five-yard loss on fourth down.

Another chance squandered.

The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · 22 Nov 1931, Sun · Page 71
The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · 22 Nov 1931, Sun · Page 71 /

Still seeing red

Dyer wrote that it “looked like curtains for the Trojans” when they failed to score on that drive, but the USC defense didn’t give into such feelings.

“Jones’s gang was still seeing red,” Dyer explained as he recounted the way “Shaver came in like the crack of doom and stopped Schwartz dead in his tracks” on the first play of the next drive, dropping the Irish for a loss and forcing a quick punt.

The offense fed off that display. Shaver and Mohler dragged USC inside the Notre Dame 15-yard line once more. When the third quarter ended, they faced a fourth-and-one-foot. Shaver was met by Irish defenders at the line, but managed to eek out 14 inches of progress for the first down.

It was the first of many moments in the fourth quarter which would go USC’s way.

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Ray Sparling subbed in and followed Johnny Baker’s lead blocks on the right to put the Trojans on the one-yard line.

But once more USC found themselves pinned to the right sideline with no hope of finding space to the left.

A first attempt at barreling in through the right was rebuffed. But Shaver wasn’t cowed.

“Bang, he went into the line and the crowd anxiously waited to learn whether Shaver was over, out of bounds or held,” Dyer wrote. “Referee Birch raised his arms, signifying the touchdown. How Shaver got over without going out of bounds will probably never be known.”

The work was only just beginning though. A blocked point-after attempt left USC down 14-6, still an apparently insurmountable deficit with less than a quarter to play.

The Trojans go cuckoo

Notre Dame was on the verge of trouble and they seemed to realize it. They didn’t cope well.

Their next drive saw the Irish gain three yards in three plays before a punt.

USC had the ball back in their hands with more time than they had right to hope for. And Notre Dame’s missteps weren’t done.

Shaver chucked a long pass down the field and the Irish were hit with an interference penalty which quickly pulled USC to the 24-yard line. From there they made quick work of finding the endzone again on a lateral, finally getting the better of Notre Dame’s right end.

“Shaver ran clear across to the opposite corner, edging forward yard by yard until he finally got over the goal line in a diving finish that sent the Trojan rooters cuckoo,” Dyer wrote.

It was 14-13 with eight minutes left to play.

And still more work to do.

The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · 22 Nov 1931, Sun · Page 71
The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · 22 Nov 1931, Sun · Page 71 /

Flirting with disaster

The Irish couldn’t string together a first down if their life depended on it. Notre Dame punted again after gaining nine yards in three plays. They were further stung when Mohler returned the punt to the Notre Dame 39-yard line.

But USC’s jubilation was short-lived. With the clock ticking under five minutes, a pass hit Mohler on the foot.

“The ball bounced high into the air and with it apparently went S.C.’s last chance to win, for Kosky recovered on the Irish 40-yard line,” Dyer wrote.

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Notre Dame needed only to run out the clock. USC had to stop them quickly for any chance at completing the stunning comeback.

It didn’t look good for the Trojans at first as Schwartz ripped off a 10-yard run. USC’s defense stiffened at just the right time. Sparling “in all his manly glory…smeared Marchy badly” on second down. A long pass attempt on third down went incomplete and the Irish punted to the Trojans with four minutes left.

Jones’ super subs

USC had the ball. They had the momentum. But engineering another drive after expending so much energy just to get 13 points was asking a lot.

Put simply, the Trojan line was spent.

So Howard Jones made three bold changes. All-American end Garrett Arbelbide came out for sophomore Ford Palmer. Future All-American Ernie Smith gave way for sophomore tackle Robert Erskine. And future All-American tackle Tay Brown, who had “saved nothing” of his energy playing every minute of the first half, took himself out for the sake of “Big Bob” Hall’s fresh legs.

Those subs worked out, giving USC an added spark in the final critical moments.

The drive

With the ball at USC’s 27-yard line, the Trojans quickly found themselves in a third-and-long situation.

Shaver dropped back to pass and “uncorked the greatest heave of his illustrious career” downfield to Sparling, who “made a desperate diving catch which ended with Jaskwhich riding Sparling’s back.”

The Trojans were across midfield.

On the next play, Shaver took a lateral to the left, but he was corralled by Notre Dame’s defense and had to reverse field, turning what would have been a 10-yard loss into a one-yard gain.

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On second down, Bob Hall made his substitution count. The Irish didn’t account for him in the aerial game and they paid for it when Shaver hit the big tackle with a pass at the 18-yard line for another big gain.

The clock was down to two and a half minutes.

The soggy field came into play as Mohler slipped on the next play for no gain, but Notre Dame was penalized for offside and the Trojans moved ever closer to the goal line.

Sparling took a reverse and gained three while setting the ball in the middle of the field, perfectly set up for a field goal at the 10-yard line. Mohler attempted one last pass on second down, but it fell incomplete. In the meantime, the clock ticked below two minutes.

On third down, the Trojans were faced with a huge decision. Jones attempted to send in sophomore quarterback Homer Griffith, USC’s dropkick specialist, but team captain Stan Williamson waved him off.

“I sent Griffith back to the bench because we already had decided to risk everything on a placekick if we were not able to score a touchdown up to the last 30 seconds of play,” Williamson told the United Press. “I was confident that with Mohler holding the ball and Baker kicking we had our best chance to win with a field goal.”

The San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, California) · 23 Nov 1931, Mon · Page 9
The San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, California) · 23 Nov 1931, Mon · Page 9 /

The kick

Johnny Baker had his own demons to exorcise when it came to Notre Dame. The year before his All-American hopes had been dashed when the Irish had made a fool of him in their 27-0 victory. While few Trojans played well on that day, Baker in particular had been exposed.

Now set up in front of the Notre Dame goal posts, he had his chance for redemption.

“Fifty-five thousand stunned spectators rose en masse from their seats to watch Johnny Baker, handy man of the Trojan varsity, adjust his sights for a field goal attempt which meant the difference between certain defeat and victory,” Dyer wrote in the LA Times.

“As if in expectation of Baker’s success, a low roar of admiration for the fighting Trojans filled the stadium. And when Johnny’s trusty right hoof propelled the porkhide squarely between the uprights, the west side of the stadium, liberally sprinkled with Southern California supporters, broke into a cheer which must have been heard in Los Angeles.”

Papers around the country marveled at the enormity of the moment.

The Province in Vancouver opined “Baker’s kick climaxed a come-back that will live in football history. It was the kind that transforms well-behaved crowds into disheveled lunatics.”

‘Chick’ Meehan, the coach of New York U, made the case “t was the greatest football game of the decade. It was the greatest game I have ever witnessed.”

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A Notre Dame student who penned an account in the South Bend Tribune experienced it differently.

“About me there were 3,000 jaws which dropped simultaneously, 3,000 grunts which came in unison, and 3,000 lumps which stood in 3,000 thoughts. Those depressed parts belonged to my fellow students who nearly turned the Notre Dame victory march into a dirge as they tried to sing,” the unnamed student wrote.

The Trojans led 16-14. The game was over. The one-point jinx was over. The win streak was over.

The national title race was essentially decided too.

Claiming the title

The victory over Notre Dame, especially in such dramatic fashion, ensured USC a climb up the rankings of the Dickinson system, which would award the Knute Rockne Memorial Trophy to the national champion at the end of the season.

On the Monday after USC bested their rival, Ralph Huston pondered the new, unexpected championship picture.

“Some of the experts seem to agree that any team that could best Notre Dame—and nobody before ever spotted the Irish 14 points and then beat them, in any year—certainly should be awarded the crown,” he wrote.

The Trojans had a loss on their record, having dropped the season opener in an upset to St. Mary’s. Still, after blowing out Washington and Georgia in impressive fashion, the No. 1 Trojans had a prime opportunity to stake their claim to the title in what turned out to be an unofficial national championship game in the Rose Bowl against No. 2 Tulane.

They won that contest 21-12 to lock up Howard Jones’ second ever national title.

But first…

The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · 26 Nov 1931, Thu · Page 35
The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · 26 Nov 1931, Thu · Page 35 /

A heroes welcome

USC arrived back home in Los Angeles on Wednesday, taking a train back from Chicago.

They were met at the train station by a mass of USC student organizations before receiving a motorcycle escort to City Hall where they were greeted by the mayor, 100 other civic leaders and a crowd of 300,000 revelers.

“No conquering army of ancient Rome ever received a more tumultuous welcome than that accorded Troy’s triumphant gridders,” Bob Ray wrote in the LA Times.

“All the world loves a fighter that will not admit defeat in the face of seemingly unsurmountable odds and all Los Angeles—civic officials, university, university enthusiasts, local clubmen and just plain football fans—joined hands yesterday in trying to prove to Howard Jones’ battling Thundering Herd just how much it appreciated that 16-to-14 conquest over Notre Dame’s gallant gridiron horde.”

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As far as epic comebacks are concern, 16-14 holds its own in Trojan lore.