Past is present when ND, OU meet

Originally Published: October 26, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Here it is, right where we need it, an almost-late-season intersectional test of two top-10 teams. Games like this are rare. They come our way only when Notre Dame is involved, and the Fighting Irish haven't breathed the thin air of national contention this close to Halloween in a decade.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Brian Spurlock/US PRESSWIREIt has been a decade since Notre Dame was a player in the national title race this deep into October.

Here it is, a game untainted by the emotion of annual conference rivalry, a football test as pure as if it were conducted by guys in white lab coats. The rivalry on the field exists only in the sense that No. 5 Notre Dame (7-0) and No. 8 Oklahoma (5-1) want to remain in the race for the crystal football.

The Irish's defense, which has allowed fewer touchdowns (six) than any other team in the nation, will attempt to slow down a Sooners team that has scored 52 points per game since losing at home to Kansas State, 24-19, on Sept. 22.

No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 8 Oklahoma have played this kind of game more than once. They are two of the most successful programs in the sport. Notre Dame has won eight Associated Press national championships, one more than Oklahoma. The Irish rank third in all-time victories with 860. The Sooners are sixth with 826.

But here's the thing: Notre Dame and Oklahoma have even played this kind of game more than once against each other. There is a rich, colorful history between these schools, right down to the sign "Play Like a Champion Today." It is a famous part of Notre Dame lore. It's just that Oklahoma had it first. Hall of Fame coach Bud Wilkinson posted it in 1947, as The Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel wrote this week.

The schools have a history. It's just ancient history. The Sooners and the Irish have played nine times -- first in 1952, most recently in 1999 -- but this is the fifth time both schools come into the game ranked in the top 10.

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, as matter-of-fact a guy who ever ate his meat with potatoes, said at his media conference this week that he wouldn't discuss the history between the schools with his players. "I don't mean no, that it isn't acknowledged," Stoops said, "but where these kids are 18, 19, 21, 22, I could try to engage them all I want in what happened and when, and I don't think it's going to matter."

In the long and storied history of Oklahoma football, no opponent has dominated the Sooners like the Irish. In fact, against teams it has played at least five times, Oklahoma has a losing record against only four. Miami is 4-3. USC is 6-2-1.Texas is 59-44-5. And, in the nine games between Notre Dame and Oklahoma, the Irish are 8-1.

In four of the nine games, both teams arrived with a top-10 ranking. Notre Dame won all four of those. Twice, neither team had a ranking. Notre Dame won both of those. In the three others, the Sooners were ranked and the Irish weren't. Notre Dame won two of those, including the best-known game in the schools' series, the 1957 classic.

Oklahoma, led by legendary coach Bud Wilkinson, came into the game with a 47-game winning streak that stretched over five seasons. That week, Sports Illustrated put Sooners star Clendon Thomas on its cover with the headline, "Why Oklahoma Is Unbeatable."

Notre Dame came to Norman one year removed from a 2-8 record that included a 40-0 home loss to Oklahoma. The Irish, 4-2, were an 18-point underdog to the 7-0 Sooners.

But that didn't matter. They were still the famed Fighting Irish. Roger Valdiserri, the now-retired Notre Dame sports information director, remembers an atmosphere in Norman "like Mardi Gras. Everybody was in the streets, celebrating the coming game. It was highly anticipated."

The festivities extended beyond the field. Nov. 16, 1957, was the 50th birthday of Oklahoma's statehood. Yet the mood turned glum as the Sooners failed to dent Notre Dame's defense. The game remained scoreless when, in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Irish took over at their 20-yard line. They ground out an 80-yard drive between the tackles that took nearly 10 minutes off the clock.

On fourth-and-goal from the Oklahoma 3, quarterback Bob Williams pitched the ball to Dick Lynch, who went untouched around right end with 3:50 to play. Notre Dame won 7-0, so stunning the Sooners fans that they remained in their seats 20 minutes after the end of the game.

"The sun set in the east," The Daily Oklahoman described.

[+] EnlargeThomas Clendon
OU Athletics CommunicationsOklahoma beat Notre Dame 40-0 in South Bend in 1956. The Fighting Irish came to Norman the next year and ended the Sooners' 47-game win streak.

When Notre Dame returned to South Bend, they again saw fans lining the streets, celebrating as if it were Mardi Gras. Only here, they were Irish fans.

"Four or five deep," Valdiserri said. "They were pounding the windows, rocking the bus."

The Sooners never again threatened to win a national championship under Wilkinson. And Notre Dame and Oklahoma, although they have played five times since, have not recaptured the imagination the way they did that day.

They get another chance Saturday. Irish coach Brian Kelly, in his third season in South Bend, can see the Promised Land. He will see it across the field Saturday, where Oklahoma is 79-4 in Stoops' 14 seasons.

"That's where we want to be," Kelly said at his media conference this week. "We want that consistency. Year in and year out, you know Oklahoma is going to be part of the conversation. And that's where we want to get our football program. We're nowhere near that yet. We think we're moving in the right direction. We're trending in the right way. But I think the hallmark of great programs is that consistency, the consistency that we saw here for a number of years that we haven't seen [recently]. We want to be able to bring that back. And that takes time. And that takes a lot of winning. And that's why there's so much pride and tradition in their program, as well."

The Irish's next three opponents -- Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Boston College -- have a combined record of 8-13, 5-12 against FBS opponents. That means Notre Dame could go into its Thanksgiving Saturday matchup against No. 9 USC with a lot more than consistency and trending on the line. First, Notre Dame will have to win again in Norman, as it did 55 years ago.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com