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USC ends Notre Dame winning streak

On November 21, 1931, the University of Southern California surprises Notre Dame with a last-minute game-winning field goal at the new Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. The victory won USC the national championship and was, according to that year’s Trojan yearbook, “the biggest upset since Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocked over that lantern.”

The Irish, then nicknamed the Ramblers, hadn’t lost a game since 1928, when they lost to the Trojans–that year’s national champs–midway through the season. Thanks to their 26-game winning streak, Notre Dame had easily captured the last two national championships, and everyone expected another undefeated season. In particular, no one anticipated that the Ramblers would lose at home, on a field that the team had just dedicated to their late coach Knute Rockne.

The home team had a characteristically commanding start: They scored after a 55-yard run in the first half, and again in just four plays at the beginning of the second. But then they just fell apart. A Notre Dame interference penalty early in the fourth quarter put the ball at their 16-yard line, and USC quarterback Gaius Shaver smashed through the defensive line to score. (The Ramblers had managed to block the extra point, at least, so the score was 6-14.) Then Shaver scored again–and this time, placekicker Johnny Baker didn’t miss. USC had come within a single point of tying the game.

“What happened after that,” Time magazine said in its account of the game, “was so rapid, so out of keeping with what usually happens in Notre Dame games that 52,000 spectators who saw it found it hard to believe.” With a little more than a minute left to play, Shaver completed two remarkable passes–one for 50 yards and one for 23. There was still plenty of time to push forward for a touchdown, which is what the Ramblers expected the Trojans to do. But they didn’t. Instead, Baker dropped back to the 23 and made up for the earlier missed point by kicking a perfect field goal. The score was 16 to 14; Southern Cal had won the game and the championship.

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