History of College Football: A Review of Notre Dame’s 1953 Season

Happy Thursday! Here we are in the fifth week of my series of ‘unclaimed’ Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football National Championships, and this week I’m looking at the 1953 season, specifically the Notre Dame vs. Penn game. The following excerpt is from the 1953 Notre Dame Football Review and was written by Bill Noonan.

JOHN LATTNER, Notre Dame’s unanimous All-American pick and feared ball carrier, again led his teammates. His scintillating touchdown runs on punt returns in the Purdue and Penn contests gave the Irish early leads in those games. Again, his massive tackles, clever pass defense and adequate stabbing propelled the Irish forward. John is a Senior Accounting Major.

Lattner leads ND to win over Penn


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Nov. 7 –An All-American show by All-American Johnny Lattner nullified Pennsylvania’s gallant angry bid on snow-covered Franklin Field this afternoon as Notre Dame marched unsteadily to its sixth straight win of the season, 28-20.

A trembling but grateful crowd of 69,071 watched the 21-year-old Chicago senior do just about anything a football player can do. He ran kicks back for massive amounts of yardage, smashed for first downs, caught passes, made key tackles, and intercepted a Penn pass that appeared touchdown-bound.

Lattner’s most spectacular contribution to the ND cause came just after Penn stunned the crowd and the Irish by taking seven points the first time they got their hands on the ball. With the crowd still buzzing in amazement at Penn’s drive, on the ensuing Quaker kickoff, Lattner collected himself at his own eight-yard line, accelerated the touchline, received two nice blocks from Art Hunter and Don Penza on the 20, and waved the Hipped his way out of the holds of two would-be tacklers at 40 and broke free towards midfield. Penn’s John Cannon missed a desperate lunge on the Red and Blue 25, and the ND halfback sauntered around unchallenged the rest of the way.

The game started with an oddity when the Irish were penalized 15 yards for being late on the field. When Penn finally got the kickoff, the nation’s No. 1 team couldn’t do more than a first down and had to punt.

Penn took possession of the ball and went for the first touchdown of the game 61 yards and seven plays later. Ed Gramigna, a brave signalman and an effective passer all day, completed two passes in the drive that was crowned by Walt Hynoski’s five-yard push into the end zone. Gramma converted.

Penn kicked quickly after getting the touchdown kickoff after Lattner, and the Irish promptly rushed 68 yards for their second touchdown and a 14-7 lead. The march was one of short, methodical jabs at the Penn line, paired with two passes from Ralph Guglielmi, one to Penza, the other to Lattner, who made a nice catch against the Quaker Six. On a third down-keep game, Guglielmi jumped off the three for the record. Minnie Mavraides shared the posts for the second year in a row.

The next time they had possession, the green shirts went back towards the goal. Penn, whose attack was completely blocked, punted to Heap, who tagged to Lattner. The deceptive Irish star got the crowd back on their feet again, returning the ball 38 yards before Hynoski tipped it wide on the Penn 36. In four moves, Guglielmi directed his team to Penn’s three-yard line at the end of the third.

Coach Leahy sent on his second team early in the second quarter and reserve quarterback Don Schaefer wormed his way into the first game for the third Irish TD to score the goal. In a controversial game, Schaefer overplayed the extra point for a 21-7 lead.

The second team almost got a touchdown of their own in the second quarter when they moved 53 yards, only to have Shepherd fumble at Penn’s two-yard line just before the end of the half.

The second half started almost the same as the first half. The Red-Blues took the lead and streaked 67 yards in 12 games for their second touchdown. The ride, which took six minutes, was accomplished by a beautiful seven-yard pass on fourth descent from Gramigna to Bob Felver. Here Gramigna missed an important extra point and Penn trailed 21-13.

Another spectacular Lattner runback and two plays from scrimmage and Notre Dame had regained their two touchdown lead. The incomparable Lattner nearly repeated his feat in the first quarter as he carried the Penn kickoff back 56 yards before being shoved into a snow bank on the Penn 26. After Lattner picked up three, Guglielmi passed 11 yards to Heap, who shot away from three Quakers for the remaining 12 yards and the score. Mavraides converted again and the situation appeared to be well under control.

Eleven games into Heap’s tally, Pennsylvania scored its third touchdown. Varaitis was the workhorse of the drive, but the highlight was a 41-yard pass play from Gramigna to Felver. Varaitis scored the touchdown from the one and Gramigna converted.

Both teams threatened in the fourth quarter, the Irish led by Lattner, Heap and Sam Palumbo, stopping three Penn attacks deep in their own territory. Lattner leapt high in the air to intercept a Gramigna pass down the goal line to end the first of those threats.

The game ended with ND on Penn’s 15 after moving 55 yards in 11 games after being intercepted by Heap.

And one more excerpt for you…

head coach Frank Leahy

The 1953 season was tough for Notre Dame head coach Frank Leahy, though he once again led his Fighting Irish to the heights of college football. The trainer was hit with a severe muscle spasm between the halves of the georgia tech game on October 24, causing him to miss two of the six remaining games.

However, illness did not dampen the Irish mastermind’s desire to train his team. When he had sufficiently recovered from his attack, Leahy watched his crew training for the Navy from his sickbed, courtesy of WSBT-TV. The station arranged a special gated connection between Cartier Field and the coach’s home. He also used the television that Saturday to watch his charges easily dump the Middies, 38-7.

The coach returned to the sidelines for the next three games, but was forced to forgo the trip to Los Angeles for the Southern California game by order of his personal physician. Again his “boys” came through for him and stomp the Trojans, 48-14.

Like Knute Rockne, Coach Leahy has become a Notre Dame institution. In fact, a review of the records will reveal a striking resemblance between Leahy’s career and Rockne’s.

In 11 seasons, Leahy’s Notre Dame teams have won and lost 87 games. 11 and tied nine for a 0.888 percent with no ties. Rockne’s first 11 Notre-Dame teams won 86, lost 12 and separated five for an .878 percentage.

Leahy began his football career in 1927 as a freshman at Notre Dame. He saw brief varsity action at center in 1928 and was traded to tackle the following year. He played first string on an undefeated Rockne team that season. However, his playing days were cut short when he injured his knee in training sessions prior to the 1930 season. He hasn’t played at all this year.

The following fall, Leahy was signed as line coach at Georgetown under the late Tommy Mills. Jim Crowley was so impressed with the play of Leahy’s linemen in 1931 State of Michigan Leahy went to Fordham with Crowley in 1933, where he stayed until 1939. During this time, as lines coach, Leahy helped develop one of football’s greatest defensive lines of all time, the Seven Blocks of Granite.

After the 1938 season, Leahy was appointed head coach at Boston College.

In two seasons with BC, he led the Eagles to 20 wins in 22 games and a 19-13 win over Tennessee in the sugar bowl on January 1, 1941.

A little over a month later, Notre Dame signed Leahy to lead the Irish in 1941. He succeeded Elmer Layden.

Leahy set a pattern for years to come in his debut season by guiding the Irishman through the schedule unbeaten. Only a 0-0 draw against Army in the mud at Yankee Stadium prevented a perfect record.

The 1942 season was similar to that year, as the coach had to sit out several games due to illness. The Irish started the season slowly but recovered enough to finish with a 7-2-2 record.

Leahy won his first national championship in 1943, winning the first nine games on the schedule before losing to Great Lakes 19-14 in the Finals after a last-minute TD pass.

After two years in the Navy, Leahy returned in 1946 with another National Championship team. A 0-0 draw against the mighty army in the so-called “Game of the Century” tarnished the record.

Leahy and the Irish did it twice in a row by winning the 1947 championship without a challenge. In 1948, ND had to settle for second place behind Michigan after a 14-14 draw with Southern Cal last Saturday.

In 1949, Leahy had what many considered his greatest team. The Irish prevailed against nine opponents and won the title.

The 1950 season was the coach’s worst as ND won four, lost four and drew one. However, Notre Dame returned with a young side in 1951 and had a successful 7-2-1 season.

Notre Dame and Leahy were back in the national spotlight in 1952 as the Irish bounced back from an early season tie with Penn and an upset from Pitt to beat some of the nation’s best teams.

Prior to this season, the majority of sportswriters chose Notre Dame as the most likely team to win the national championship. But the tie with Iowa disrupted the apple cart, and ND had to settle for second place behind Maryland.

Next week I’ll be taking a look at the 1964 season (…also my dad’s senior year at ND!)

Cheers & GO IRISH!

Leave a Comment