Some of them, like California’s “Wonder Team” of the early 20s, ran off long unbeaten streaks while never roaming east of Nevada. In return, eastern and midwestern Big Boys like Cornell, Pitt and Notre Dame seldom ventured west of the Mississippi River, making any sort of national ranking system a guessing game at best.
The one exception to this regional isolation was the Rose Bowl, which would match the best team from the West Coast against one of the leading powerhouses of the East. And in 1925, they picked the most famous team in the country to play the team that had broken the longest winning streak at the time in college football history.
The eastern team was Knute Rockne’s Ramblers of Notre Dame, riding a winning streak dating back to 1923, with a starting backfield immortalized by Grantland Rice in the opening lines of his writeup of the Army game:
“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.”
Against that instant legend, Stanford may not have had the literary license, but they had an unbeaten record, marred only by a tie against a California team that hadn’t lost a game in five years. It was truly a dream matchup. Stanford also featured All-American Ernie Nevers, a future member of both the College and Pro football Halls of Fame. In fact in this Rose Bowl game, Ernie ran for more yards than all Four Horsemen put together. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, it was not to be enough.
After yielding an early field goal that gave Stanford a brief lead, the Ramblers quickly took command in the second quarter. A long scoring drive was capped by an Elmer Layden touchdown, and moments later Layden picked off a Nevers pass and sprinted 70 yards for another score that put the Irish safely in charge. After swapping a pair of third quarter touchdowns, Notre Dame halted a Cardinals drive on the 8-inch line, and soon after that Layden intercepted another errant Nevers pass and took it 35 yards for the clincher. The final tally was 27-10, and at least for one year, there was little question of who was the best team in the land.
It wasn’t all glory for the Ramblers, however, as after numerous newspaper articles described a two-week celebratory return trip that seemed to resemble a Roman circus, the school officials’ reaction was so strong that this turned out to be Notre Dame’s final bowl trip for the next 45 years.
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