RECORD: 9-1-0 ALL-AMERICAS: ANGELO BERTELLI, QB; CREIGHTON MILLER, HB; JIM WHITE, T; PAT FILLEY, G. THE IRISH WERE CROWNED CHAMPS BY THE AP FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER
UNCLE SAM was a hell of a recruiter, and he needed all his best men to keep the Axis powers on the run. At the start of the 1943 season, Frank Leahy's hopes of a national title seemed sunk. The third-year coach had lost 23 of the previous year's lettermen, many of them to the Allied forces. Leahy had just two starters returning to South Bend, but one of them was his best player, senior Angelo Bertelli.
In three short years Bertelli had blossomed from fourth-string tailback to formidable passer. The spindly 6'1," 173-pound Bertelli hadn't much inclination for running-- Leahy called him the "worst runner I ever coached"--but his slender right arm was strong and accurate. During the '41 season the Massachusetts native known as the Springfield Rifle connected on 56.9% of his throws, which led the nation and nearly won him the Heisman Trophy. (He finished second to Minnesota's Bruce Smith by just 209 points.) So impressed was Leahy that he overhauled the offense the next year, junking the box offense of his mentor Knute Rockne for the T formation.
With Bertelli anchoring the T, Notre Dame rolled to blowout wins against Pitt (41-0) and Georgia Tech (55-13) in the first two games, followed by a 35-12 drubbing of No. 2 Michigan in what many reporters had billed as "the game of the decade."
The Irish outscored Wisconsin and Illinois 97-0 over the next two weeks before Sam came again, this time for Bertelli. With Army, appropriately enough, looming on the schedule, the quarterback was ordered to report to Marine Corps boot camp on Parris Island, S.C., and never played another down for the Irish. Notre Dame surged on with 18-year-old sophomore Johnny Lujack, who threw for two scores and ran for another to lead the Irish to a shutout of West Point (their fourth of the season) and wins against Northwestern and Iowa Pre-Flight.
In the season's final game, on Nov. 27, the Irish faced Great Lakes Naval Station. Bertelli listened to the game on a bulky Philco radio, pacing a groove into the Parris Island rec hall floor as Lujack and Notre Dame clung to a 14-12 lead with 65 seconds left. With Great Lakes pinned deep in its own territory, the Irish seemed to have their perfect season sewn up. But 33 seconds later Great Lakes quarterback Steve Lach completed a 46-yard Hail Mary pass to Paul Anderson to win the game 19-14.
The loss left the Irish 9-1 on the season and Bertelli with his head hanging low. That the landmark win over Michigan had assured Notre Dame of a fourth title was of little consolation. Nor was the telegram he received on his way out of the rec hall. He toyed with it a moment before slitting the seal. He had won the Heisman, it said. Soon he'd exchange his trophy for a rifle and set off for Iwo Jima, another campaign still to be won.