The game is legendary. Ninety years later it still remains the greatest victory in Carnegie Mellon University history and among the biggest upsets in college football.
On Nov. 27, 1926, Carnegie Mellon University, then known as Carnegie Tech, defeated one of America’s pre-eminent teams, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, 19-0.
ESPN includes the game in its television special called “Greatest College Football Upsets” and Bleacher Report ranks the game third among the “50 Greatest Upsets in College Football History.” The other two are Centre College over Harvard in 1921 and Appalachian State over Michigan in 2007.
On paper, the Tartans didn’t have much of a chance that cold and snowy, November afternoon before a standing-room-only crowd at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. Notre Dame came to Pittsburgh undefeated with a super-stingy defense that had not yielded a single point in eight games. A national championship seemed to be well in hand with only two games remaining, the one in Pittsburgh and one against the University of Southern California.
Conversely, Carnegie Tech, which had fallen to Notre Dame the previous four years in a row by a combined score of 111-19, brought a 6-2 mark into its final contest of the season.
Notre Dame was such a heavy favorite that rumors flowed out of South Bend that Head Coach Knute Rockne planned to leave the first-string at home to rest.
“We are pointing for your game Saturday and will give you all we have,” wrote Rockne in a telegram to Carnegie Tech Athletic Director Clarence “Buddy” Overend in an effort to dispel the rumor.
The record shows that Notre Dame’s first team did make the trip, but Rockne chose to stay in Chicago to attend the Army-Navy game at Soldier Field. He left the team in the hands of his top assistants. It was a move he would later regret.
The teams played to a scoreless standstill in the opening quarter as Notre Dame employed its “shock troops” to begin the contest. The Fighting Irish plan was to use the second team to build the confidence of its opponent before rushing their top 11 on the field for the kill. The plan backfired as Tech toyed with the Notre Dame backups before shocking the first-string players in the second half.
Touchdown runs by Bill Donohoe and C.J. Letzelter gave the Tartans a 13-0 halftime lead, and two drop-kick field goals of 32 and 45 yards by Quarterback Howard Harpster ended the scoring. Tech drove the final stake into Notre Dame with a fourth-quarter goal-line stand led by Lloyd “The Plaid Bull” Yoder.
Tech’s victory set off post-game celebrations on campus that extended into the following week.
Today, players and coaches are often reminded of that dramatic feat 90 years ago. As they walk from their locker room to the playing field through the Howard Harpster Hall of Fame, they see the game ball, a portrait of Harpster and other memorabilia of Tech’s glorious past.
Photo: The Tartan football team in action during the legendary 1926 season. (Photo source: University Archives)