On October 13, 1951, SMU traveled to South Bend, Indiana to take on the high-powered Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. The Mustangs had never beaten the Irish; actually, only one Southwest Conference team had, Texas in 1934. The game was broadcast to a national television audience with an estimated 44 million Americans watching. America looked on as Fred Benners led the Mustangs to their first win over Notre Dame in one of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.
From 1947 through 1950, SMU had relied heavily on the running abilities of Doak Walker and Kyle Rote, but in 1951 neither of them was going to be there for the team anymore. That season, SMU became a team that lived and died by the passing game. SMU had not seen passing like this since the days of Ray Morrison's aerial circus. Fred Benners was the man behind center for Coach Rusty Russell's Mustangs, and he drove opposing coaches crazy with his ability to make every possible throw a quarterback would need to make.
With 58,240 fans looking on in Notre Dame Stadium, Benners put on a passing display the likes of which Notre Dame had never seen before. He got the Mustangs on the board early and seemed to stay one step ahead of Coach Frank Leahy's team all day. He hit Benton Musslewhite for a 57-yard bomb to give SMU a 7-0 lead. When Notre Dame came back to tie the score, Benners struck again, this time hooking up with Rusty Russell, Jr. for 37 yards and a touchdown.
As the game went back and forth, SMU never let the Irish sustain any momentum. After Notre Dame tied the score at 14, it appeared that they had finally found their groove. However, Benners, once again, stepped up to make the big play. He threw a bullet to Ben White who was able to weave his way 31 yards for a touchdown. The extra point attempt was missed, but SMU still led 20-14.
In typical Notre Dame fashion, the Irish marched back down the field to tie the game, also failing to convert the extra point. With the score tied, Notre Dame regained possession and was moving towards the winning score. However, All-America Dick Hightower forced and recovered a fumble to give Benners and company one more shot for the win.
Benners did not waste any time moving the Mustangs into scoring position. From the Notre Dame four yard-line, Benners called for a screen pass. The play was executed to perfection as Benners dumped the ball into the arms of Pat Knight who followed a wall of blockers into the end zone for the winning score. It was a thrilling 27-20 victory for the Mustangs as they had traveled to the most feared stadium in college football and defeated the legendary Fighting Irish before a national television audience.
When the final stats were tallied, the Mustangs had only gained 21 yards net rushing the entire day. SMU's first 26 plays were passes. When Benners finally did call a running play, it was such a shock that Jerry Norton was able to gain 36 yards through a bewildered Notre Dame defense. Benners had accounted for nearly the entire offensive output as he completed 22 of 42 passes for 336 yards and four touchdowns. It was the third time in his career that he had a four touchdown day, and to this day he remains the only SMU player ever to throw four touchdowns in a game three times.
An associate of Coach Leahy said after the game, "Hell, coach, all that Benners could do was pass." Leahy responded by saying, "Yes, and the only thing Caruso could do was sing." Benners finished the 1951 season the ninth ranked passer in the country. His performance against Notre Dame is one of the finest by a quarterback in school history. His abilities helped lead the Mustangs to their first victory over the Irish in one of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.