Just before the Oregon football team ran out onto the Rose Bowl field to start the game, a distressed rooter shook his head pityingly: "Poor devils! Don't you think they ought at least to blindfold them?"
The point was, the game that followed was supposed to be a drawn-out execution with the Ohio State Buckeyes on the business end of the firing squad. The worst defeat in Rose Bowl history was freely predicted for the Oregon Ducks.
As it turned out, the doughty Oregon team was still staring its "executioners" resolutely in the eye right up to the final gun. A field goal, hardly the weapon of an irresistible attack, was the margin of victory. A missed field goal from exactly the same spot was the margin of defeat. The Oregonians outgained and out-first-downed the team which had gone into the game as the No. 1 team in the nation.
Few West Coast teams in the long torment of defeat by the Big Ten had given as good an account of themselves. And it was Oregon's quarterback, Jack Crabtree, who was voted the Player of the Game, and it was the Oregon coach, Len Casanova, who got carried off the field on the shoulders of his players.
The Ohio Staters, white not, to be sure, ashamed of themselves, slipped more furtively into their dressing rooms than any of their victorious predecessors. "Well, at least we beat the gamblers' price again," was the first reaction of Coach Woody Hayes as he reached the dressing room.
Ohio State started out as though the game was to be as one-sided as everyone said. Their attack was an unstoppable as a buffalo stampede. The Buckeye theory of offense is to hand the ball to the fullback and get the hell out of his way. This entails knocking down the opposing linemen in the process, but it never occurred to OSU that this would be any particular problem.
In the beginning, it wasn't. The Ohio stampede knocked Oregon's best lineman, Harry Mondale, right out of the game on the first series of plays. The score was Ohio State 7, Oregon 0, almost before they got Mondale dragged out of the way.
Then when Oregon got the ball Quarterback Crabtree saw that the massively strong Ohio State iron gang could not move laterally as well as it could straight ahead and that he was burning the Buckeye defense badly with split-T rollouts. Ohio's problem was that its linebackers, admittedly a step or two slower than Oregon's murderously fast trailing backs, Jim Shanley and Jack Moriis, could not commit themselves too soon or Crabtree would pitch the ball back and Oregon would be off for the end zone. Prudent play dictated they drift with the play and drifting entailed giving Oregon a grudging but unavoidable five to six yards per crack. The alert Ducks put the ball quickly in the end zone when they realized this, and the score was tied, 7-7.
Ohio State was too good a football team to permit this to go on. The rest of the game was a head-butting Donnybrook, the kind the Big Ten revels in but which is supposed to be too much for more effete sections of the country such as the Pacific Coast. There was no evidence that this was a new experience for Casanova's Oregon Ducks at all. After Mondale, there were no more stretcher cases.
Neither, it should be said, was there any quarter asked on the Ohio State side of the field. The scarlet and gray played a typically determined game and deserved victory quite as much as Oregon. The big fact, it seemed to disappointed West Coast rooters, was not so much that Oregon deserved to win as that Oregon deserved not to lose. A tie might have been poetic justice.
But the Big Ten does not deal in poetic justice. It deals in victories, as was made clear by the State coach—a loud, lovable character who read the riot act to the press, officials and everyone else within earshot in 1955 on his last, victorious trip to the Rose Bowl.
In some respects the Woody Hayes of 1958's game was a changed man. This was not to say he relented to the extent of throwing his practices open to West Coast writers. But he did announce that he would personally screen any of Ohio State's game pictures for any reporter who wanted to see them. Woody got one taker, and that scribe staggered hollow-eyed out of the projection room at the end of the private viewing to announce in discouraged prose that Ohio State was the "Murder, Inc." of college football.
Although Murder, Inc. was something less than lethal during the game, Woody conceded little to Oregon afterward. Sure, they had played a fine game, he allowed. "But they didn't deserve to win," he said. "The better team always wins, always. And we won."
In the Oregon dressing room, Coach Len Casanova stared glumly at the floor as a photographer called for a smile. "I never smile when I lose," Casanova confided. Wasn't he pleased with the play of his team? "They're a great bunch of guys," admitted Casanova. "They were made fun of by everybody. You can't humiliate a bunch of players the way my boys were and expect them to like it. We were supposed to be the weakest team ever to play in the Rose Bowl. We knew we were a good team and I hope now everybody knows it. I told the boys that I just wanted to be proud of them when it was all over. And I am."
For his part, Hayes was content with the narrow win. He admitted he had told his team at half time not to pass any more. "I reminded the boys that I saw a team on television a couple days ago that lost because it got fancy [Texas A&M]. I said they had an All-America in the backfield but they got fancy. Our team doesn't get fancy.
"We won because they gave us the ball four times, twice on fumbles and twice on pass interceptions," whooped Hayes. "We made no fumbles and had no passes intercepted." As Coach Hayes implied, it was not fancy. But it won.
FROM BOWL TO BOWL
The nation's climactic week of football started on the Saturday before New Year's Day in the Gator Bowl, and the keynote of this battering, old-fashioned football game between Tennessee and Texas A&M was defense. The Volunteers were a little deeper and, by the fourth quarter, the Aggies sagged enough to allow a game-deciding field goal and a 0-3 defeat. The Vols had the best running back in Bobby Gordon but A&M's Heisman Award winner, John Crow, contributed some of the most violent tackling in bowl history. Twice he sent Gordon reeling in a daze after head-on impact. But Sam Burklow, an extra-point specialist, provided the only score, a 7-yard field goal worth victory.
The New Year's Day festivities started in the Orange Bowl, where Oklahoma demonstrated the advantages of alertness by a score of 48-21. The Sooners, who react to a loose football the way a cat reacts to a mouse, took advantage of numerous Duke errors with quick-scoring plays. "These Oklahoma guys can change from defense to offense in a split second," said Herman Hickman. "On an interception, the blockers are out in front of the ball carrier in two steps." This may not have been one of the great Oklahoma teams, but it left the impression that it offers a sound base for future great ones.
In the Sugar Bowl it was the speed and power and savvy of Mississippi against a University of Texas team which lacked all three. The result was the most overwhelming of all bowl victories as Ole Miss prevailed 39-7. Two fine quarterbacks—Bobby Franklin and Ray Brown—operated the nation's best ground attack methodically against an enthusiastic but clumsy Texas defense. Brown, who played magnificently all day, added spectacular insult to grievous injury late in the game: intending to punt from his own end zone, he changed his mind and ran more than the length of the field for a touchdown, escorted most of the way by half the Ole Miss team.
Precision was the name for Navy in the Cotton Bowl as the Middies controlled the game all afternoon to beat Rice 20-7. A little, black-haired Irishman named Tom Forrestal maintained a calm, taut and often brilliant command of the shipshape Navy team, and Rice never had a chance. Said Navy Coach Eddie Erdelatz: "Everything worked, nothing backfired." Most of the nation's TV fans, who spent the day switching from channel to channel to see all the games, seemed to agree that Navy looked like the best of all the bowl teams. Forrestal, mixing passes to Fullback Ray Wellborn and End Pete Jokanovich with a beautifully precise running attack, kept Rice's defense off balance.
Blustering, burly Ohio State used brute force to overcome a fleet, imaginative Oregon team 10-7.