There was no doubt about the final score—14-9—or the winner and Big Ten champion—Wisconsin. What no one may ever find out is exactly what happened—or did not happen—during the bizarre and decisive closing moments of the game as the Badgers came from behind to beat Minnesota last week and establish themselves as one of the three top college teams in the country.
Late in the fourth period Wisconsin, trailing 9-7 and bottled up all afternoon by Minnesota's hard-hitting line, took possession of the ball on its own 20. Ron VanderKelen, the Badgers' swarthy, resourceful quarterback, stared gloomily at the 80 yards that separated him from the distant goal line and the glittering clock behind it, which showed only 3:54 left to play.
After an incomplete pass, VanderKelen hit Pat Richter, the 6-foot-6 end who already has made four All-America teams, with a quick over-the-center throw for 12 yards. Two more passes to Richter put the ball on Minnesota's 43-yard line, but only two and a half minutes were left.
Then came the play that will have Minnesota's Murray Warmath studying the game films until his eyes are bloodshot. Dropping back to pass again, VanderKelen was rushed fiercely by Bob Bell, the Gophers' left tackle. As Bell crashed into him, the rattled quarterback flipped a feeble, wobbly pass that was snatched out of the air by Minnesota Linebacker Jack Perkovich. But even as the first wave of despair silenced the Wisconsin stands, a red flag was flung to the ground by Referee Robert Jones. Bell, Jones decided, had roughed the passer. The interception was void and Wisconsin was given the ball on the Minnesota 28.
Before the teams could line up again, another red flag fluttered to the ground, this time in front of the Minnesota bench. Another official, with the ears of a rabbit and no sense of the game, penalized Minnesota 15 more yards for unsportsmanlike remarks from the sidelines. Suddenly the distance between VanderKelen and the goal line was a mere 13 yards, and there was still 2:25 left to play. From that range Wisconsin had little trouble scoring, Fullback Ralph Kurek hurtling into the end zone for the touchdown and victory.
With the end of the game the battle of words began. "I touched the ball," said Minnesota's Bell. "It was a legitimate rush." Wisconsin's VanderKelen had no idea whether he had been roughed or not. "I just remember being mad that I had made a bad pass," he said.
"You have to agree with the officials," said Murray Warmath, who obviously did not, his gray eyes prickly with bitterness. "There's such a thing as professional ethics, or whatever you call them."
After the game, he found the loss too much to swallow and couldn't bring himself to congratulate winning Coach Milt Bruhn, who had won a game in which his team had been soundly beaten. "It would be in poor taste to talk about the officiating right now," Bruhn said. "But I have a hunch there'll be plenty of talk about it at the Big Ten conference meeting next week."
Last September it didn't seem likely that this game would cause any talk whatsoever. Neither school figured to make much of a ripple in its own conference, yet by game time Wisconsin and Minnesota had proved themselves to be two of the best teams in the country. The Badgers had college football's leading offense, with a 34-points-per-game average. Minnesota's light but quick line had limited opponents to a national low of 48 yards along the ground per game. At its last full-scale scrimmage on a bitingly chill Thanksgiving eve, Wisconsin, superficially at least, scarcely looked like a potential national champion. The players, wearing faded red practice jerseys, muddied stretch pants and a battered assortment of yellow and white helmets, sputtered through their offensive and defensive assignments on the worn, uneven practice field against the white-jerseyed reserves.
"The boys didn't look as sharp in practice this week as they did last week," admitted Coach Bruhn after the final, full-scale session. "But you can't tell from practice how you're going to do in the game."
Bruhn, 50, is finishing up his seventh and finest year at Wisconsin. A guard at Minnesota during the middle 1930s, he has a massive head and jaw that give him a strong resemblance to television's Perry Mason. Also like Lawyer Mason, he faces each weekly crisis with at least an outward show of calm. "We've had to make no real offensive changes for Minnesota," Bruhn said, his deep voice sounding positively contented. "You can't sit in tight against their line. You have to spread out against them, and that's exactly what we've been doing all season."
One important reason why the Wisconsin offense has worked so well this year is senior Quarterback VanderKelen, a shrewd 175-pound six-footer who, prior to this season, had accrued exactly 90 seconds of game experience. He is a deft defender, runs the ball like a point-hungry halfback, blocks opposing tacklers with the precision of a surgeon snipping tonsils, and fires a hard, accurate pass, a vital weapon in any quarterback's repertoire. VanderKelen was the best running-passing quarterback Minnesota had faced since Bob Schloredt of Washington beat the Gophers 17-7 in the Rose Bowl two years ago. This meant that, instead of blitzing their linebackers through on defense as they had been doing all year, their defensive backs had to be sure what VanderKelen was up to before committing themselves. The fact that they held him to 10 completions (six of them to Richter) and 136 yards in 23 attempts is a tribute to the team's passionate love of defense. Tennessean Murray Warmath, a true son of the Southeastern Conference, is a coach who does not really believe that his team is on the offense until the other team is stuck with the ball inside its own 30-yard line. This year's Minnesota team had caught Warmath's enthusiasm.
"This club just loves to play defense," Star End John (Soup) Campbell said. "The only reason we don't like to play it all the time is because we know you can't score if you don't have the ball."
While the defense was enjoying itself to the extent of holding Wisconsin to 83 yards along the ground (in 30 cracks at their line), the offense also showed surprising signs of life, rolling up 353 yards running and passing to Wisconsin's 219. Quarterback Duane Blaska, scuttling along behind the line of scrimmage like a jittery rabbit, sprung Fullback Jerry Jones loose for consistent gains on the option play. In addition, he pierced the speedy Wisconsin secondary with accurate short passes, connecting on 14 of 26. At the very end only a leaping interception by Badger Halfback Jim Nettles, with 59 seconds to play, kept the Gophers from winning this amazing game. One way or another, Wisconsin had beaten a powerful, versatile team.
It has been a surprising and exciting year for Badger football, but while basking in the sweet glory of the final victory, Milt Bruhn seemed a little grim as he looked ahead to his January I meeting with Southern California in the Rose Bowl. On his last visit to Pasadena three years ago Coach Bruhn and a tired Badger team had been routed by Washington 44-8.
"I was so sick and so humiliated after that game," recalls Bruhn, "that I hid away in my motel room like a clam for three days. Believe me, I'm looking forward to getting out there again."