TCU’s Revolutionary Passing Attack vs UCLA’s Standard Single Wing Offense

Under tremendous pressure from a trio of Arkansas Razorbacks, undersized Texas Christian Horned Frogs quarterback DAVEY O’BRIEN (8), the consensus All-America selection and Heisman Trophy winner, stands tall while preparing to unload the pigskin during the Southwest Conference clash played in Fayetteville on October 1, 1938.

When it came to the forward passing of a football, no one in the sports world had ever really ever seen anything quite like TEXAS CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY HORNED FROGS head coach LEO “DUTCH” MEYER and his ultra-progressive offense of the mid-to-late 1930s.

Whereas the overwhelming majority of all collegiate and professional football teams at this point in time preferred the less-riskier option of running the football on any given offensive play and, as a direct result of that conservative philosophy, typically sought to keep the crowd-pleasing tactic of a forward pass as weapon of surprise to be used seldomly. Such was definitely not the case with the ‘wide-open’ TCU Horned Frogs, who had absolutely no reservations whatsoever about throwing the football around all over the place wherever and whenever they felt like it. It should come as no surprise, then, that the highly successful Southwest Conference school used a very pass-friendly, double-wing formation that featured a pair of bookend halfbacks operating on the flanks at either end of the offensive line.

It should also cause no great shock to learn that Texas Christian University campus hosted the football player unofficially recognized by historians to be the nation’s passing yardage leader for five consecutive seasons on the trot :

1934 … Sammy BAUGH ………….. 883 yrds … 10 tds …….. (8-4-0)
1935 … Sammy BAUGH …………. 1241 yrds … 18 tds …… (12-1-0)
1936 … Sammy BAUGH …………. 1196 yrds … 12 tds ….. .. (9-2-2)
1937 … Davey O’BRIEN …………… 947 yrds ….. 5 tds ……. (4-4-2)
1938 … Davey O’BRIEN …………. 1457 yrds … 19 tds …… (11-0-0)

(Notes — the NCAA only started officially keeping track of statistics beginning with the start of the 1937 season … above totals reflect regular season contests only and do not include statistics from 1936 Sugar Bowl, 1937 Cotton Bowl or 1939 Sugar Bowl games … overall season records in parenthesis, however, do reflect bowl game results)

“DOUBLE WING” FORMATION — As far as the terminology for the offense of Dutch Meyer’s TCU Horned Frogs went, the “Tailback” as shown in the above diagram was referred to as the Quarterback while the two “Wingbacks” were known as the Left Halfback and Right Halfback, respectively … One offensive play that Texas Christian University’s Double Wing (which did not utilize an unbalanced line) often used effectively was something that contemporary fans would immediate recognize as a direct descendant of the “Bubble Screen”; after the snap of the football, either the Left or Right Halfback (“Wingback”) would run parallel to the line of scrimmage towards the Center and then receive a short, high-percentage forward pass from the Quarterback (“Tailback”), who would be retreating backwards in order to lure opposing defenders out of position …… Bill Spaulding’s UCLA Bruins of the mid-to-late 1930s, particularly after the arrival on campus of the strong-armed Kenny Washington, were also known to occasionally utilize a special ‘spread’ formation that was geared towards passing the football.

To help put matters in better perspective, the blog offers a comparative review of the team statistics from the 1938 NCAA regular season for both the TCU Horned Frogs, who reeled off ten victories in a row before beating Carnegie Tech in the 1939 Sugar Bowl, as well as the UCLA Bruins, who compiled a record of five wins against four losses with one tie before defeating the University of Hawaii in the 1939 Poi Bowl :

rushing yards per game
TCU HORNED FROGS ………………. 176.6
UCLA BRUINS ………………………….. 144.3

passing yards per game
TCU HORNED FROGS ……………….. 160.6
UCLA BRUINS …………………………….. 51.3

passes completed / attempted
TCU HORNED FROGS ………………… 108 / 202 …… (53.46%)
UCLA BRUINS ……………………………… 45 / 131 ……. (34.35%)

One iconic feature of the classic Carlisle Single Wing formation was the fact that, in most cases, any one of the four backfield players (Fullback, Left or Right Halfback, and Quarterback) could and would throw a forward pass at any given time. Not so with the TCU Horned Frogs, who preferred to leave the forward passing in the hand of their Quarterback. It is interesting to note that every single one of the 229 forward passes (including the 1939 Sugar Bowl versus Carnegie Tech) attempted by Texas Christian University during their 1938 NCAA national championship season were thrown by the three Horned Frogs quarterbacks (Davey O’Brien, Jack Odle, Rusty Cowart) :

In direct contrast, the UCLA Bruins had four individual players operating out of three different positions account for the five touchdown passes that the Pacific Coast Conference school totaled over the course of the 1938 NCAA campaign.

Although UCLA left halfback KENNY WASHINGTON attempted 65 passes (roughly half of the Bruins’ regular season total of 131), the skillful First Team All-Pacific Coast selection also added five pass receptions as a junior in 1938. This figure represented 11.1% of all catches made by UCLA pass receivers that year and clearly demonstrates the “all-purpose” versatility that was often required of Single Wing era halfbacks, left and right. It should also be relevant to note here that towering left end WOODY STRODE topped the Bruins with seven pass receptions in 1938.

UCLA Bruins left halfback KENNY WASHINGTON, who led the Westwood warriors with 573 yards rushing as a junior, makes a pass reception versus the University of California Golden Bears, the so-called “Big Brother To The North”, during the Pacific Coast Conference gridiron contest played in Berkeley on October 15, 1938.

For those curious to know how the blog arrived at the numbers for UCLA’s ten regular season games in 1938 … start with the relevant numbers presented in this period article from The Daily Trojan …

… then tack on the Bruins’ totals from the USC and Oregon State games (which the blog compiled from various contemporary newspaper reports).

Daily Trojan, Nov 23, 1938 — The four players in the UCLA BRUINS backfield pictured here are, from left to right, quarterback JOHNNNY BAIDA, fullback WARREN HASLAM, left halfback KENNY WASHINGTON and right halfback HAL HIRSHON … in the front row on the unbalanced line are, from left to right, right end WOODY STRODE, right tackle BREWSTER BROADWELL, right guard GEORGE PFEIFFER, left guard JACK SOMMERS, center JOHN RYLAND, the dominant two-way lineman who was a Third Team All-America selection of the Associated Press in 1938, left tackle C.M. WYRICK and left end JOE L. BROWN.

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