On The ’39 Washington State Cougars

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USC Trojans third-string quarterback DOYLE NAVE (# 40), the pass-happy hero of the 1939 Rose Bowl Game whom the Detroit Lions later made the sixth overall player selected in the first round of the 1940 National Football League Draft, is crunched by a couple of Washington State Cougars including lineman JAMES WOODDY (# 24) during the lopsided Pacific Conference Coast game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on October 7th, 1939.
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Not much had been expected from the WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS heading into the 1939 NCAA football season. After all, head coach ORIN E. “BABE” HOLLINGBERY’s club had managed to win only two of its ten games the season before while failing to post even a single victory against all Pacific Coast Conference opposition eligible to appear in the annual Rose Bowl contest on New Year’s Day. What’s worse, the Washington State Cougars had compiled the woeful total of just four offensive touchdowns scored in its ten games during that disastrous campaign in 1938, as well.

Indicative of the overall lack of talent in the program was the fact that only one Washington State Cougar was chosen in the 1939 National Football League Draft and that player, 220-pound tackle DICK FARMAN, was, in fact, a rather late selection (16th round, # 148 overall) of the Washington Redskins. Hollingbery did have several experienced players returning from the 1938 squad but no one who accurately fit the description of a real ‘difference-maker’. In September of 1939, quite understandably, the overwhelming majority of contemporary college football analysts had predicted that the Washington State Cougars would finish last among the eight conference teams all vying for a place in the lucrative and prestigious Rose Bowl.

Therefore, by the time Hollingbery’s charges departed for Los Angeles in late November of 1939 carrying the even record of four wins and four losses in their luggage, the Washington State College gridiron season had been rightly declared a success even before the Cougars faced the UCLA Bruins in their final game of the campaign. The signature victory had come against the intra-state arch-rival Washington Huskies in a contest that was witnessed by a school record crowd of 20,000 spectators, accentuated by the State of Washington’s year-long 50th Anniversary “Golden Jubilee” celebration and effectively settled in the first quarter when Cougars senior fullback REX BANTZ scored the game’s only touchdown from a yard out on fourth down. This triumph marked the first time in six years that Washington State had been able to defeat its great adversary from Seattle in the annual Apple Cup showdown and also happened to coincide with the ‘coming out party’ of BILLY SEWELL, the Cougars’ multi-talented sophomore left halfback who would later go on to be recognized on some some All-America teams in both 1940 & 1941.

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Washington State Cougars right halfback EARLE ROSS is met by Washington Huskies quarterback by Washington Huskies DON MEANS (# 32) right after catching a short pass in the flat during the Pacific Coast Conference clash at Rogers Field in Pullman on October 14th, 1939.
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Washington State did suffer through a mid-season slump that saw the Cougars score just one touchdown on a flukey play while dropping three games in succession. Certainly, a bit of luck was involved against the California Golden Bears when Washington State first-string center KEN DEVINE snatched a ball (that had been coughed up by the left halfback Sewell while running on a sweep) out of midair and dashed 25 yards to paydirt. But then Hollingbery’s troops rebounded sharply to win back-to-back contests opposite the Idaho Vandals and Stanford Indians, respectively.

The mid-season installation of the preveiously inexperienced DICK RENFRO the starting fullback played a huge part in Washington State’s last two victories as the stocky sophomore (5’10” 200 lbs) ran for 63 yards (4.8 avg) against Idaho and then added another 39 yards (3.3 avg) while scoring the only touchdown of the game against Stanford.

Until the emergence of Renfro, the only other Washington State ball carrier who had been able to gain yardage on the ground with any kind of meaningful consistency all season had been right halfback EARLE ROSS. The lanky senior (6’0″ 175 lbs) typically packed the pigskin for the Cougars on reverse plays that swept around the left end, similarly to what the UCLA Bruins were doing with their speedy right halfback, Jackie Robinson, but without the “man-in-motion” tactics. Also, unlike Robinson with the Bruins, Ross took his handoffs from the Washington State fullback who had received the direct snap (as compared to the left halfback, that is).

’39 WASHINGTON STATE rushing … (7 of 8 games going into UCLA contest)
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RHB ……. # 2 ….. Earle ROSS …………… 31 att …. 136 yrd ……. 4.39 avg ….. 1 td
FB ………. # 31 …. Dick RENFRO ………. 35 att …. 132 yrd ……. 3.77 avg ….. 1 td
LHB ……. # 23 … Billy SEWELL ………… 52 att …… 91 yrd ……. 1.75 avg
FB ………. # 4 ….. Rex BANTZ …………… 33 att …… 66 yrd ……. 2.00 avg …. 2 td
LHB ……. # 36 … Dick EMERSON …….. 30 att …… 55 yrd ……. 1.83 avg ….. 1 td
QB/FB … # 3 ….. Ford SEXTON ……….. 31 att …… 50 yrd ……. 1.61 avg
LHB ……. # 26 … Frank AKINS …………. 11 att …… 33 yrd ……. 3.00 avg
QB ……… # 17 …. Don GREELEY ………. 10 att …… 31 yrd ……. 3.10 avg
LHB ……. # 43 … Lee ORR ………………… 12 att …… 30 yrd ……. 2.50 avg
FB ………. # 66 … Don MCLENNAN …….. 7 att …… 20 yrd ……. 2.86 avg
LE/RE … # 40 … Fred BROWN …………… 2 att …… 12 yrd ……. 6.00 avg ….. 1 td
RHB …… # 12 …. Felix FLETCHER ……… 2 att …… 11 yrd ……. 5.50 avg
RHB …… # 22 …. Russell SCHLEEH …….. 1 att …….. 1 yrd ……. 1.00 avg
RE ……… # 20 …. Dan JORDAN …………… 1 att ….. – 4 yrd … – 4.00 avg
RHB …… # 28 …. Frank OLIVER …………. 6 att ….. – 5 yrd …. – 0.83 avg
LHB ……. # 52 …. Keith SIMON …………… 4 att … – 11 yrd …. – 2.75 avg

(Above statistics compiled from Washington State’s games against Gonzaga, Southern Cal, Washington, California, Oregon, Idaho and Stanford but do not include the Cougars’ contest with Oregon State … sources for statistics presented are contemporary newspaper reports from the Berkeley Daily-Gazette and the Eugene Register-Guard in addition to game films available on YouTube.)

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Washington State left halfback BILLY SEWELL (far left, carrying the football as a sophomore against Idaho) would set a new Pacific Coast Conference passing yardage record in 1940 and also led the Far West circuit that term with 1,333 yards worth of total offense (rushing & passing), as well, but that sum did not exceed the existing P.C.C. total offense record established by the UCLA Bruins’ Kenny Washington (1,371 yards) the previous season … Sewell was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 7th round (# 53 overall) of the 1942 NFL Draft but never did play a game in the National Football League.
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It was also Earle Ross who just so happened to be Washington State’s most productive and reliable pass receiver, as well. The Cougars right halfback added another 115 yards and a touchdown on six catches (17.0 avg) in the three triumphs over Gonzaga, Washington and Idaho. For the most part, however, Babe Hollingbery’s 1939 Washington State Cougars were an extremely conservative Single Wing era team that, as a general rule of thumb, simply just preferred not to deal with the all of the inherent risks associated with passing the football forward.

Senior left halfback DICK EMERSON, who threw two touchdown passes in the Cougars’ season-opening victory against Gonzaga, was injured the next week opposite the USC Trojans and never did regain full physical fitness that fall. Sewell, who tossed only one touchdown pass (to Ross versus Idaho) as a sophomore in 1939, was still roughly a year away from becoming the NCAA’s official national passing champion with 86 completions in 174 attempts (49.42% accuracy – 1,023 yards) as a junior steering Washington State’s new wide-open offensive system in 1940. Collectively, the Cougars’ passers (read, primarily Emerson and Sewell) combined to generate just 31 completions out of 91 attempts (33.69% accuracy) and 394 yards passing in the eight games prior to Washington State’s 1939 season-ending contest against the UCLA Bruins.

At the top of Washington State’s priority list in 1939 was not so much possession of the pigskin as it was maintaining a good position on the gridiron field. Such a deliberate strategy is best evidenced by the fact that, quite often, the Cougars chose to punt the football away before the arrival of fourth down. The YouTube game films show that Washington State actually punted on fourth down less than half of the time (21 out of 44, or 47.73%) in their five games against Gonzaga, Southern Cal, Washington, Oregon and Idaho that year.

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Washington State Cougars reserve right end DAN JORDAN (# 20) will, unfortunately, not be able to catch the football despite being all alone in the end zone during the wide-open non-conference meeting with the visiting Idaho Vandals at Rogers Field in Pulman on November 12th, 1939.
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The Washington State Cougars’ most glaring weakness in 1939 was the overall lack of size at the line of scrimmage. At 210 pounds, junior right tackle STANFORD JOHNSON was the heaviest lineman that the head coach Hollingbery had at his disposal that season. Not helping the situation was the fact that Washington State had only two more linemen who saw any sort of regular action, senior tackle BILL BANTZ (205 lbs) and sophomore guard / tackle JAMES WOODDY (202 lbs), who also tipped the scales at more than two hundred pounds.

As far as the professionals were concerned, there was only one Washington State lineman on the entire 1939 team who would be worthy of having his name called at the annual NFL Draft as Cougars second team junior center KEN STONE was ultimately a very late choice (20th round, # 187 overall) of the New York Giants in 1941.

In this Single Wing Era of genuine smash-mouth football in the late 1930s, the dearth of pro-caliber talent at the line of scrimmage was a certainly major problem for the Washington State Cougars.

’39 WASHINGTON STATE Offense : Yards Per Game
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Gonzaga ……………….. 110 rush …….. 80 pass ……. 190 total ……. 19 pts
Southern Cal ………….. 31 rush ……… 34 pass ……… 65 total …….. 0 pts
Washington ……………. 66 rush …….. 48 pass ……. 114 total ……… 6 pts
California ……………….. 97 rush …….. 53 pass ……. 150 total …….. 7 pts
Oregon State …………… 23 rush …….. 51 pass ……… 74 total …….. 0 pts
Oregon ……………………. 65 rush …….. 19 pass ……… 84 total …….. 0 pts
Idaho ……………………. 224 rush …… 100 pass …… 324 total …… 21 pts
Stanford ………………….. 81 rush …….. 15 pass ……… 96 total …….. 7 pts
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average …………………. 87.1 rush ….. 50.0 pass … 137.1 total ….. 7.5 pts

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