Oddsmakers Install USC As 14-Point Favorites Over UCLA

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As the kickoff of the de facto Pacific Coast Conference championship game approached in early December of 1939, it was a rather well-publicized fact that the USC TROJANS, ranked # 3 in the country by the Associated Press and in the midst of an eight-game winning streak, were regarded by the contemporary oddsmakers to be a heavy 14-point favorite over the upstart UCLA BRUINS, rated # 9 in the nation according to that same AP poll.

In this pre-World War II (read, limited substitution) era of Single Wing football, a generally low-scoring period which routinely saw many games settled by three points or less, a margin of victory by fourteen points would rightfully be seen as a rather considerable one, then.

Of course, the contemporary oddsmakers’ projection was not even close to being accruate in terms of the final result coming out of that monumental UCLA vs USC contest in 1939. But hindsight certainly does not a good historical analyst make. And so it is necessary to go back in time and look at the relevant information that was available to the contemporary oddsmakers prior to that memorable Bruins vs Trojans clash in order to understand why the oddsmakers felt that a line of fourteen points would be appropriate.

Although the All-America caliber pace of the two UCLA halfbacks, KENNY WASHINGTON and JACKIE ROBINSON, was clearly well-respected by contemporary sportswriters and other expert observers (scouts, coaches, etc.), the general consensus was that USC were “vastly superior”, as one scribe wrote, at the line of scrimmage. Much was made of the fact that the Trojans’ first-string front seven averaged 208.57 pounds per man as compared to the Bruins’ corresponding front seven who averaged less at 201.40 pounds per man. Aside from weighing more outright, the USC front seven led by consensus All-America guard HARRY SMITH, as a whole, were thought to be more technically-skilled at blocking as well as simply physically stronger than their UCLA counterparts.

UCLA BRUINS line ……………… versus ………. USC TROJANS line
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195 – 6’4 …. W. Strode ……………. end ………… 195 – 6’2 …. B. Winslow
215 – 6’2 …. D. Lyman …………… tackle ………. 220 – 6’2 …. P. Gaspar
200 – 6’0 … J. Frawley ………….. guard ………. 225 – 6’3 …. B. Sohn
195 – 6’2 …. M. Matheson ……… center ……… 200 – 6’1 …. E. Dempsey
210 – 6’3 …. J. Sommers ……….. guard ………. 218 – 5’11 … H. Smith
220 – 6’1 …. M. Zarubica ……….. tackle ……… 215 – 6’4 …. H. Stoecker
175 – 6’2 …. D. MacPherson ……. end ………… 187 – 6’0 …. B. Fisk

It was absolutely true that the Trojans had no fewer than eight linemen (the entire first-string front seven plus second-string end AL KRUEGER) who were selected either First, Second or Third Team All-Pacific Coast by either the Associated Press or United Press in 1939 whereas the Bruins only had two linemen (end WOODY STRODE and guard JACK SOMMERS) who could boast of such similar honors that season. And there was also no question that USC had much greater depth at the line of scrimmage than UCLA — this reality was reflected by the fact that four Trojans linemen from head coach HOWARD JONES’ second-string unit were named Honorable Mention All-Pacific Coast by the Associated Press whereas the Bruins only had one reserve lineman (guard LOUIS KYZIVAT) who earned that same distinction. Even UCLA head coach, BABE HORRELL, who had been an All-America lineman for the University of California Golden Bears during the mid-1920s, had to concede that USC enjoyed a tremendous advantage in this most critical aspect of the match-up.

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Well-respected USC head coach HOWARD JONES (left) was in his 15th season at the helm of the Trojans and carried with him a career record of four wins and one tie against the cross-town rival UCLA Bruins at the start of the 1939 NCAA campaign. Indeed, Jones had been in charge when USC clobbered UCLA 76-0 in the first-ever meeting between the two Los Angelese schools in late September of 1929. USC star quarterback GRENNY LANSDELL (right) accounted for three touchdowns (two rushing, one passing) against UCLA as a sophomore in 1937 and, as a junior, added another six points on the ground as the mighty Trojans rolled to a landslide victory over the Bruins the following season.
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The oddsmakers were obviously strongly influenced by the statistics of the two teams in 1939, as well. The offensive numbers registered by the Trojans’ explosive offense were reviewed very favorably by the national press. Going into conference title tilt against their Los Angeles intra-city rivals on December 9th, Jones’ squad were ranked second in the entire nation in terms of total yards from scrimmage rushing & passing :

348.6 yards per game …… Tennessee (9-0-0) …………… # 2 AP
315.0 yards per game …… USC (7-0-1) …………………….. # 3 AP
309.3 yards per game …… Ohio State (6-2-0) ………….. # 12 AP
306.6 yards per game …… Mississippi (7-2-0)
305.1 yards per game …… Wake Forest (7-3-0)
298.7 yards per game ……. Creighton (4-5-0)
296.0 yards per game ……. Boston College (9-1-0) …… # 14 AP
293.0 yards per game ……. Cornell (8-0-0) ……………….. # 4 AP
292.9 yards per game ……. Brown (5-3-1) *
287.0 yards per game ……. Minnesota (3-4-1)

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(* Notes — Brown are missing total yardage from the 11/30/39 contest against Rutgers, a 13-0 triumph by the Bears over the Scarlet Knights … Rankings listed from the weekly Associated Press poll are as of December 4th, 1939).
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Aside from the relentless ground attack spearheaded by two-time First Team All-Pacific Coast quarterback GRENVILLE LANSDELL (573 yards and nine touchdowns rushing after the first eight contests on USC’s schedule), the Trojans were also powered by the fifth-most potent passing offense in the nation, which was averaging 122.0 yards through the air per game in early December of 1939. Six different receivers would catch a collective total of eight touchdown passes thrown by three different USC quarterbacks that season. Altogether, ten different players had already scored a combined total of 24 touchdowns for a Trojans team that was averaging 20.875 points per game heading into the original Battle for the Rose Bowl against the UCLA Bruins.

Much like the USC’s manpower situation at the line of scrimmage, the Trojans had what seemed to be an endless supply of quality players available for duty in the backfield, too. The head coach Jones liked to speak of “three first strings” but, no matter how it was explained, USC’s policy of shuttling a large number or players in and out of the game had a crippling effect on the stamina of its opponents. Contemporary sportswriters often commented on how difficult it was for even the very best of football players to keep on performing effectively throughout the whole of any given game while constantly being confronted by a corresponding positional opponent who is, as a result of the rotation system, not as physically worn down from having to have played as many minutes.

Undoubtedly, the oddsmakers had not forgotten the events that had transpired roughly twelve months earlier when, in late November of 1938, UCLA grabbed the initial lead against USC on a Washington-to-Strode touchdown pass in the second quarter only to subsequently watch the well-stocked Trojans storm back and overwhelm the Bruins with forty-two unanswered points.

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usc-39-wash-engle-int2usc-39-wash-engle-intUSC Trojans right halfback ROY ENGLE (# 49), the three-year letterwinner from San Diego who scored the final touchdown in the 42-7 sacking of cross-town rival UCLA the previous season, makes an exceptional one-handed interception against the Washington Huskies during the Pacific Coast Conference clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on December 2, 1939; had Engle not made such a terrific play, surely the ball would have landed in the waiting arms of USC second-string quarterback AMBROSE SCHINDLER (# 24), the three-year letterwinner from San Diego who was a consensus Second Team All-Pacific Coast choice in both 1937 and 1939.
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The ability to keep fresh players out on the field surely also played its important part in the defensive success enjoyed by USC in 1939 as the stingy Trojans conceded a total of just 33 points (4.125 avg) through their first eight games of the season. The presence of the indomitable Smith, a repeat All-America choice of the United Press, on the line of scrimmage as well as the rangy and rugged BOB HOFFMAN, a two-time Second Team All-Pacific Coast selection of the Associated Press, at linebacker fortified a USC defensive corps that limited six of its first eight opponents to 81 net yards rushing or less. The strength of the UCLA offense was its ground attack featuring Washington and Robinson, which had averaged 205.0 yards rushing per game through its first nine engagements in 1939, but it was thought by a great many people that the Trojans would simply have too much talent and too much depth for the Bruins’ two big weapons to be able to break loose.

Now, there were several different factors at work and known of well in advance, such as injuries, that the oddsmakers might have taken into consideration more carefully before declaring the # 9 ranked UCLA Bruins to be such decided underdogs on the wrong side of a fourteen-point spread — but that would be another blog post.

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