What Oddsmakers Overlooked About UCLA Bruins vs USC Trojans

(Southern California Daily Trojan, December 11, 1939) … USC fullback BOB PEOPLES (right) carries the pigskin through a big hole as the Trojans consensus First Team All-America left guard HARRY SMITH lowers his shoulder into the chest of a UCLA Bruins defensive lineman. “Smith played with his arm in a cast and his leg well-bandaged,” the USC school newspaper noted. To the extreme left is UCLA fullback/linebacker BILL OVERLIN (# 5), the homegrown junior from Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles who scored the only touchdown of the game when the Bruins beat the defending national champion Texas Christian University Horned Frogs 6-2 in the 1939 NCAA season-opener for both schools.

“The Trojans, blessed with a line averaging 208 end to end and a backfield crammed with stars, are favored at odds of nearly 2 to 1 to land in the Rose Bowl again. Much of the wise money is down on the Bruins, however.”

After reading “Southern Foes Plan Air Raids” (December 8th, 1939), one might be tempted to walk away with the distinct impression that United Press syndicated columnist RONALD WAGONER of Los Angeles also did not think very much of the oddsmakers’ assessment that # 3 ranked USC were favored to beat # 9 ranked UCLA by the considerable margin of fourteen points. There were a few other contemporary writers scattered about the country who also quite willing to view the Bruins’ chances in a much brighter light. It’s just that Wagoner and other like-minded scribes were clearly in the minority crowd.

There was a lot of information available to be scrutinized prior to the kickoff of the great Battle For The Rose Bowl in early December of 1939. Albeit with the benefit of hindsight, it is fair to say that certain aspects of the UCLA vs USC match-up might have been more carefully analyzed beforehand. Injuries would have an influential effect and, to summarize briefly, the overall abilities of the Bruins were terribly underestimated.

Now, again, much had been made of the fact that the Trojans’ seven-man line weighed an average of seven pounds per player more than the seven-man line of their cross-town rivals. In this pre-World War II era of the late 1930s, when, for the most part, even the biggest of linemen never really weighed more than 225 pounds, it is fair to say that every little bit counts. Still, it is also quite possible that the supposed ‘weight advantage’ of USC was blown out of proportion.

It is important to remember that almost all Single Wing offenses in the late 1930s used the “unbalanced” line (both guards lined up on the same side of the center as one another) and, in response, most teams deployed a six-man defensive line (with two linebackers) during this time period. The respective ends and tackles of the two teams went head-to-head routinely but the individual match-ups in the interior of the line of scrimmage varied from team to team depending upon what players were stationed at linebacker. This, of course, was the era of two-way football when all players, because of the limited substitution rules then in effect, stayed out on the field for both offense and defense.

ucla-39-matheson2Photo — UCLA center MARTIN MATHESON (left), the homegrown junior out of Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, was not originally expected to replace graduated center John Ryland, the Third Team All-America selection of the Associated Press who was a 14th round pick of the Cleveland Rams at the 1939 Natonal Football League Draft, in the Bruins starting line-up but was suddenly promoted to the first team when projected starter Sherm Phinny got married and abruptly left school in September of 1939.

At the two key tackle positions, the Trojans did not enjoy any great disparity in weight — USC left tackle HOWARD STOECKER (215 lbs) actually weighed less than UCLA right tackle MLADEN ZARUBICA (220 lbs) and Trojans right tackle PHIL GASPAR (220 lbs) hardly physically overwhelmed the Bruins left tackle DEL LYMAN (215 lbs), a future performer in the crack National Football League for the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Rams.

Furthermore, USC right end BOB WINSLOW and UCLA left end WOODY STRODE both tipped the scales equally at 195 pounds but Strode, the First Team All-Pacific Coast choice of the Associated Press in 1939, was much faster and more agile than Winslow, the Third Team All-Pacific Coast selection of the Associated Press that season.

The Trojans’ sizable advantage was at the interior of the line of scrimmage with center ED DEMPSEY (200 lbs) and guards HARRY SMITH (218 lbs) & BEN SOHN (225 lbs) going up against UCLA’s two interior defensive linemen, center MARTIN MATHESON (195 lbs) and guard JOHN FRAWLEY (200 lbs). But one of the Bruins’ two linebackers was guard JACK SOMMERS (210 lbs), the consensus Second Team All-Pacific Coast pick who had already been named Honorable Mention All-America by both the United Press and NEA Sports Syndicate (and would be by the Associated Press, as well). Thus, the beefy junior from Norristown, Pennsylvania, was well-positioned to be able to plug this weight gap and balance things out more evenly.

Although seldom, if ever pointed out, UCLA’s two starting linebackers, Sommers and fullback BILL OVERLIN (195 lbs), were actually a little larger than the two first team linebackers for USC, the center Dempsey and left halfback BOB HOFFMAN (190 lbs); additionally, the Bruins linebacking corps would become even bigger in the second half against the Trojans because, by this point in the season, Overlin was giving way at the break to LEO CANTOR (200 lbs), the powerful sophomore out of Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles whose older brother, Izzy, had been a three-year letterwinner at left halfback for the Westwood varsity from 1936 to 1938.

ucla-39-cal-perry-11-sommersPhoto – UCLA Bruins standout guard/linebacker JACK SOMMERS (# 11) halts the progress of a California Golden Bears ball-carrier during the Pacific Coast Conference game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in early November.

On the subject of the UCLA defense in 1939, the Bruins had a certain “bend but don’t break” quality about them. Although the defensive record of 195.9 yards allowed per game through the team’s first nine contests did not necessarily impress anybody, UCLA’s average of 6.89 points conceded per game was actually pretty good (the Bruins ultimately concluded the season ranked 23rd out of 124 teams nationally in scoring defense). Significantly, head coach BABE HORRELL’s defenders had already demonstrated a certain ball-hawking ability by coming up with 28 total turnovers (14 interceptions, 14 opponents’ fumbles recovered) in its first nine games, as well — to put things in perspective, the USC defensive unit generated 20 total turnovers (17 interceptions, 3 opponents’ fumbles recovered) through its first eight games of the 1939 NCAA season.

One major trend that the oddsmakers clearly failed to account for was the fighting spirit of a UCLA squad led by the field generalship of senior All-America left halfback KENNY WASHINGTON. The resilient Bruins found themselves trailing at some point in six of their first nine games during the 1939 campaign but rallied to bring off four victories and two ties. The Westwood warriors seemed to specialized in fourth quarter heroics and better placekicking in the form of a field goal against # 14 ranked Santa Clara (0-0 draw) and an extra point Oregon State (13-13 stalemate) would have brought even more dramatic triumphs in the final period, as well.

One very relevant factor which did not seem to influence the fourteen-point spread favoring the Trojans was the injury report in advance of the de facto Pacific Coast Conference title game set for December 9th. UCLA, having last played on November 30th (a Thursday night contest against the Washington State Cougars), had no major injuries and were well rested. USC, in contrast, had a bruising engagement against the visiting Washington Huskies the previous Saturday (December 2nd) and would not be at full strength for the pivotal clash with the intra-city rivals.

Ironically enough, for all the pre-game discussion revolving around the Trojans’ tremendous depth, no fewer than three members of USC’s second team were definitely going to miss the winner-take-all meeting with the Bruins on account of injury. Backup right halfback JOE SHELL, the 200-pound senior from San Diego who, as a sophomore, scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown against UCLA on a pass reception, was nursing a bad knee and did not play in the narrow 9-7 win over Washington. Shell, the team captain who was noted for his blocking skills on offense as well as his strong tackling at linebacker on defense, just so happened to be USC’s largest backfield player in 1939.

Second-string right tackle BOB DE LAUER, the 200-pound sophomore from San Diego who had hit on six out of ten extra point attempts earlier in the season, and second-right guard PETE KALINICH, the 210-pound senior from Waterloo, Iowa, were also hampered by a knee injuries, too, and would not feature against the Bruins. De Lauer actualy could have played if necessary, but the Trojans coaching staff decided it would be better to be assured of the sophomore’s full fitness for the Rose Bowl Game on New Year’s Day. This decision was made knowing full well that USC would first have to survive UCLA, of course.

To fill the void at created by De Lauer’s absence, second-string left end JOHN STONEBRAKER was shifted over to right tackle but this move deprived the Trojans of one of their better pass receivers. It was the monstrous 219-pound senior out of Black Foxe Academy in Los Angeles who had, the preceding Saturday, caught the game-winning touchdown toss for USC with less than a minute and a half remaining against the visiting Huskies. Stonebraker, who had hauled in two touchdown passes for the Trojans as a junior in 1938, also scored on a 41-yard pass reception opposite the California Golden Bears in late October of 1939, as well.

The physical health of the two-time All-America left guard Smith was of paramount importance as the kickoff to what was, by far, the “biggest”, most meaningful UCLA vs USC game ever to have been contested up to that point in time rapidly approached. The 218-pounder did not take part in any contact drills during the first half of the practice week and it was not known how long the Trojans’ best lineman would be able to participate. Some sportwriters feared Smith might last a quarter or so against the Bruins before the combinaton of hand and leg injuries forced the highly regarded senior to the bench.

USC star quarterback GRENVILLE LANSDELL was another player who had emerged from the nail-biting game against the Washington Huskies with a few bumps and bruises. It was the two-time All-America selection who threw the winning touchdown pass to Stonebraker but it was also Lansdell also acquired an injury to the thumb on his passing hand in the Huskies game, as well. The senior from Pasadena spent the first three days of the practice week with his thumb heavily bandaged and did not attempt to throw any forward passes in training.

Lansdell’s injured thumb was destined to play a pivotal part in the 1939 UCLA vs USC game – but that would be another blog post.


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