Still Monday-Morning Quarterbacking, 75 Years Later

ucla-39-usc-stadium(Click photo to enlarge) … This spectacular image depicting 103,303 spectators squeezing into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on December 9th, 1939, to watch cross-town rivals UCLA BRUINS and USC TROJANS do battle for both the Pacific Coast Conference title as well as the coveted Rose Bowl invitation was shot by Beverly Hills commercial photographer DON MILTON.

It should be noted for the historical record that UCLA Bruins first-year head coach BABE HORRELL absorbed roughly the same amount of criticism from contemporary sportswriters in the media and the average spectator in the crowd, alike, for his team’s play-calling inside the proverbial “red zone” (to put things in modern terms) as he did for the Westwooders’ controversial decision to forgo a field goal attempt from the USC Trojans 4-yard line late in the fourth quarter of a scoreless draw.

Specifically, many people thought that the UCLA bench boss and his on-field signal-caller, Bruins quarterback NED MATTHEWS, might have done more to get the football into the hands of fleet right halfback JACKIE ROBINSON. After all, it had been the talented transfer from Pasadena Junior College who had begun the Bruins’ pivotal 13-play drive late in the fourth quarter of the epic clash with the Trojans by picking up 13 yards on a reverse around the left end. But, after catching a 12-yard pass from UCLA consensus All-America left halfback KENNY WASHINGTON to move the pigskin down to the USC 26-yard line, Robinson did not touch the ball on any of the Bruins’ next eight plays which followed on this most critical march.

One reason why the individual net rushing statistics published by the “California Daily Bruin” are so vital is that they provide critical information which was almost certainly influencing UCLA’s play-calling on that famous fourth quarter drive. The speedy Robinson carried the football from scrimmage just four times against the vaunted Trojans defense in 1939 and his biggest gain, a 22-yard run in the second quarter, had only come after a lateral on a broken play when Bruins fullback LEO CANTOR was trapped behind the line of scrimmage. Indeed, UCLA utilized Robinson on his trademark reverse run around the left end just three times in the “Biggest Game” against USC — and on two of those occasions the mighty Trojans dropped the Bruins right halfback for losses totaling a combined twelve yards!

ucla-39-usc-robinson-ball-bruins-44-55UCLA quarterback NED MATTHEWS (# 55) watches Bruins right halfback JACKIE ROBINSON (# 28), the Third Team All-Pacific Coast selection of the Associated Press in 1939 who led the entire nation in both average yards per punt return (16.4) as well as average yards per rushing attempt (12.2) that season, sprint downfield during the colossal meeting with the cross-town rival USC Trojans at the Los Angeles Memoiral Coliseum.

Of course, USC had spent a great deal of time during the practice week preparing for UCLA’s “Man-In-Moition” offensive scheme and had even gone so far as to recruit two stars from the school’s 1939 NCAA national champion track & field squad to simulate the lightning-fast Robinson in practice. Additionally, as the “California Daily Bruin” duly noted, the Trojans also (uncharacteristically) used a 7-1-2-1 defensive formation against the Westwooders and, therefore, were well-positioned to be able to effectively deal with rushing plays designed to go around either end of their line. The UCLA quarterback Matthews would have surely recognized USC’s seven-man front immediately and this undoubtedly would have influenced his play selection strongly.

It is interesting to note that the Trojans used a seven-man line on UCLA’s fourth & goal play from the USC 4-yard line. In the video footage presented with the “1939, UCLA vs USC” article here at the blog, one can, at first, only see six Trojans at the line of scrimmage on the screen, with USC right tackle JOHN STONEBRAKER (# 38) taking a wide split and lining up directly opposite Bruins left end WOODY STRODE (# 27). However, immediately just after the snap of the football, a seventh USC player (right end BOB WINSLOW, # 73) comes into view at the extreme left on the screen and penetrates unblocked five yards deep into the UCLA backfield — clear evidence that the Trojans had the reverse play fairly well defensed.


It is also interesting to note the distinct way in which all contemporary newspapers in the late 1930s reported individual rushing statistics — it is left up to the reader to calculate the net total!

tcb = times carried ball
tya = total yards gained
tfg = times failed to gain
yl = yards lost
app = average yards per carry

1939 UCLA vs USC : Bruins individual net rushing
K. Washington …… 18 tcb … 49 tya … 8 tfg ….. 9 yl … 2.22 app
J. Robinson …………. 4 tcb … 35 tya … 2 tfg … 12 yl … 5.75 app
L. Cantor ……………. 12 tcb … 20 tya … 5 tfg ….. 6 yl … 1.17 app
B. Overlin …………….. 3 tcb … 11 tya … 0 tfg ….. 0 yl … 3.66 app


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