Analyzing ’39 Stanford vs UCLA Video Highlights – Part One, Bruins Offense

The above photograph is a still frame image taken from a movie newsreel, the forerunner to the modern television news broadcast, which features extensive highlights – including all four of the touchdowns scored in the game – of the Pacific Coast Conference clash between the intra-state rival Stanford Indians and the visiting UCLA Bruins that took place in Palo Alto on October 14, 1939.

This was the thrilling, early season PCC contest that saw a late fourth quarter interception and subsequent 51-yard return by Bruins right halfback JACKIE ROBINSON “Save The U.C.L.A. Cause”, this to quote the headline that ran in the Los Angeles Times newspaper the very next day. What’s more, thanks to incoming Pasadena Junior College transfer’s pivotal extra point kick from placement — certainly no sure thing even at the professional level during the pre-War II era of gridiron football — the widely favored, if not perhaps a bit overconfident UCLA Bruins were able to salvage a 14-14 draw with their stubborn hosts in northern California. As had been the case the previous week during the win on the road over the Washington Huskies, the significant amount of all-purpose yardage gained by the speedy Robinson against Stanford was critical to ultimate fate of the visiting Bruins.

As the footage begins, the fleet-footed Robinson (# 28) is shown sweeping around left on one of the Bruins’ trademark offensive plays for their landmark 1939 NCAA football season, a handoff to the backfield player in motion running a reverse. Robinson gained 62 net yards rushing on just four attempts for a most impressive average of 15.5 yards per carry in that early October game against the Indians at Stanford Stadium. Robinson, to review, carried the ball a total of 42 times for UCLA during that ’39 campaign and averaged an incredible 12.2 yards per attempt in the process, a phenomenal record that stands to this very day … and quite possibly might never ever be broken, as well.

The next play shows UCLA left halfback KENNY WASHINGTON (# 13), the would be consensus All-America choice who was largely held in check by the Stanford defense in 1939, taking the pass from center and heading over right guard for a gain of roughly five yards; viewers of the video will note that the Robinson, in a three-point stance on the wing at the far right end of the Bruins line, does not deploy in motion prior to the snap of the football on this particular play from scrimmage.

There are a couple of different noteworthy aspects about the specific style of Single Wing football displayed by UCLA in 1939 that are on full parade as the third play shown in the video develops into the 11-yard touchdown run that Bruins fullback BILL OVERLIN (# 5) registered in the first period of play at Stanford Stadium. The first of which would be the “unbalanced” offensive line that UCLA head coach BABE HORRELL’s troops utilized on the play that produced the game’s first points. An unbalanced offensive line is one that does not feature an equitable number of interior linemen, i.e., ineligible pass receivers, to both the left and right of the center, this being the player who snaps the football to formally begin any given play from scrimmage, of course — although rarely seen in today’s modern contemporary game, the use of this tactic was rather commonplace during the pre-World War II era.

The UCLA Bruins offensive line deployment on Overlin’s touchdown run was, from left to right, as follows : left end WOODY STRODE (# 27), left tackle DEL LYMAN (# 15), center MARTIN MATHESON (# 6), left guard JOHN FRAWLEY (# 12), right guard JACK SOMMERS (# 11), right tackle JACK COHEN (# 14) and right end DON MACPHERSON (# 38).

Despite the fact that UCLA’s offensive line is overloaded to the right, the play selected by Bruins quarterback NED MATTHEWS (# 55) in the huddle called for a handoff to the fullback Overlin heading around left end on a sweep; interestingly enough, the two players who will function as the ‘lead blockers’ on the play, the left guard Frawley and the quarterback Matthews, are both lined up on the overloaded right side but immediately head for the running lane developing around the end of the weaker left side once the football is snapped to the left halfback Washington.

Backfield motion before the snap – a hallmark of the UCLA’s Single Wing football circa 1939 – is utilized but on this particular occasion the right halfback Robinson is used as a decoy to lure Stanford defenders away from the actual ball carrier Overlin. The right end on the Indians defensive line is clearly determined to chase after Robinson regardless of whether or the Bruins’ lightning bolt takes the handoff from Washington or, as is the case, not. And it was the departure of the Stanford end from that zone on the right side of the Indians defensive line which truly enabled the play to unfold as it was designed to — Matthews, instead of having to confront the Stanford right end, was free to get downfield and make a critical block on a different potential tackler.


UCLA’s final two offensive plays shown in the video highlights in question here come after Robinson’s dramatic fourth quarter interception and lengthy return, his second run of more than fifty yards on the day. Indeed, earlier in the opening stanza at Stanford Stadium, the electric Bruins right halfback had already reeled off 52 yards carrying the ball from scrimmage on the reverse play. But there was/is still yet more to come.

UCLA’s first offensive play following the turnover that is shown in the video highlights in question here gives the Bruins left halfback Washington the opportunity to show off his rocket launcher of a passing arm as “Kenny the Kingfish” connects with Robinson over the middle for a 15-yard gain to move the ball inside the Stanford ten.

UCLA’s final offensive play of the video highlights shows Bruins sophomore fullback LEO CANTOR (# 2) scoring the very first touchdown of his accomplished three-year varsity career in Westwood on a two-yard run over left tackle. Once again, the visitors use an unbalanced line although this time there is no ‘pulling’ action from the left guard, JOE RUETTGERS (# 43) in this particular instance. Once again, the tactic of a fake handoff to the backfield player in motion on the reverse route has the desired effect as the Indians right defensive halfback hesitates by keeping track of Robinson just long enough to drift out of a position to be able to effectively halt Cantor.

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