The USC Trojans’ speedy right halfback BOBBY ROBERTSON (# 28), who ended up directly involved in the most pivotal play of the entire contest late in the fourth quarter, finds himself confronted by a trio of determined UCLA Bruins tacklers — defensive back KENNY WASHINGTON (# 13), linebacker BILL OVERLIN (# 5) as well as left end WOODY STRODE (# 27) — during the legendary Pacific Coast Conference title game between two nationally-ranked, unbeaten ball clubs that was witnessed by a record-breaking crowd at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in southern California.
December 9, 1939
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Attendance : 103,300
(# 9 – AP) UCLA BRUINS vs (# 3 – AP) USC TROJANS
UCLA starting line-up
LE – # 27 … Woody STRODE ……………. LH – # 13 … Kenny WASHINGTON
LT – # 15 … Del LYMAN …………………… FB – # 5 ….. Bill OVERLIN
LG – # 11 … Jack SOMMERS …………….. QB – # 55 … Ned MATTHEWS
OC – # 6 ….. Martin MATHESON ……… RH – # 28 … Jackie ROBINSON
RG – # 12 … John FRAWLEY
RT – # 24 … Mladen ZARUBICA
RE – # 38 … Don MACPHERSON
E – Bob SIMPSON (# 44), Chuck CASCALES (# 54), Ray BARTLETT (# 9)
T – Ernest HILL (# 10), Jack COHEN (# 14), Cecil DYE (# 59)
G – Lou KYZIVAT (# 30), Nate DEFRANCISCO (# 31), Joe RUETTGERS (# 43)
C – Gene ALDER (# 8), Ted JONES (# 37)
LH – Chuck FENENBOCK (# 45)
FB – Leo CANTOR (# 2), Don HESSE (# 4)
total plays from scrimmage …………. UCLA 64, USC 62
net total yardage ………………………… UCLA 161, USC 222
first downs …………………………………. UCLA 10, USC 11
net rushing yards ………………………… UCLA 89, USC 183
net passing yards ………………………… UCLA 72, USC 39
passes completed / attempted ……… UCLA 7/18, USC 5/11
passes intercepted by ………………….. UCLA 1, USC 1
fumbles recovered by ………………….. UCLA 2, USC 2
punts / average yards ………………….. UCLA 8 – 34.3, USC 7 – 33.0
kick & punt return yards ………………. UCLA 68, USC 50
penalty yardage lost …………………….. UCLA 0, USC 20
UCLA individual net rushing statistics
# 13 … LH – Kenny WASHINGTON ….. 18 carries … 40 yards
# 28 … RH – Jackie ROBINSON …………. 4 carries … 23 yards
# 2 ….. FB – Leo CANTOR ………………… 12 carries … 14 yards
# 5 ….. FB – Bill OVERLIN …………………. 3 carries … 11 yards
# 55 … QB – Ned MATTHEWS ……………. 1 carry ……. 1 yard
Notes — UCLA left halfback KENNY WASHINGTON had 112 yards of total offense (rushing & passing) and added 18 yards on a kickoff return as as well as 28 yards on an interception return … Bruins right halfback JACKIE ROBINSON “turned in four runs of more than 15 yards each”, according to Ronald Wagoner of the United Press in his post-game report. This particular reference clearly includes all-purpose runs on pass receptions and punt returns in addition to rushing plays from scrimmage. Robinson, who played the full 60 minutes against USC, netted 23 yards on four runs from scrimmage and registered 48 yards from four punt returns, as well. The UCLA right halfback also caught a short pass in the flat from Washington for little if no yardage in the second quarter and a 12-yard pass from his Bruins backfield mate in the fourth quarter… UCLA starting fullback BILL OVERLIN carried the ball three times for 11 yards versus the Trojans before giving way to backup LEO CANTOR at the end of the first quarter. Overlin averaged just 30.6 yards on three punts and delivered a horrible 19-yard kick at the beginning of the game. Cantor, who punted five times in the second and third quarters combined for an average of 36.6 yards per kick, was able to raise the collective UCLA average to 34.3 yards per boot by the end of the contest.
The photo in the upper left hand corner of this display from the 1940 edition of UCLA’s school yearbook, “Southern Campus), shows Bruins fullback LEO CANTOR (# 2), the sturdy 200-pound sophomore out of Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles who was the Westwooders’ third-leading rushing during his first varsity campaign at the collegiate level, dragging down USC third-string quarterback DOYLE NAVE (# 40), the highly regarded passer who had been the unlikely hero of the 1939 Rose Bowl Game against unbeaten and untied Duke University. Nave, the homegrown senior from Los Angeles who was the sixth overall player taken when selected by the Detroit Lions in the first round of the 1940 National Football League Draft, was one of six former Manual Arts High School players who all participated in the historic UCLA vs USC clash in 1939. Aside from the aerial artist Nave, the well-stocked Trojans also featured senior left tackle JOHN THOMASSIN and senior right halfback JIM SLATTER on its second string while the clearly underrated Bruins countered with two starters in fullback BILL OVERLIN and quarterback NED MATTHEWS as well as backup right end BOB SIMPSON.
UCLA BRUINS vs USC TROJANS
A riveting, length-of-the-field drive in the closing minutes of the 1939 de facto Pacific Coast Conference championship game was abruptly stopped only when a controversial fourth down pass was intentionally swatted down in the end zone as the # 3 ranked USC TROJANS were extremely lucky to escape the intra-city battle with a 0-0 tie against the # 9 ranked UCLA BRUINS and, by doing so, secure the lucrative invitation to the 1940 Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Powerful USC, the defending Rose Bowl champions who had come into the contest with the second-most potent offense in all the land averaging 315.0 yards of total offense per game, completely dominated possession and field position in the opening fifteen minutes but wasted three good scoring opportunities along the way. After being stopped on downs at the UCLA 23-yard line, the relentless Trojans immediately recovered a fumbled snap by the Bruins’ consensus All-America left halfback KENNY WASHINGTON and threatened again but USC star quarterback GRENVILLE LANSDELL, who was known to be hampered by an injury to his passing hand, fumbled three yards from the goal line after a particularly hard hit by UCLA right halfback JACKIE ROBINSON. The loose ball squirted into the end zone where it was quickly scooped up by the alert Bruins left end WOODY STRODE, the homegrown senior from Jefferson High School in Los Angeles who was a First Team All-Pacific Coast as well as Honorable Mention selection of the Associated Press in 1939.
Considering how the Trojans had moved the football on its first two possessions, it must have seemed highly unlikely to most, if not all, of the 103,303 spectators on hand at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, that the UCLA Bruins defense would be capable of pitching a shutout on this early December afternoon. But Washington atoned for his earlier error on USC’s third drive by intercepting a long pass by Lansdell on the UCLA 10 and returning the ball 28 yards to, at last, provide the Westwooders with some semblance of field position. The mighty Trojans decisively outgained their cross-town rivals in total yards (64-8) during the first quarter but, much to the chagrin of head coach HOWARD JONES, were unable to put any points on the scoreboard.
USC Trojans two-time All-America quarterback GRENVILLE LANSDELL (# 78) grimaces as the spectacular blow delivered by UCLA Bruins right halfback JACKIE ROBINSON (# 28) knocks the football loose only yards from the goal line early in the first quarter of the dramatic 1939 Pacific Coast Conference Championship Game. Standout UCLA left end WOODY STRODE (# 27), who, as a junior in 1938, had recovered a fumble by 1939 Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick to score a critical touchdown against the University of Iowa Hawkeyes, ultimately secured Lansdell’s fumble in the Bruins’ end zone for a touchback. The sea of spectators behind the goalposts at the far end of the field give a good indication of exactly how jam-packed the cavernous Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was on December 9, 1939.
In the second quarter, the Bruins slowly began to come into the game more as evidenced by the 22-yard run from Robinson, the speedy transfer from Pasadena Junior College who made something out of nothing from a lateral in the backfield after the quick-thinking UCLA second-string fullback LEO CANTOR had been trapped behind the line of scrimmage by the USC defense. The Bruins, who came into this Battle for the Rose Bowl against the Trojans in 1939 averaging 281.0 total yards per game on offense, again reached midfield after Washington connected with quarterback NED MATTHEWS on a 29-yard passing play. In the meantime, the UCLA defense had begun to contain the USC attack, which was now steered by second-string quarterback AMBROSE SCHINDLER, the redshirt senior from San Diego who was the consensus Second Team All-Pacific Coast choice of both the Associated Press and the United Press in 1937 as well as in 1939.
(It was Schindler, of course, who went on to lead the Trojans with 75 yards rushing while running for one score and throwing a pass for another during USC’s impressive 14-0 victory over the # 2 ranked University of Tennessee Volunteers in the 1940 Rose Bowl Game; the Trojans backup QB was gobbled up by the Green Bay Packers in the thirteenth round of the 1940 National Football League Draft, which coincidentally enough, was actually conducted at the Schroeder Hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on December 9, 1939 — the very same day as the colossal UCLA vs USC contest.)
Again, all throughout the week leading prior to kickoff, the vaunted USC offense had generated a great deal of hype and, reportedly, the oddsmakers had even installed the Trojans as a two-touchdown favorite over the Bruins. But, although most contemporary newspaper accounts did specifically mention the actual statistics, underdog UCLA essentially matched their cross-town rivals stride for stride after a tumultuous start. Over the last three quarters, USC barely edged their opponents 158-153 in total net yards gained from scrimmage. Throw in kick & punt return yards as well as penalty yardage lost and the Bruins come out on top in the statistical battle for turf over the final forty-five minutes of this conference title game.
However, the Trojans did accept the second half kickoff and pick right up where they had left off at the outset of the afternoon with Lansdell, who had gained 46 yards on nine carries in the first quarter alone, sweeping around right end for sixteen more yards. The drive stalled soon after crossing midfield but the UCLA fullback Cantor quickly kicked the ball right back to the men of Troy; a clipping penalty set the ball back to the USC 15-yard line but Lansdell raced around right end again for another big gain of 24 yards and, shortly thereafter, a seven-yard run by the Trojans first-team quarterback (who finished this P.C.C. title game with 101 yards on 15 carries for an average of 6.7 yards per attempt) placed the pigskin at the midfield stripe. A short pass by Lansdell, who was the tenth overall player taken at the 1940 NFL Draft when tabbed in the first round by the New York Giants, then moved the football to the UCLA 44-yard line but the Bruins defense ultimately stiffened once more to force another punt.
Washington picked up 15 yards on two running plays to leave the ball at the Bruins 40-yard line but the Trojans defense rose up to bring about another boot. USC third-string quarterback DOYLE NAVE entered the fray for the second time late in the third quarter and single-handedly marched his team across midfield by gaining 35 yards on four consecutive running plays. And incomplete toss from the Trojans’ much-publicized passing specialist would prove fatal to the drive which died on the UCLA 34-yard line, however.
In the fourth quarter, USC again got things going and advanced the football to the Bruins 25-yard line following a 10-yard completion from Nave to first-string left end BILL FISK, the Second Team All-Pacific Coast pick of the Associated Press whom the Detroit Lions snatched in the third round (21st overall player selected) of the 1940 NFL Draft. As it has done all throughout the game, though, the unheralded UCLA defense elevated its play when pressed on its own half of the field. The Trojans elected to go for the “coffin-corner” punt but Nave’s kick wound up in the end zone for a touchback.
It was at this point that the Bruins offense suddenly awoke in earnest and embarked on a famous 13-play, 71-yard drive which will live on forever in the annuals of college football history ; the UCLA left halfback Washington completed all four of his pass attempts to four different receivers on this legendary march, it shall be noted :
1939 – UCLA vs USC : Bruins’ 4th Qtr Drive
# 28 … J. Robinson …………. 13 yard run
# 13 … K. Washington ……… 10 yard run
# 2 ….. L. Cantor ……………….. 1 yard run
# 38 … D. MacPherson …….. 18 yard pass from # 13 – K. Washington
# 28 … J. Robinson ………….. 12 yard pass from # 13 – K. Washington
(USC penalized five yards for excessive timeouts called; ball to Trojans 21)
# 27 … W. Strode ……………….. 6 yard pass from # 13 – K. Washington
# 55 … N. Matthews ……………. 5 yard pass from # 13 – K. Washington
# 13 … K. Washington …………. 3 yard run
# 2 ….. L. Cantor …………………. 4 yard run
# 2 ….. L. Cantor …………………. 1 yard run
# 13 … K. Washington …………. 0 yard run
# 2 ….. L. Cantor ………………. – 2 yard run
# 13 … K. Washington ………….. pass incomplete
USC right halfback BOB HOFFMAN, honored as a Second Team All-America by the New York Sun on the strength of his skills as a blocker on offense and a linebacker on defense, is credited with truly saving the Trojans’ skin by filling a gaping hole and tackling the sophomore UCLA fullback Cantor at the 2-yard line on first down. And USC consensus First Team All-America left guard HARRY SMITH, whose physical fitness and durability had been in serious doubt all throughout the week, also made a huge play in the critical goal line situation to surge forth and throw Cantor for a two-yard loss on third down. Left rather under-utilized in what is known in modern terms as “the red zone”, perhaps, was the Bruins right halfback Robinson, who did not touch the ball on any of UCLA’s last eight plays of this most impactful series.
The Bruins had to make an enormous decision (one with massive financial consequences considering the $ 120,000 Rose Bowl appearance fee involved) on fourth down. As Ronald W. Wagoner of the United Press later wrote, the ball was resting “directly in front of the standards (goalposts) and in perfect position for a placekick.” But the UCLA team, as a whole, had lost a lot of confidence in their placekickers after failing to convert their last five extra points after touchdowns in a row, including all four in the Bruins’ 24-7 win over the Washington State Cougars in their previous game. It was against the rules for coaches on the sidelines to communicate with players on the field and substitutes entering the game were not allowed to speak in the huddle for one play — UCLA first-year head coach BABE HORRELL could have called timeout and ordered a field goal attempt and elected not to do so.
Five players in the UCLA huddle wanted to try and kick what would have been a 21-yard field goal, exactly two yards longer than a standard extra point. On the other hand, five of the Bruins thought going for it would be the best option and so it was left to the quarterback Matthews to settle the issue. Certainly an astonishingly choice from a contemporary perspective, the UCLA signal-caller fatefully decided to run a conventional play from scrimmage.
Nave, who was still in the game for USC and operating as the lone safety in the Trojans’ 6-2-2-1 defensive scheme, was decidedly nervous.
“I was trying to figure out what I’d do if they tried a pass to Woody Strode, the big end. (Strode, who led UCLA with 15 catches for 218 yards in 1939) was the man I was assigned to cover. Woody stands about six-five, you know, and I’m under six feet. I couldn’t figure any way I could stop him from catching a high pass if they threw to him,” Nave was later quoted by author Steven Travers in the book, “The USC Trojans : College Football’s All-Time Greatest Dynasty”.
The athletic Strode, who paced the Bruins in receptions during each of three varsity seasons for UCLA and had caught a 10-yard touchdown pass against the Trojans as a junior in 1938, was actually listed at six-foot, four-inches in the official game program, “Goal Post”, that season. But the overriding concern of USC’s third-string quarterback/safety, who stood five-feet, eleven-inches tall, himself, remained the same. Fortunately for Nave, however, his justifiable fears never did materialize.
Matthews, who graduated from the same Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles that Nave did, called for a passing play in the Bruins huddle but the primary receiver was to be UCLA right end DON MACPHERSON, the 6’2″ junior out of University High School in Los Angeles who had caught an 18-yard pass earlier on this particular drive. It was MacPherson who had scored on a 35-yard touchdown pass against the University of California Golden Bears earlier in the season, as well. The Bruins’ preferred “Man-In-Motion” tactic was to be used on the upcoming fourth down play, but the role of the jackrabbit right halfback Robinson was that of a decoy.
Washington took the direct snap from center and faded straight back but was flushed to his right after the Trojans left end Fisk leapfrogged right over the attempted block of the UCLA fullback Cantor. The left defensive halfback in USC’s formation, BOBBY ROBERTSON, did not even really begin to bite on the half-hearted fake handoff action from Washington in the Bruins backfield at the start of the play. Thus, the speedy sophomore who went on to lead the Trojans in rushing in both 1940 & 1941 had the UCLA intended receiver completely covered and was well-positioned to easily swat down Washington’s pass in the corner of the end zone.
There were still almost three minutes left in this de facto Pacific Coast Conference championship game, though, and three consecutive running plays failed to net the Trojans a first down and so the Bruins got one last possession starting on their own 40-yard line. Washington, who, by now, had amassed enough rushing and passing yardage in this epic USC contest to surpass his two closest rivals and become the nation’s total offense leader for the 1939 NCAA campaign, maneuvered UCLA to the USC 40-yard line in the final minute. But, with roughly thirty seconds remaining, a long pass downfield by the consensus All-America left halfback was intercepted by Trojans second-string linebacker CHUCK MORRILL, who had dropped off deep into a zone coverage.
Nevertheless, Washington still left the field with about fifteen seconds remaining to a thunderous standing ovation from the 103,303 fans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum who had watched the scoreless draw unfold that afternoon. “The sparkling play of Washington, who far outshone any back on the field, worried the Trojans,” remarked Ronald W. Wagoner of the United Press in his post-game report. High praise considering the six other backfield players on both sides that day (USC – Lansdell, Schindler, Nave, Peoples, Hoffman ; UCLA – Robinson) who also attained at least Honorable Mention All-America status in 1939 from one or more major accredited organizations.
“USC was outplayed by Robinson, Washington and the Bruins. There was no haughtiness left, no returning to the days of yesteryear in which they looked down upon the public school from Westwood. They were lucky to be going to the (1940) Rose Bowl and they knew it,” the author Travers wrote in his book celebrating the glory of Trojans football history.
The less fortunate UCLA Bruins’ amazing decision to disdain the short field goal attempt will be scrutinized forever.