Publish date:

Midseason form on the first time out

New formations, an invocation and a new coach got three teams past critical opening-day games

It was an incongruous beginning to the 1961 season. Around the U.S. last Saturday the weather was hot and summery, yet some of the nation's leading college football teams were already bashing each other with midseason ferocity in stadiums packed to midseason capacity.

Syracuse, for example, started right off at Portland against one of the West's strongest independents, Oregon State. So Coach Ben Schwartzwalder, hoping to improve his straight-T attack, inserted what amounted to a multiple offense. His rival, Oregon State's Tommy Prothro, went further, tossing out his entire single wing offense and replacing it with a wing T. But Syracuse won 19-8.

The Orangemen did so with a pro-sized line averaging 220 pounds, and a pro-caliber halfback named Ernie Davis, who is so good that opponents set their entire defense specifically to stop him. The very quick and alert Oregon State defense succeeded, but only in a manner of speaking. It held Davis to 5.7 yards per carry as against his 7.7 average in 1960. Yet, when the going got tough and Syracuse really wanted a score—as it did when leading by a shaky 13-8 early in the fourth quarter—it gave the ball to Davis, who chopped away on five straight tries from the State 18 until he had the touchdown Syracuse needed to put the game out of reach. That was Davis' second touchdown of the day.

Prothro, of course, had his own good running backs. One of these backs is Terry Baker, a 6-foot 3-inch, 195-pounder who last year as a sophomore gained over 1,400 yards running and passing while alternating with Tailback Don Kasso. Because Baker is a most talented left-handed passer, Prothro dropped his single wing offense and installed Baker at T quarterback, with Kasso at left half. He then draped a huge, gray canvas around the State practice field and permitted no one, but no one, to peek. Throughout Saturday afternoon it was obvious that Prothro's T would be something to reckon with—next week. A severe case of the jitters caused State to lose five costly fumbles, two of which set up Syracuse scores. Still OSU outgained Syracuse on the ground, and Baker scored State's only touchdown on the best run of the day. The play started as a pass from the Syracuse 36-yard line and nearly ended when Baker was chased to mid-field by three burly tacklers. Somehow he eluded these three, plus five more, as he skittered and lunged 50 yards into the end zone.

While Ernie Davis and Terry Baker were busy validating their lavish preseason press notices, Texas Christian's ponderous-as-usual entry was glumly pondering its dubious starting assignment against Kansas University, described by many as one of the three best teams in the nation this year. TCU had finished an unaccustomed fifth in the Southwest Conference in 1960, and seemed not to have done much about it except grow a year older. Then, two days before the game, an unknown junior squad man (and an A student) named Jerry Spearman, who had worked for three years without the reward of appearing in a game, gave an eloquent invocation before a team luncheon. "Jerry's prayer was the best I ever heard," said TCU Coach Abe Martin. "I believe a kid like this will get a break before long, and I hope it's Saturday night."

Saturday night, with five minutes left to play and Kansas leading 16-14, Jerry Spearman got into the game for one play. He kicked a 36-yard field goal, and TCU won the game 17-16. TCU got into position for Spearman's kick after the game's two superb quarterbacks, John Hadl of Kansas and Sonny Gibbs of TCU, had spent 55 minutes employing double reverses, screen passes, and pitch-outs on option plays, all to a virtual standoff. Besides passing 24 yards for one touchdown, the 6-foot 7-inch Gibbs, whose team had trailed all night, ran four yards for another. "Sure I let him run," says Coach Martin. "All he has to do is fall down and we've got two yards."

But while national reputations were blossoming or crumbling in Fort Worth and Portland, another kind of football team was demonstrating that what happened last year, or the year before, or the year before that, does not necessarily mean that it will happen forever. For the University of Virginia, which had tied a national record by losing 28 games in a row (SI, Dec. 12), suddenly had an undefeated team. The Cavaliers whipped William & Mary 21-6, and the pleased expressions on the faces of thousands of Virginia alumni were a testament to man's ability to blot out memories of an unfortunate past.

Virginia set out to win fame and glory by adding something new. The innovation in this case was Coach Bill Elias, a positive thinker who began by forbidding any mention of That Streak, then announced he would soon like to schedule a game with a Big ten team and, finally, confirming rumors that he might be totally mad, said: "I think every coach in the country should have an opportunity to coach a team that has lost 28 straight."

The tone of the game was set on the very first play when W&M Quarterback Don Barton, who had shredded Virginia last year, rolled out to his left for a sweep. Four blue-clad Cavaliers charged in to bury Barton. When the afternoon ended Virginia had proved to its own satisfaction that there really is a Santa Claus, and Santa doesn't always wait until December to arrive.