Cal’s Wonder Team Centennial: Game Three – California vs. St. Mary’s

Eighteen touchdowns scored in a single game is a lot. Eighteen touchdowns scored by one team in a single game is…almost inconceivable. Throw in a safety (and subtract one missed extra point) and you have the 127-0 score by which Andy Smith’s boys triumphed over St. Mary’s in their third game of the 1920 season. It was, and remains, the biggest blowout in California football history. And reporters who covered the game insisted even that score did not fully reflect how one-sided it was. The St. Mary’s game started fans and journalists alike talking about the chance that California might not merely win the Pacific Coast Conference, not just go to the Rose Bowl, but might finally force the entire country to start respecting west coast football. And they were not wrong. So what exactly happened in that memorable game?

The Season to Date

The Golden Bears had a promising start to the season. They won the first game over the Olympic Club 21-0 with excellent defense, but not much offense. The second game against Santa Clara University had been canceled at the last minute by a diphtheria epidemic in the South Bay. The substitute Andy Smith rounded up the day before the game was from Mare Island, the Navy base in Vallejo. California had been expected win, but their overwhelming play and the 88-0 final score of the Mare Island game, was a surprise. Suddenly the lackluster offense that had concerned Coach Smith against the Olympic Club no longer seemed to be a problem. The Daily Californian speculated that the Bears might score even more points against St. Mary’s, but most dismissed that as improbable.

The start of St. Mary’s season had been less happy. They were coming off a 41-0 loss to Stanford, for which their “highlight” had been holding Stanford to just one touchdown in the second half, after giving up 34 points in the first half. Despite the huge lead, Stanford’s coach Walter Powell had left his starters in for the entire game. The Oakland Tribune reported that St. Mary’s held the Stanford starting eleven in check during the second half, “through sheer grit and determination, rather than scientific football.” The St. Mary’s defense had suffered from “loose tackling” and a backfield “woefully weak on secondary defense during the early part of the contest,” but “seemed to awake to their duties” in the second half. Dick van Horn of the San Francisco Chronicle agreed that poor tackling was St. Mary’s big weakness. “[T]hey use the ‘necktie’ tackle too much and when they do hit low they tackle too loosely.” He added that there was also a “lack of brainwork in the backfield.”

But St. Mary’s was fired up to play California. The College would move to Moraga in 1928, but in 1920 it was still located on Broadway in Oakland. The students regarded the school in nearby Berkeley as a major rival. This was especially true because a recent dispute had ended athletic competitions with its traditional rival and fellow-Catholic institution, Santa Clara. As Doug Montell wrote in the Oakland Tribune, “It is the big game of the year for the Saints – their motto ever since the moleskins were unpacked has been ‘Beat California.'”

A view of the St. Mary’s campus in Oakland around 1910.

St. Mary’s Coach Hollander promised hard work, daily practices and a brand new scheme for the California game. Three days before the game, he installed a fence around the field at the Broadway campus to conceal practices from the public. The Chronicle‘s van Horn reported that St Mary’s “looks much better now than it did against Stanford last week,” and that “Coach Hollander expects to pull a few surprises against California Saturday.”

The Tribune‘s Montell concurred that the St. Mary’s “line-up has been strengthened during the past week and the team has shown more than at any time since practice began.” Although he expected the Bears to win, he predicted a “hotly contested” game. He noted that the Bears looked strong in practice all week and were expected to use virtually all the same plays as they had when scoring 88 points against Mare Island. But he believed Coach Smith wanted to work on various aspects of both his offense and defense, and while the Bears would no doubt play hard, “they can hardly be expected to try their best to run the score up to near three figures, even if they could, which is not expected.”

The Game

St. Mary’s had made a number of changes in its line-up after the Stanford game, both to try to strengthen its defense and because of some injuries. California gave Charly Erb the start at quarterback and started Archie Nisbet at fullback in place of Duke Morrison. It scarcely mattered.

On the first play from scrimmage, California’s Pesky Sprott ran around end for a 40-yard gain. Crip Toomey went through the line for another 10. Then it was Sprott’s turn to pick up 15, before Toomey ran it in for the score. Two minutes, four plays, 80 yards, and a 7-0 California lead. This set the tone, as the Bears took a 37-0 lead at the end of the first quarter and added 48 points in the second quarter for an 85-0 halftime lead. By late in the first quarter, the California student section had begun yelling “Score! Score! Score!” on every play, including California’s own kickoffs. The halftime statistics were unbelievable, with the Bears having out-gained St. Mary’s 355-2 and having 10 first downs to none for St. Mary’s.

By the second half, Coach Smith had removed all his starters and was avoiding aggressive play-calling in an effort to prevent further humiliation for Saint Mary’s. But it was to no avail. By then the boys in Red and Blue were thoroughly dispirited. They fumbled, failed to block or to tackle, and essentially let the Bears have their way. As Doug Montell wrote in the Oakland Tribune: “There will, of course, go out the impression that the Bears, seeing Saint Mary’s so weak, set out to run up a big score. Such is not the case, and anyone who saw the game will grant that had California played a game of straight attack…there would have been many more points scored.” In other words, hard as it is to imagine, it could have been worse.

Photo and caption from the Blue & Gold Yearbook

The California students, however, were not as gracious as Coach Smith. They kept up their chant of “Score! Score! Score!” and in the second half added a new chant of “We Want 100!” That wish was soon gratified as the Bears scored three more touchdowns in the third quarter to lead 106-0. There were another three California touchdowns in the fourth quarter to bring the final score to 127-0. Duke Morrison scored five touchdowns. Crip Toomey had four, to which he added 10 of 11 extra point attempts made. Pesky Sprott, Archie Nisbet and William Bell scored two touchdowns each. Bob Berkey, James Cline and John Murray added one apiece. The Bears scored 17 points on conversion kicks alone. A safety, coming on a fumble through the end zone by the hapless Saints, completed the scoring.

The final statistics were, if possible, even more one-sided than the score. California gained 412 yards rushing to -4 for St. Mary’s. The Bears had 146 yards passing, St. Mary’s had 10. In total, California out-gained St. Mary’s 558-6. California had 18 first downs, St. Mary’s had 1, which came on its lone completed pass.

The Game Stats from the October 10, 1920 Oakland Tribune

The Sunday papers glowed in admiration of Andy Smith and his very talented players, and were scathing in their comments about St. Mary’s Coach Hollander. The Tribune‘s Doug Montell expressed the opinion that California could easily have scored 200 points, had Coach Smith not tried to hold the score down, “He used substitutes, failed to try anything new, punted and did everything to keep the ball in the possession of St. Mary’s.” But none of it worked, so that “oftener than every two minutes throughout the game, California romped over the Red and Blue goal line for a touchdown.” Montell told readers it was for the best that he avoid a full description of the mayhem. “It was a slaughter to watch and would be worse to read about – we spare the details.” In Montell’s analysis, “California played letter-perfect ball in every department,” while “Saint Mary’s showed nothing throughout the game and very little of that.”

The San Francisco Examiner‘s Jack James focused on how extraordinarily good the California team was. He did roundly criticize the St. Mary’s coach, saying that the players were not at fault, “they were wishful enough; they just didn’t know how.” He called Coach Hollander’s “system” simply “incomprehensible.” But James was far more intrigued by the prospects of the Golden Bears, predicting they would win, “the Pacific Coast Conference championship, and incidentally all the others lying around loose in these parts.” He was especially excited that the Bears might finally be able to put west coast football on the national map:

Don’t let ’em tell you that all the real football played in these United States is centered in and around Cambridge, New Haven and Princeton – nor yet in “Big Ten” territory. It may have been once. But not now or hereafter. Place a bet on California at Pasadena on New Year’s Day… Berkeley is sure to be there.

The Daily Californian just crowed with delight. “One hundred and twenty-seven to nothing! Scoreboards aren’t built to record such figures, yet they tell the tale of California’s touchdown-intoxicated Bruins in the Saturday afternoon ‘track meet’ with St. Mary’s.” The Daily Cal writers pointed out gleefully that Stanford had scored “only” 41 points against St. Mary’s, which was less than the Bears had scored in the second quarter alone. They called the 1920 Bears the best team ever to wear the Blue and Gold, and predicted California “would make a clean slate of the Coast.”

The Monday, October 11, 1920 edition of the Daily Californian


While Berkeley celebrated, things quickly became grim on the St. Mary’s campus. The Chronicle reported that “many alumni are howling.” Two prominent alums, Tom Lennon and Ray McGlynn, sent a letter to Brother Vantasian, the Athletic Director, demanding that the season be suspended or canceled, “until such a time as the college is able to put a team on the field that will uphold the standards of the college.” The student body called a meeting to try to come up with ideas for improving the team. The team’s Graduate Manager, Le Fevre, announced that assistant coach Nate Schaenedling would take over the team and, in the words of the Chronicle‘s Dick van Horn, “see if he can make something out of the present mess.” For his part, Coach Hollander pointed out that he had a contract and said he planned to, “continue to report to work as usual, and on pay day will be around for his envelope.”

Five days after the game, St. Mary’s Graduate Manager Le Fevre and Athletic Director Brother Vantasian announced that the season was being cancelled and the team disbanded. They insisted this decision had nothing to do with the loss to California or the protests of alumni, but instead was due entirely to injuries to key players. The local papers expressed what might be charitably called “skepticism” at this explanation. Both men expressed considerable resentment at the complaints of “individual alumni,” which Brother Vantasian called “rank interference” by individuals “who took it upon themselves to criticize our team unjustly and unofficially.” They also made known their annoyance at Coach Hollander’s public comments about his contract and his hints of legal action, stating that no one at the College had expressed an intention not to pay him. They made no promises, however, stating only that the matter of the contract was between Hollander and the College’s Athletic Board. Regardless, the Red and Blue of St. Mary’s would not be seen again on the gridiron until 1921.

In Berkeley, by contrast, the expectations for a truly memorable season were growing. The papers continued to predict a Pacific Coast Conference championship for the Bears and perhaps more importantly, a big win in the Big Game, which was still six weeks away. While California had been demolishing St. Mary’s, Stanford had been playing the Olympic Club. Prior to their game, Cardinal players had bragged that they would show their superiority by beating the Olympic Club by more than the three-touchdown margin the Bears had managed against them. Instead, Stanford suffered a 10-7 loss. In what the Examiner‘s William Unmack called, “the most deplorable fact of the game,” Stanford twice had a first down inside the Olympic Club 4-yard-line and failed to score. Each time, Stanford ran the same play on four straight downs without gain. Unmack drew a stark contrast between the two teams: “Everything that California has, Stanford has not.” Stanford was, “pitifully weak everywhere,” and would, “have to improve sixty to seventy percent to stand any chance with California this year.”

San Francisco Examiner football analysis, October 12, 1920

Probably the only person in Berkeley who did not enjoy all the speculation about Big Game triumphs and Pacific Coast Conference championships was Andy Smith. He wanted his players to work hard and stay focused on winning the next game against Nevada. He wanted another big score on offense and another shut out on defense. Would the Golden Bears pull that off? All will be revealed next week!

Next Week: Game 4 – California vs. Nevada

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