By the last weekend of October in 1920, the University of California Golden Bears were riding high. They had soundly beaten the Olympic Club, the Mare Island Marines, St. Mary’s, Nevada and Utah, outscoring those teams by a combined total of 378-7. But now, at last, they were entering Pacific Coast Conference Play. They were also facing their first road trip, heading up to rainy Corvallis to play the Aggies of Oregon Agricultural College (O.A.C.), who sometimes also called themselves the Beavers. 17 years later, O.A.C. would be renamed Oregon State University. Under whatever name, the school in Corvallis has had a habit of giving seemingly superior teams from California fits, and 1920 was no exception.
The Match-up With the Oregon Aggies
The Aggies and their new head coach, Dick Rutherford, were coming off a monumental road win over the Washington Sun Dodgers (who would become the Huskies in 1922). Although the 3-0 win wasn’t exactly a rout, it was O.A.C.’s first victory over Washington in 15 years and Aggie fans were ecstatic.
It was rumored around Corvallis that California coach Andy Smith was predicting at least a 40-point win for the Bears, though California denied it. Student manager Charles Honeywell told Oregon reporters: “Please make it plain that all this talk about a 40 to 0 score in our favor is all bosh…. I don’t see where the Portland sport writers get this stuff about a one-sided game.” Coach Smith himself said, “We expect to win, it is true, for that is the spirit in which we enter all of our games. But there is going to be no big score.” In fact, Coach Smith downplayed the success of his own team by dismissing the Bears’ first five opponents in surprisingly strong terms:
I can neither predict victory or defeat, for I have never had a real chance to see what my men can do. Thus far they have never been up against a team that could not have been beaten by a good high school eleven and until the game [with the Aggies] is over I will not be able to get a good line on my material. Those big scores that we have made mean nothing.
Nevertheless, the Aggies team and fans were fired up by the reported slight and by the possibility of pulling off an enormous upset. The talk in Corvallis was that a win over the Bears would mean a trip to Pasadena in January. Coach Rutherford, however, declined to make any predictions. “All I know,” he said, “is that my men will fight harder than they did against Washington a week ago.”
The biggest concern for the Bears was the state of the field in Corvallis. There had been steady rain in northern Oregon the previous week and the field was expected to be muddy and sloppy. California had not faced such conditions all season and what’s more, the team’s biggest flaw had been fumbling, even in ideal field conditions. In an effort to prepare his men, Coach Smith had the track field in Berkeley flooded and conducted practice there on the Wednesday and Thursday before the O.A.C. game.
The Trip North
Due to budget constraints, California was only sending 22 players to Corvallis, along with three coaches and the student manager. This was considered ample, since in that era everyone played on both offense and defense, often for the entire 60 minutes of the game. Thus, 22 players provided a starter and a back-up at every position. Nevertheless, Coach Smith was required to leave some of his promising young players in Berkeley.
California hired a special car to carry the team, which was attached to the northbound train. They left the Berkeley station at 10:20 on Thursday night. Portland’s Oregon Daily Journal reported that during the trip, California’s back-up center, Webster Clark, “narrowly escaped serious consequences from eating broken glass contained in rolls that were served en route northward.” He was saved from injury by “quick action” from assistant coach Albert Rosenthal, who was a doctor. How this could have happened, or what Coach Rosenthal did to save Clark from the broken glass was not revealed.
Despite this rather harrowing incident, the California contingent arrived safely in the small town of Albany, about 10 miles from Corvallis, at 4:00 a.m. and was taken to their lodgings at the Hotel Albany. They spent Friday afternoon practicing on the field at Albany High School and then retired to the Hotel so they would be ready to “be motored” to Corvallis the following day.
Andy Smith drove over to Corvallis early Saturday morning to inspect the field and was not happy with what he found. He told reporters that he expected the muddy field to be “a severe handicap” to his team, as they were unused to such conditions. “We have been playing upon turf all season,” Smith said. “The Corvallis field cannot become dry enough by this afternoon to afford the kind of foothold to which my men are accustomed. Their cleats are going to fill with mud and everyone is going to be much slower than in any previous game this year.”
Corvallis Gets Ready for the Big Day
The excitement in Corvallis was palpable. The Oregon press and fans recognized that the Bears were a formidable, perhaps even a great, opponent, but that just made the possibility of an upset all the more tantalizing. The Oregon Daily Journal predicted the game would be, “one of the hardest fought football games of the Pacific Coast Intercollegiate Conference.” The Albany Herald-Democrat predicted, “one of the football classics of the year.” And the Corvallis Gazette-Times went so far as to anticipate, “one of the most spectacular games in history.”
An extra grandstand had been built at the Aggie’s stadium, which expanded capacity from 4,000 up to 10,000, and a near sell-out was expected. The Gazette-Times also reported that a new scoreboard had been erected over the south bleachers which, for the first time, would allow fans in attendance to keep track of “downs, yardage made, time left to play and how the points are scored.” The City of Corvallis proclaimed a “half-holiday” and most businesses were closing during the game, so everyone could attend.
The Oregon Daily Journal reported that hundreds of alumni of both O.A.C. and California, along with many other fans, were taking the train from Portland to attend the game. According to the Albany Herald-Democrat, hundreds more fans from that small town were traveling to Corvallis by automobile and by train. More than 100 students traveled from Berkeley on Friday night in a special train organized by California’s yell leaders. The group included two representatives of every fraternity and all the class officers. So many California fans were expected that O.A.C. set up a special rooting section and ticket booth just for them. According to the Oregon Daily Journal, it was expected to be the largest crowd ever to witness a game in Corvallis. The Daily Journal itself added to the excitement by hiring an airplane to carry copies of its papers from Portland to Corvallis (in little more than an hour!) and to fly over the stadium right before the game to give the crowd a thrill, before the papers were taken into the bleachers for sale.
According to the report in California’s Blue and Gold Yearbook, Corvallis more or less gave up control of its streets to excited O.A.C. students the night before the game. “And that night, while the rival squads slept, three thousand Aggies made merry. The town was turned over to them and for hours, it seemed, they serpentined, giving vent to an enthusiasm seldom seen in the Northwest.”
For the first time all season, the game lived up to the hype. It was sloppy but close, and certainly exciting. As the San Francisco Chronicle described it, “It was a great game in many ways. There was brilliant playing and ragged playing. O.A.C. offending most in this respect. Over eagerness was one of the cardinal sins of the Orange players.”
The Bears outplayed the Aggies throughout the first half, but mistakes kept them from capitalizing. They had a solid drive going in the first quarter when Irving “Crip” Toomey went around the O.A.C. left end for 21 yards, practically to the Aggie goal line. But he was tackled at the 3 and fumbled, allowing the Aggies to recover. After an Aggie punt, the Bears went on the march again, with Toomey carrying the ball most of the time, all the way back down to the O.A.C. 10-yard-line. But there the drive stalled. An incomplete pass into the end zone on fourth-and-goal gave the ball back to the Aggies again and the first quarter ended scoreless.
The Bears were finally able to score in the second quarter, with an assist from some Aggie mistakes. After an O.A.C. punt to start the quarter, the Bears went on a drive down to the Aggie 26. Archie Nisbet’s plunge into the line on fourth down was stopped short by the Aggies and they appeared to have held. But O.A.C. was offside and the 5-yard penalty gave the Bears a first down at the 21. On the next play, Pesky Sprott tore through the Aggie line for 10 yards and another first down at the 11. The Aggies were offside again on the next play, giving the Bears first and 5 at the 6. On the next play Sprott appeared to be stopped at the line of scrimmage before he veered around the end and into the end zone. Toomey’s kick was good and it was 7-0 California. The rest of the second quarter was a defensive struggle, with neither team coming close to scoring, and it remained 7-0 at the half.
The Aggies came into the second half fired up, perhaps inspired by having held the vaunted Golden Bears offense to 7 points, despite having made some mistakes. They seemed to be making progress on offense, but two long gains by the Aggie star, McKenna, were called back by holding calls. Then, as the fourth quarter began, Coach Rutherford called for a substitution – always a bit unusual under the rules of 1920 football.
The Aggie right guard, Clark, left the game quickly and unnoticed, while the Aggie end, McFadden, casually strolled toward the sideline and the substitute, McCart, headed out on the field, apparently to replace him. As the San Francisco Examiner explained it, “The California team as well as the spectators were fooled into thinking that McCart was substituting for McFadden,” rather than for the already departed Clark. And then something shocking happened:
The next instant the center snapped the ball to Kasberger. McFadden ran far down the field, Kasberger turned and hurled the ball – a long, high pass – to the fleet end for 40 yards. McFadden ran another 18 yards for a 58-yard gain, all before the dazed California safety nabbed him. He all but got away for a touchdown then and there. This brought the ball down to California’s 10-yard line.
The Aggies then completed a pass to the California 4. An offsides penalty on the Bears moved it to the 2, and then McKenna carried it over the line for an O.A.C. touchdown. The trick play had given the Aggies the chance to score only the second touchdown against the Bears all season. Suddenly the game was tied and the Bears were in a real fight. There was no such thing as overtime in 1920, and a tie would ruin California’s chance for a visit to Pasadena in January.
The score remained 7-7 until midway through the fourth quarter. Both teams struggled with the muddy conditions, as they had throughout the game, and there were several fumbles. But with less than 10 minutes left in the game, the Bears finally seemed to pull together. Taking over on their own 12-yard line after a punt, California began a march down the field. The key play was a lateral by quarterback Charlie Erb to Pesky Sprott, who then passed the ball forward 8 yards to Brick Muller. Muller made it all the way to the Aggie 20-yard-line. As the Blue and Gold described it: “The Aggie rooting sections were wild, the handful of California rooters strangely silent. And then the drive began. Nothing could stop them, it seemed, and yet the Aggies held on their 15-yard line.” Indeed, after an Aggie penalty, the Bears had first down and 4 at the 15. Sprott ran into the Aggie line for no gain. Then “Duke” Morrison tried the same play, with the same result. On third down Morrison again plunged into the Aggie line. Again they held. Then Crip Toomey lined up for a California field goal attempt. The Blue and Gold described the scene:
It was fourth down. Erb barked the signals. Toomey took a perfect pass from center and while thousands gazed in silent agony, sent the ball whirling through the goal posts. The tie was broken and the score stood 10-7.
The game seemed secure for the Bears. There were only five minutes left and the Aggies had not been able to get close to the California end zone except for their successful trick play. But there was still time. After the California kickoff, the Aggies opened up their game, McKenna throwing seven straight forward passes. He completed three, taking the ball to mid-field. But the eighth pass spelled disaster, as California’s Charlie Erb intercepted it.
Still the game was not over. The Aggies held, forcing the Bears to punt. Then the final disaster struck the Aggies. The San Francisco Chronicle described what happened:
Fullback Morrison dropped back and punted forty-five yards to McKenna on the Oregon Agricultural College five-yard line. It was a beautiful kick, high and deceptive. McKenna opened his arms for it, held it for an instant, and let it wriggle through and bound off to the side. Three California players were hot after it. Hall, who shortly before had replaced Berkey at left end, fell on it. This fatal fumble broke the hearts of the O.A.C. team.
The Bears had the ball on the O.A.C. five-yard line. But still the Aggies did not surrender. Toomey tried to break through their line, without success. Then Morrison tried it. He gained a yard. It was Morrison again on third down. He gained three yards, down to the goal line. With two minutes left, Andy Smith decided a 6 point lead was no better than 3, and went for the touchdown. Once again the ball was put in Morrison’s hands. Once again he plunged into the Aggie line and, according to the Chronicle:
While you could count to ten, the two lines of struggling players swayed there, Morrison in the center of them. And finally he crashed down, with the ball a scant two inches across the goal. California had made its touchdown and was out of all possible danger.
California kicked off, and four plays later the game was over. Final score: California 17, Oregon Agricultural College 7. It was by far the closest, most exciting game of the season for the Bears. Yet, the Aggies would not have even come close to scoring had it not been for their trick play. In the Bears’ weakest offensive showing of the season, they gained only 191 yards. But despite their 58-yard trick play, the Aggies had a net gain of only 47 yards on the day. Clearly the mighty Golden Bear defense was the heart and soul of the Wonder Team.
Heading Home and Looking Forward
The California team departed for Berkeley in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Again they had their special train car, but this time they were joined on the train by the 100 students who had come up to Corvallis to root them on. It can be speculated that there was some celebration on the train that night.
The Bears had solidified their position as the Rose Bowl favorite, but there were still challenges left in the form of Washington State and Stanford. The Cougars were considered the biggest threat left on California’s schedule. The Oregon Daily Journal gave both California and Washington State, “an even chance to win” their upcoming game, and added, “judging from the form being displayed by California and Washington State college, it is logical to assume that the winner of next Saturday’s game between these two teams will likely annex the conference championship.” But Stanford had just pulled off an unexpected home win over Oregon, so they were not entirely out of the running.
The Aggies had shown that the California Golden Bears might not be invincible. Had it been the long train trip to Corvallis? The muddy field? Overconfidence? Were they beatable? Or would they return to form against the Cougars? Come back next week to find out!