IDAHO vs. USC –The 1920s Series (Part II)

With their first season in 1922 as full members of the Pacific Coast Conference behind them, Idaho experienced some of it's greatest football success as PCC members in 1923 and 1924. Both seasons are presented in this edition, and both would end with the Vandals in a battle for the PCC Championship. And, both years Idaho played USC at the end of the season in defensive battles in the Coliseum.

EDITOR'S NOTE: During the 1920s, Vandal football games were played on MacLean Field which was located behind the Administration Building (the old Admin Building is shown behind MacLean Field in the photo below). MacLean was the home of Vandal football until 1937, when Neale Stadium (the original stadium built on the current ASUI-Kibbie Dome site) was constructed.

The Vandal football teams were powerful during the 1920s, and were particularly strong during the '23 and '24 seasons, as writer/historian Marlin Smith describes below.


MACLEAN FIELD - In 1923 Idaho beat Gonzaga 13-0 in a home game played at MacLean Field.


THE 1923 SEASON

As the 1923 Idaho football season approached, optimism in Moscow was at a higher level than perhaps at any time before or since. The Vandals had lost only 3 first string players from the previous year's team and there was supposed to be an influx of new talent from the 1922 freshman team. Coach Robert L. Mathews was thought to be a good one and he was really getting the team into top shape. Idaho was at this point in time celebrating back to back Pacific Coast Conference basketball titles and it was thought in Moscow that the Vandals had a very good chance of adding a PCC football championship to their trophy case.

However, it wasn't just the home folks who thought that Idaho would win the PCC football title in 1923. In a major PCC preseason football article, the leading football authorities in the West agreed. The experts quoted were Jack Wells (described as one of the leading critics in the West) and George Varnell out of Spokane. The writer of the story regarding the outcome of the PCC football season was Maxwell Stiles of the Los Angeles Examiner. He had the following to say. "The Vandals from Idaho will be the sensation, the surprise, and the stumbling block of the Pacific Coast Conference. Idaho has virtually the same team that gave everybody a battle last year and a wealth of material is coming from the great 1922 freshman team."

The high expectations for Idaho's football team weren't unfounded. They started off the season with an 83 to 0 romp over an outmatched College of Idaho team. After that, the Vandals blasted Montana 40 to 0, then blanked Gonzaga 13 to 0.

Remarkably, against three regional foes, Idaho had outscored their opponents by a combined 136 to 0 score.

AT LAST! - The 1923 Vandal football team snapped a ten year drought against Washington State College with a 14-0 victory.

Then, Idaho took a team loaded with supreme confidence over to Pullman and beat the Cougars for the first time in 10 years, 14 to 0. From there, Idaho traveled down to Eugene to face an undefeated Oregon team that also thought that they were PCC title contenders. In what was described as an extremely hard-fought game, the Webfoots and Vandals battled to a scoreless tie. The outcome was a letdown for the Vandals but they again attributed it to the "Oregon Jinx." They couldn't dwell on the tie too much because there was a lot of football to be played and the PCC title was still within their reach.

The Vandals would end their season with a long 3 game road trip that would take them to Boise, Palo Alto and, of course, Los Angeles for a rematch with USC. The Vandals had so impressed the Southern California football world the previous season that the USC athletic department offered Idaho the first choice to be their opponent in their big home Thanksgiving holiday game. Idaho's Coach Mathews was quick to accept the challenge.

Idaho's journey to the PCC title started out well when they beat Oregon State 7 to 0 in front of a capacity crowd in Boise. Idaho took a traveling squad of 40 to the Boise game but only 22 players would get picked to go on the California trip. At this point, the Vandals traveling in their own special railcar probably were feeling pretty good about themselves, as well they should have been. They were sitting on top of the PCC standings with a 5-0-1 record and had outscored their opponents 157 to 0 on the season. They knew that their upcoming games against California PCC opponents would be tough, but they expected to win.

The Vandals first stop was in Palo Alto to play Stanford. The Cardinal were big and powerful but the Idaho contingent felt that their speed and quickness would win the day. It didn't. The Idaho students back in Moscow keeping up with the play-by-play thanks to a leased-wire telegraphic service arranged for the Stanford and USC games, listened as the Vandals went down to defeat for the first time by a 17 to 7 score. In the game, the score was tied at 7 to 7 when the deep Cardinal club started to throw in a tremendous amount of reserve strength. The Vandals were already outweighed by on average 15 pounds per man and they wore down when Stanford started substituting fresh players into the game.

In spite of the disheartening loss, Idaho came out of the Stanford game in much better shape health-wise than the Cardinal did. Since the Trojans were a team nearly equal to Idaho weight-wise, the Vandals felt that their game in Southern California would have a different outcome. As for the experts, it was said that two weeks previously that Idaho would have been the favorite over USC. However, given that USC owned a 14 to 7 win over Stanford, the game was considered to be a tossup by kickoff time.

In front of a crowd of 30,000 fans in the new Los Angeles Coliseum, the Vandals made sure that those in attendance got their money's worth. The game was basically decided in the second quarter. USC was driving when Newman threw a 15 yard pass that was caught by Hobbs at the Idaho 12 yard line. Then, "Delayed back and sneak plays" gave USC a first down on the Idaho 2. Idaho's prospects brightened when the Trojans were penalized 15 yards for holding. Newman, USC's prize passer, threw two incomplete passes. However, on third down he threw a perfect pass over to Dudley, who then raced 20 yards for the touchdown.

Idaho immediately responded to the USC score. After Fitzke gained good yardage on the kick return, he made 15 yards around the end on the next play. Next was a forward pass from Stivers to Fitske, which netted 8 yards. Stivers went back to throw again and hit Nelson, which was good for another 8 yards. Then came what was called the most spectacular play of the game. Stivers signaled Cameron to run wide to receive his pass. Cameron dashed through the USC backfield and just as the USC ends were upon him, the plucky Idaho QB make a perfect pass to Cameron for a gain of 18 yards. This gave Idaho the ball within striking distance of the USC goal. Battering ram gains by Fitzke and Kleffner put the ball on USC's 1 yard line. Idaho had big momentum on their side but lost it when USC stiffened and held the Vandals on downs. However, Idaho's defense refused to budge and this forced the Trojans to make a poor kick from deep within their own territory that went out of bounds. The Vandals had the ball back on the USC 15 yard line but the halftime gun fired before Idaho had a chance to score.

Defense was the name of the game in the second half. The Vandals held USC to only 6 first downs and made two goal line stands. The poor field position would cost the Vandals two more points though before the contest was over. As darkness was falling across the field, Stivers was passing out of his own end zone when his arm got hit. He was able to recover his own fumble but the play resulted in a safety for USC.

The final score was USC 9, Idaho 0.

The Vandals had once again given USC a great game. Yet, they also left Los Angeles in defeat having never scored a point. Despite an impressive 5-2-1 finish, it wasn't how Idaho had expected to end their season.

TEAM PHOTO - The 1923 University of Idaho Vandal Football Team.


THE 1924 SEASON

The Vandal football team was an optimistic bunch going into the 1924 season. For one reason, Idaho had lost only three veterans from the 1923 team and had 14 returning lettermen. Plus, the schedule looked favorable even though Idaho would be playing 6 Pacific Coast Conference games, which was more than any other team in the league. The daunting schedule was eased though since Montana, Washington State, Oregon and Stanford would be playing in Moscow. Well, Stanford was supposed to play in Moscow!

During the PCC winter meetings, Stanford decided that they really didn't want to play in Moscow. They didn't want to play in Spokane either, even though the Spokane Chamber of Commerce offered a $6,500 guarantee for the game. The problem from the Cardinal point of view was that it would mean an extra 24 hours of travel. This line of thinking did not sit well with the Idaho contingent. Idaho's Coach Mathews complained that "sportsmanship and home and home were forgotten when gate receipts were considered." He went on "At a time when hot words were being passed, I declared that if the three California schools and Washington were to be allowed to frame schedules to avoid possible defeat by dodging stronger teams that Idaho would schedule all her games with Northwest institutions." For a while, a split in the young conference loomed with the dividing line being drawn between the California and the smaller Northwest schools. But cooler heads prevailed and Coach Mathews came home and announced that Idaho had arranged to play Stanford in Portland.

The first game of the 1924 Idaho season was played in Spokane against Gonzaga. The very confident Vandals were favored in the game and won in the stats department. They didn't win on the scoreboard. In front of 6,000 Spokane fans, the Vandals could only manage an alarming 0 to 0 tie with Gonzaga. It wasn't the way that the Vandals had expected to start the season. However, the Vandals did get started off on the right foot in PCC play the following week when they welcomed Montana into the league with a 41 to 13 thrashing in Moscow.

TWO IN A ROW - The Vandals made it two consecutive victories over Washington State at MacLean Field in 1924.

Then, Idaho geared up for their big Homecoming clash with rival Washington State. Over 10,000 fans filled up MacLean Field and watched as the Vandals defeated the Cougars 19 to 3. The Vandals may have hit a bump in the road up in Spokane but the team that was expected to be a PCC powerhouse in 1924 seemed to be hitting their stride.

Up next for Idaho was the trip down to Portland to face a powerful Stanford club. It was felt that this could be the game to decide the PCC title. Stanford's famed Coach Glenn S. "Pop" Warner had this to say. "If we can beat the Idaho Vandals at Portland Saturday, we will have clear sailing for the coast championship." Still, Warner was terrified of "the demon forward passing game that threw such a scare into California teams last year." Yes, the Vandal demons were a force to be reckoned with. Idaho was confident and in first place in the PCC going into the Stanford game. The city of Portland took notice and a big crowd was expected for the game, which was to be played at Multnomah Field.

The day of the game was rainy and that was what prevented the Idaho-Stanford game from setting attendance records in Portland. Still, 7,000 fans turned out to watch the game and almost all of them were rooting for the Vandals. They were soon to witness a classic played between two PCC powers on a field covered with 6 inches of sawdust soaked to saturation. There would be drizzly rain for three of the games four quarters. This caused Idaho's light backs to have trouble getting their footing and it greatly hindered Idaho's forward passing game, its chief weapon. However, none of these factors kept the Vandals from thoroughly outplaying the Cardinal in every department. Winning, however, would be something that eluded Idaho that day.

The Vandals held Stanford to only 5 first downs in the entire game and most of the game was played on the Cardinal side of the field. The Vandals had their chances but couldn't score. The Cardinal had only one real chance to score during the entire game. They took advantage of it. After getting the ball after a partially blocked punt, Stanford kicked a field goal and won 3 to 0. One newspaper said "Idaho played better football but Stanford got better breaks." Stanford Coach Pop Warner was more to the point. "The best team didn't win the game." He went on to say "In defeating Idaho, the Stanford eleven took into camp one of the best teams, not only on the Pacific coast, but in the country."

Meanwhile, Idaho supporters were not taking the loss well. The Argonaut had this to say. "Idaho must swallow one of the bitterest pills ever handed a collegiate institution in Western conference circles. When the final whistle closed the mighty struggle many an eye was glistening and many a cheek was wet where not a drop of rain had fallen." In a post-season recap article, the sting of the defeat was still apparent. "The Vandals outplayed the Cardinal in every department of the game and had it not been for an untimely fumble of a mud-covered and wet ball within inches of the goal line, they would have been credited with a victory on paper as well as a victory in the hearts of some several thousand rooters who packed the bleachers at Multnomah Field.

The Vandal team itself though had little time to reflect on the loss. Their season was far from over and they had another game scheduled while down in the state of Oregon. The game was against Oregon State in Corvallis but a lot of University of Oregon fans reportedly purchased tickets in order to see the contest. This is interesting since the Webfoots were playing the Washington Huskies on the same day. In any case, a crowd estimated between 12,000 and 14,000 watched from Oregon State's new covered stands as the Vandals dominated the action for a 22 to 0 win. From there, the Vandals would be heading home to host Oregon, their old conference nemesis.

The headlines in the Argonaut read "Old Oregon Jinx Wavers On Eve Of Great Battle." See, going back to 1901 Idaho had tied the Webfoots three times but had never defeated them. Worse, from the Idaho perspective the Vandals always seemed to have a knack for playing their worst football against Oregon. If they were to break the jinx in 1924, they would have to play good football. The week before the Moscow game while the Vandals were in nearby Corvalis, the Webfoots handed a strong University of Washington team a 7 to 3 defeat in front of only 3,000 Eugene fans. However, the jinx couldn't help Oregon this time in their game against Idaho. Prior to the season, the Vandals had promised to treat the Oregon game with the same fervor as the WSC game because they were tired of losing to the Webfoots. They succeeded. The Vandals won 13 to 0, noted by the Argonaut as "the perfect jinx score."

Idaho had two games left in the 1924 season. On the return trip, the Vandals would stop in Boise to hand the Nevada Wolves a 23 to 0 defeat. However, all eyes were on the first game of the road trip since the Stanford loss had done little to diminish the importance of Idaho's annual clash with USC. For starters, the game was for second place in the PCC. It was also thought that the game could be the deciding factor as to which team played Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. Yes, the Vandals were under strong consideration.

L.A. MEMORIAL COLISEUM - Action from the 1923 Idaho-USC game in brand new Memorial Coliseum. Over 45,000 fans were on hand in the 76,000 seat stadium.

November 22, 1924 was a huge day in the world of California college football since the top 4 spots in the PCC would be decided on that day. Up in Berkeley, undefeated California (though tied by Washington) would meet undefeated Stanford for the top spot. Regardless of how this game turned out, the battle in the southern part of the state would decide who came in second. According to a newspaper report regarding the two games, both were expected to be thrillers between evenly matched teams. Both match-ups were also getting a great deal of national interest. One article stated "The Vandal-Trojan game is attracting nearly as much attention up and down the coast as the Stanford-California clash in Berkeley" In part because USC was coming off of two close losses to powerful California and St. Mary's teams, some writers described Idaho as a "general favorite" over the Trojans.

Prior to the game, one writer in the Argonaut seemed to capture the spirit of the times when he wrote the following. "Tomorrow our football Vandals enter their last and probably toughest contest of the 1924 season. Tomorrow they train their guns on the mighty Trojans of USC. Memories of last year's USC game still rankle in the minds of the Vandals and their supporters in Los Angeles. That game will not be repeated. The squad realizes what this game will mean in terms of football recognition in the west and throughout the country. And, if all goes well, the pathetic wails of the vanquished Trojans will echo, via radio and grid-graph, across the hundreds of miles to the rejoicing camp of the Vandals."

Make no mistake about it; this was a huge game on the USC side as well. According to one article, "Southern California looks upon the Idaho game as it's biggest of the season, and this year it provides Los Angeles fans their only chance to witness a conference tilt." Idaho was also a big draw because their only loss on the season was to powerful Stanford by a 3 to 0 score. So, it was no surprise that over 45,000 fans turned out in the Los Angeles Coliseum to see the game on a day when the mercury was over 90 degrees. Once again, a valiant Vandal team would live up to its billing in a game that was described as packed with thrilling and tense moments.

Charles B. "Dad" Hausen
As in the previous two games played between the two clubs, this would be a defensive battle. The first half would end in a scoreless tie although Idaho came very close to catching what would have been a touchdown pass. In the second half, Idaho's traveling squad of 27 men would start to wear down from the heat and the constant pressure of the powerful Trojans. USC scored 3 points on a 30 yard field goal kick. Idaho made it to the Trojan 15 yard line when Stivers hit Bucklin in a big pass play but the Vandals could advance no further. Idaho's defense stayed strong, stopping USC twice on downs "under the shadow of their own goal line." In a play worth mentioning, the Trojans were on the Vandal six-inch line when "Dad" Hausen broke through and smeared Kaer, the spectacular USC back, for a 9 yard loss. USC did manage to add another field goal by Hawkins making the score 6 to 0. The Vandals fought back and threatened again when Stivers hit Kleffner on a pass and he ran to the USC 26 yard line. This time, USC was saved when Anderson hit Stivers so hard that he fumbled. Anderson recovered and returned the ball to the Idaho 42 yard line. This play also knocked Idaho's star quarterback out of the game and effectively ended Idaho's chances to win. USC would score a touchdown in the fourth quarter on a pass play from Green to Phythian. The final score was USC 13, Idaho 0. For the record, up in Berkeley Stanford and California battled to a 20 to 20 tie. This made the top of the PCC a bigger muddle.

The Vandals were obviously not happy about coming home from Los Angeles with their third consecutive shutout loss. According to the Argonaut, "The Vandals made a dogged battle against their heavier and more acclimated opponents. Idaho's aerial attack, which was at its best in the Oregon game, proved a disappointment to many who considered the Vandals superior to the southern team." It was also lamented that a California team would be picked to play in the Rose Bowl, not Idaho. In the end though, the newspaper's headline probably summed it up pretty well when it said "Intense heat and USC eleven too much for Idaho." Also fitting were the words of Idaho's Coach Mathews, "Idaho may be beaten, but she is never licked."

After the USC game Idaho returned to the Gem State and took out their frustrations by beating Nevada 23 to 0 in Boise to close out the season. With the victory, the 1924 Vandals ended the year at 5-2-1 and succeeded in making their mark on the college football world. Many Vandal players made the All-PCC team. More impressively, Vernon "Skip" Stivers was a consensus 2nd team All-American at the quarterback position. Only Notre Dame's Harry Stuhldreher, one of the legendary "Four Horsemen", was considered better by the national writers and coaches. Incidentally, Stuhldreher would lead his Fighting Irish to a 27 to 10 victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

Back to Idaho, in addition to Stivers, Vandal end John Vesser was named a 2nd team All-American by the then prestigious Liberty magazine. For his part, Coach Mathews was rewarded too. He was given a nice Christmas present by the citizens of Moscow – a brand new Studebaker Phaeton car!

END AROUND - As the caption above reads, Idaho legend "Syb" Kleffner, whose son "Flip" would also become a Vandal football star, is shown here in 1924 in the Vandals' 19-3 win over Washington State. The home game was played at MacLean Field on the campus of the University of Idaho and featured its traditional large crowd for this rivalry.





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