Navy Football: The 1955 Sugar Bowl
Precisely because the 1964 Cotton Bowl was a 1-versus-2 battle in the city where John F. Kennedy had been shot just six weeks earlier, it will long remain one of the two most significant national college football games a Navy team has ever played, the 1963 Army-Navy Game being the other. No other non-Army game will ever match Roger Staubach going up against the Texas Longhorns for the right to be called the best team of 1963 (though Texas had been awarded the national title before the game).
Precisely because the 1964 Cotton Bowl and the 1961 Orange Bowl (against Missouri) both featured Navy's Heisman Trophy winners -- with Joe Bellino occupying the spotlight in Miami three years before Roger the Dodger -- those two games leap to the surface of memory as the signature non-Army moments in Navy's gridiron existence. The history of college football is so intertwined with the history of the Heisman that any bowl game featuring a Heisman winner gets remembered and written about with more centrality and urgency than other bowl games. That's the way it has been in this sport; it's the way it currently is; and it's the way it's going to be, with the exception of the College Football Playoff, should its four participants lack a Heisman winner.
However, as much as it is easy to romanticize New Year's Day of 1964 in Dallas, or January 2 of 1961 in Miami, another game is firmly fixed in the story of Navy football. It won't be recalled by the casual college football fan or the sometime college football historian who remembers the events that have seeped into the national consciousness, but doesn't take the time to look any deeper than that. For anyone who has studied college football at a deeper level, it becomes clear that a third bowl game deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the 1964 Cotton or 1961 Orange: The 1955 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
The 1954 Navy team did lose twice, and that reality tends to obscure how special this team was. The Midshipmen's two losses occurred by a combined total of eight points -- six to Notre Dame in Baltimore, two to Pittsburgh, a team that had a knack for disrupting great service-academy seasons in the 1950s. When Army went 8-0-1 with Heisman winner Pete Dawkins in the backfield in 1958, the "1" in that record was a tie against Pitt.
When Navy didn't suffer a razor-close loss in 1954, it beat the living daylights out of just about everyone else it played. Navy smashed six opponents by 25 points or more before encountering Army in the regular-season finale. Army, as you'd expect, played the Midshipmen close in the first half. The two teams went to the locker rooms at the intermission with Navy up 21-20. Told at halftime by coach Eddie Erdelatz that a win was going to lead to an invitation to the Sugar Bowl -- and hey, who wouldn't want to party in New Orleans before New Year's Day? -- Navy's players soared with excitement. They didn't blow out Army in the second half, but after a shaky defensive first half, they blanked West Point in the final 30 minutes to secure a 27-20 triumph... and a ticket to the Big Easy. This set up a game in which Navy received national respect... but didn't seem likely to prevail when kickoff time arrived.
Author Marty Mule has written a book about the history of the Sugar Bowl. He noted that in the days leading up to the game, Navy halfback Bob Craig (tonsilitis) and tackle Jim Royer (hip) were rendered inactive. These events were enough to create a shift in opinion which turned Navy from a three-point betting favorite (initial line) to a 1.5-point underdog at kickoff time.
Navy's opponent on the first day of 1955 was Ole Miss. Today, the Rebels are the only SEC West school that has existed throughout the SEC Championship Game era (since 1992) and has failed to make at least one appearance in the SEC title game. (Texas A&M is a new arrival, of course, so it doesn't exist on the same plane as Ole Miss.) However, as much as the Rebels have struggled over the past 40 years, they experienced their golden age in the 1950s under their greatest coach, Johnny Vaught.
If you were to make a Mount Rushmore of the four best SEC coaches of all time, you'd naturally include Bear Bryant and Steve Spurrier without any debate. Robert Neyland or Vince Dooley would be a tough call for the fourth spot, but you'd have a very hard time leaving Vaught out of the mix. Vaught won six SEC titles in Oxford, and the fact that Ole Miss has not been able to win a single SEC title before or since his tenure magnifies what he achieved in his career. Ole Miss was a genuine powerhouse, winning three national titles under its legendary sideline sultan. When Navy met Ole Miss, it was meeting the best the SEC had to offer -- not just within the context of a single season, but in the 1950s as a larger period of time.
Yet, if you had never known of Johnny Vaught or the greatness of Ole Miss football during the 1950s and early '60s, you would have sworn that Navy was the team with greatness written all over it. Navy didn't just win that game with a couple of its key pieces injured. The Midshipmen smothered the Rebels and left no doubt as to which was the vastly superior side.
Navy allowed only five first downs in front of 80,190 at Tulane Stadium. Ole Miss scratched out just 121 yards, only 43 in the air. Navy forced nine Ole Miss punts and allowed only five completed passes. The Midshipmen's rushing total (295) was more than double the Rebels' entire offensive output. Navy committed only one penalty, did not lose a fumble, and collected 442 yards against an increasingly weary Ole Miss defense that essentially surrendered in the third quarter.
With the Rebels' defense keeping their team in the game in the first half, Ole Miss trailed by a mere 7-0 score at halftime. The statistical imbalances emerging in the game were not reflected on the scoreboard. It is so easy for the team with a slim lead to lose focus after dominating a half but having little to show for it. Navy, though, did not allow itself to fall victim to such a dynamic. Knowing Ole Miss was on its heels, the Midshipmen continued to force the issue, and as a result, they scored 14 third-quarter points against the exhausted Rebel defense to put the game away. Joe Gattuso scored two touchdowns, and George Welsh -- yes, the same George Welsh who would coach Navy to three bowl appearances over two decades later -- threw a touchdown pass in the 21-0 butt-kicking.
Ole Miss enjoyed many great days throughout the Johnny Vaught era, but on a grand stage in one of college football's four most treasured bowl games, the 1954 Navy team -- playing in the school's first bowl game since the 1924 Rose Bowl -- made a loud and emphatic statement about its own legitimacy in the larger world of college football.
The achievement of winning the Sugar Bowl was its own great reward, as was the achievement of smacking down an ascendant program from a conference that took its football very seriously. However, the lasting importance of the 1955 Sugar Bowl is that it generated a fresh wave of momentum and belief in and around the program. Three more times over the next nine seasons, Navy would make its way to a prestigious New Year's Day bowl game. The 10-season period from 1954 through 1963 -- not just the 1960 and 1963 Heisman seasons -- is the greatest stretch in Navy football history. Without the 1955 Sugar Bowl, that glorious decade-long run probably doesn't happen.
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