Navy Football: The 1958 Cotton Bowl
If you recall last week’s look at the 1955 Sugar Bowl, Navy’s defense absolutely dominated Ole Miss, smothering the Rebels in an essentially flawless performance. By the standards established on that day in New Orleans, when Navy won its first bowl game and its first New Year’s Day bowl as well, the Midshipmen had a hard act to follow when they took the field against the Rice Owls on the first day of 1958 in Dallas. The greatness of Navy football in this period of college football history is most centrally manifested by the fact that the Midshipmen somehow managed to match what the 1954 defense did when it got its big chance in a bowl environment.
The strength of Navy’s defensive performance in the 1955 Sugar Bowl lay in the fact that Ole Miss simply couldn’t move the ball. Yards, first downs, time of possession – Ole Miss was rendered impotent by Navy from start to finish. The Rebels were placed in a straitjacket by Eddie Erdelatz’s defensive eleven. In the 1958 Cotton Bowl, Navy won by hawking the ball and being in the right place at the right time.
Dallas, of course, is the home of the Cowboys. In 1978, the Cowboys won a second world championship by forcing eight turnovers against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII, which featured a total of 10 turnovers overall. Exactly 20 years earlier – 20 Januaries earlier – Dallas was the scene of another big bowl game with 10 giveaways. This is where the magnificence of Navy’s defense can be appreciated in full.
If you had told Erdelatz and his players that they would commit four turnovers; manage under 80 yards more than Rice; and score an average of roughly three points for every turnover the Owls committed, you probably would have gotten a lot of worried looks and alarmed reactions. Yet, one basic statistic took all the sting out of those unsettling realities: Navy forced six Rice turnovers on New Year’s Day of 1958.
It was stunning to behold: Rice and Navy created the only bowl game of the season matching two top-10 teams. The Rose, Sugar and Orange Bowls could not match the Cotton. Yet, the Cotton Bowl produced what was by far the least elegant game of the four. It was just one of those days. Within this context of ugliness, though, Navy’s defense made Rice’s offense look a lot worse. Being able to recover six fumbles while also registering an interception enabled the Midshipmen to take a 13-0 halftime lead and then a 20-0 lead just six scrimmage plays into the second half. Four Navy turnovers littered the box score, but with a commanding lead just a few plays into the second half, Navy was able to sit on Rice’s passing game to the extent that it was never seriously threatened down the stretch. The Midshipmen cruised to the finish line, 20-7. The defensive lockdown created in the ’55 Sugar had been replicated in the ’58 Cotton, only through a different pattern.
The 10 turnovers coughed up in this Cotton Bowl meant that both teams were handing the other added possessions. Navy and Rice didn’t do much with their possessions, but they still got more of them thanks to the butterfingers on display in Big D (eight lost fumbles, plus two interceptions). Precisely because of the multiple possessions each team received, it was harder to limit each side’s yardage total. Both Navy and Rice drove the ball and collected yards before giving up the pigskin. This is why Navy’s defense allowed 301 yards – more than twice its total from the 1955 Sugar Bowl. The point of this brief explanation is to emphasize that while the yardage total was a lot higher than it was three years before, the Midshipmen gave up that total based on many more possessions. Rice collected more yards, but those yards were always empty, especially since the Owls never scored a point when trailing by two or more scores in this game.
Here’s the postscript to Navy’s win: The Midshipmen did return to the New Year’s Day bowl stage in the 1961 Orange Bowl, and they made their way back to Dallas for the 1964 Cotton Bowl against Texas, but the Midshipmen never again won a prestigious bowl game after this triumph over Rice. This game – while lacking in terms of its artistic dimensions – remains one of the landmark moments in Navy football history. It serves as a reminder that nothing is guaranteed in life or sports.
Just to underscore that last notion about the lack of guarantees in life, consider things from Rice’s point of view: Whereas Navy never won another Cotton Bowl, the Owls never even returned to this event. They had won three Southwest Conference titles in the previous 10 years before ruling the SWC in the 1957 season. We don’t think of Rice as a power in the present tense, but in 1957, no one in Houston could have known that Rice was playing in its last Cotton Bowl… at least the last of the SWC era, quite possibly the last one in our lifetimes.
Navy and Rice met before the eyes of the nation, in what was the first Cotton Bowl televised by CBS. Neither program could have known what would follow in the coming decades, so the fact that Navy won this showcase event stands as an even greater reminder of how precious this Cotton Bowl was… and is… and always will be in Annapolis.
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