Game of the Century: '51 Stanford vs. USC

The following article by former Daily Sports Desk Editor Peter Grothe appeared more than a half-century ago in 1952's Great Moments in Stanford Sports. The fine compilation of outstanding essays has been out of print for > 50 years, but as heated debate has raged recently about the biggest games in school history and as we approach Saturday's high-stakes battle with the evil Trojans, here it is!

Game of the Century: '51 Stanford vs. USC


Editor's Note: The following article appeared more than a half-century ago in 1952's Great Moments in Stanford Sports. The mighty fine compilation of outstanding essays has been out of print for more than 60 years, but as heated debate recently raged on about the biggest wins in school history and we approach another high-stakes battle with the Dirty Trojans, The Bootleg feels compelled to call attention to the 1951 varsity's epic battle against Troy. Bob Mathias' breathtaking 96-yard kick return assisted by Stanford Athletic Hall of Famer Norm Manoogian's remarkable lead blocking, remains (along with Tavita Pritchard's famous pass to Mark Bradford in 2007) one of the defining moments in the 105-year rivalry with USC. We managed to obtain permission from the author, Professor Peter Grothe [AB '53, AM ‘54] and The Stanford Daily to reprint it here for our readers' enjoyment and in some cases, for "memory refreshment". At The Bootleg, we not only "bow to no program", but we also refuse ever to forget the gridiron glory of righteous victories over the University of Southern California.


In 1951, Pete Grothe was serving as sports desk editor of the Stanford Daily and Stanford sports correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle. He also wrote for the Burlingame Advance for three years. Grothe was a member of the Stanford Athletic Board and served as president of Sigma Delta Chi, the professional journalism fraternity. At the time, even the oldest of old-timers say that Stan­ford's 1951 27-to-20 victory over undefeated Southern California was the most spectacular game that an Indian team ever participated in (sic). Both teams were unbeaten in seven games, USC was the favorite, and the Rose Bowl bid hinged on the outcome. What happened on that memorable day is told by Grothe as he wrote it for his column in the Stanford Daily.


LOS ANGELES COLISEUM, Nov. 10, 1951 - I'm up in the Coliseum press box now. Sports scribes from all parts of the country are begin­ning to piece together the lead paragraphs to stories on one of the most spectacular games they've ever seen. And in the gathering dusk down on the field a completely exhausted but deliriously happy Stanford team is carrying Chuck Taylor and "Dutch" Fehring on its shoulders. There can be no doubt that the red-and-white-clad squad just now going through the tunnel had a distinct touch of greatness in it today.


Stanford can win or lose the next two games and the Rose Bowl. Right now, it doesn't make any difference to the thousands of rooters who are swarming to the USC side of the field. The game which the electric scoreboard at the end of the stadium says Stanford won, 27 to 20, was the alpha and omega of grid thrills. The 96,000 who sat in this massive coliseum saw one of the great football games of all time, and even the Big Game will be anti-climactic.


It's supposed to be my job to throw together the best possible com­bination of words to describe something, but for the first time in my life, I find myself virtually speechless. I'm limp. What is there you can say about a gang like that? Throw the dic­tionary at them, and you still couldn't do that Herculean come-through effort justice.


The real drama of today's game was crammed into the fourth quar­ter, in which 33 points were scored, but Chuck Taylor's crew set the stage for things to come by tallying first. USC's All-American halfback, Frank Gifford, fumbled the ball on his own 17, and Card linebacker Ted Tanner was there to pounce on it. Two running plays netted three yards. Then quarterback Gary Kerkorian wheeled back, spotted Bill McColl in a cluster of three defenders, and threw. It was a typical McColl catch. He threw his six-foot, four-inch, 225-pound frame sky­ward and came down with six points securely nestled in his hands. Kerkorian, who completed 18 passes, more than anyone else ever has against the Trojans, added the conversion from Harry Hugasian's hold.

The first half saw no further scoring, although the Indians threatened twice. The first half ended with Stanford on the USC eight-yard line.


Coach Jess Hill's team evened the count in the third quarter as the snake-hipped Gifford twisted his way 18 yards goalward and converted from Johnny Williams' fingertips. Troy had just driven 74 yards in eight plays, and Stanford rooters had received their first glimpse of why this USC squad was being compared favorably with the great Howard Jones teams. It was not their last glimpse. The ball exchanged hands several times, and it was the, Trojans' turn to ramble again. They initiated the fourth quarter by driving 57 yards, and making the score 14 to 7. Halfback "Hoagy" Carmichael, on an off-tackle reverse, bit off the last 36 yards in one spectacular chunk.


Twenty seconds later, the USC rooters' thunderous elation was deadened as Bob Mathias, a trackman who thought he'd give football a try, gobbled up Gifford's ensuing kickoff on the Stanford four and never stopped until he reached the Southern Cal goal, 96 yards later. The Olympic decathlon champ accepted the kickoff, cut to his right, proceeded up field, ran into a terrific jam on the 30, broke out of it, took advantage of Wes Laubscher's block on Gifford, and then out-raced Williams and guard Elmer Willhoite to the goal.


The Troy rooters had a chance to cheer again as Kerkorian's extra point try was wide. It was that type of a fourth quarter - the rooters of the two schools alternately going from the depths of despair to the heights of uncontained joy-all in the matter of a few seconds.


A few minutes later, not one of the 4,000 Farm students would have given you a cup of Cellar coffee for the Indians' chances to win. Ker­korian faded back from his own 15, was hit by end Bill Hattig, and fumbled in the end zone. USC's gargantuan tackle, Charley Ane, draped his 250 pounds all over the ball, and the Trojans led, 20 to 13, 21 to 13, as Gifford converted. But here was a break. Southern Cali­fornia was penalized, and from 25 yards out, Gifford missed…still 20 to 13.


And so here was the situation: Nine minutes remained, and Stan­ford would have to score a touchdown against the white-hot Trojans to tie, two touchdowns to win. Not an easy chore. In the fabled 1924 Big Game, Stanford scored 14 points in the last quarter to tie Cal, 20 to 20. But on this given day, Kerkorian, McColl, and company would settle for nothing less than victory.

Seven minutes remained as Kerkorian, from the USC 41, rifled a long floater to sophomore end Sam Morley on the 14. Troy was penal­ized to the nine, illegal substitution, and here was where Mr. Mathias took over. First, it was Bob, blasting at the USC 220-pound-a-man line for four yards, then ripping, charging for three more to the two. Co-captain and linebacker Pat Cannamela ordered an eight-man line, but he might as well have saved his trouble. Mathias hit the same hole, and aided by vicious blocks by guard Norm Manoogian and tackle Jim Vick, churned over. This time, the 183-pound quarterback from Inglewood made sure he didn't miss the conversion. It was 20 to 20, and the 4,000 students who had traveled 400 miles to see this game drew a sigh of relief. But not the football team. Remember, it was a victory they were striving for. A tie wouldn't do. And if victory was to be attained, there were only three minutes in which to score.


The ever-present Carmichael returned the kick-off 25 yards and then knocked off 13 more yards on his favorite off-tackle play. And this is where Palo Alto's Skip Crist goes in the game as line-backer. He is in­structed to watch for a Gifford-to-quarterback Dean Schneider pass. And he does. Crist intercepted on the 42 and zipped down the sidelines before being arrested by Welch on the 11. Stanford advanced to the goal, but then was penalized back to the 11. And here is Harry Hugasian, the Hipster of old, squirming, fighting, twisting his way to the half-yard line and then booming over on the next play. Kerkorian punctuated the whole affair by converting the last, if somewhat superfluous, point, making it 27 to 20, and that was the game.


It's dark now in the coliseum. Only the clicking of typewriter keys break the silence, but as long as I live I'll always remember this most prodigious come-through effort performed by a Cinderella team that wouldn't and couldn't be denied on the field below.

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