The Year The Stars Shined For Oregon Football
551 yards, that’s the NFL passing record for a single game. Every year, the league evolves to incorporate more passing into offenses, yet that mark, set in 1951, has remained untouched for over six decades. It was a record set by Norm Van Brocklin, one of six Ducks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the star of the 1948 team. For all his success, Van Brocklin wasn’t the program’s only talent; Brad Ecklund, Chet Daniels, Woodley Lewis, Sam Nevills, and Dick Wilkins were all members of that team who would go on to play pro football.
1948 was a year of momentous events not only in Oregon, but throughout the world. The Vanport flooding, Truman stunning Dewey in the presidential election, and Israel declaring its independence were some of the events that made 1948 particularly noteworthy. For Ducks fans, 1948 would also be remembered as one of the great seasons in Oregon history.
After winning six straight games to end the 1947 season, the Ducks looked poised to build on that momentum going into 1948. Despite a strong finish the year before, prognosticators had pegged Oregon to finish third in the Pacific Coast Conference in 1948, behind USC and California. What they couldn’t have seen is what a special year it would become for the Ducks.
Head coach Jim Aiken, described by the Register-Guard‘s Dick Strite as, “an unusual collegiate football coach in more ways than one – allowing anyone to attend practice; giving out the correct weights on a player and not kidding the public on injuries”, opened camp on September 1st with 65 players. That number would drop to 56 by opening day, serious attrition from the 90 players who came to 30 spring practices in April and May.
In a year that saw rule changes allowing for unlimited substitutions (the introduction of two-platoon football), Oregon would continue to use most of its players on both offense and defense. Many of those two-way players were on the offensive line, a line that returned entirely intact in 1948, led by preseason All-American right tackle Don Stanton.
Stanton wasn’t the only returning Duck named preseason All-American, so too were End Dan Garza, and legendary QB Norm Van Brocklin. While Van Brocklin anchored a largely intact offense, right halfback George Bell was the only other player returning in the backfield, although Bob Sanders was a lock for the starting fullback position.
Replacing graduated left halfback Jake Leicht was a wide-open competition, with six players battling it out in camp for the right to sit atop the depth chart: Johnny McKay (yes, that John McKay), Woodley Lewis, Tommy Hines, Bob “Bunny” Easter, Hal Cuffel, and the coach’s son Jim Aiken, Jr., All but Cuffel, a sophomore from McMinnville, were transfers. Easter made a compelling argument, leading the nation’s junior colleges in scoring in 1947 with 125 points, but ultimately Woodley Lewis would be named the opening day starter.
Oregon’s opening game was against the University of California Santa Barbara on September 18 in Eugene. Santa Barbara, then a member of the California Collegiate Athletic Association, now a Division II conference, was expected to be as much of a threat as one would expect from a team of their status.
However, Santa Barbara showed early on they shouldn’t be taken lightly. Sam Cathcart, who along with his teammate and brother, Royal, would go on to play for the 49ers, received the kickoff from Oregon sophomore guard Chet Daniels at his own 14-yard line. On a reverse, Sam Cathcart handed the ball off to Kenny Duddridge who would return the football untouched, going 86 yards for the touchdown, with Duddridge padded his point total by adding the PAT. Santa Barbara 7, Oregon 0. The 10,000 Oregon fans in attendance, many lured out by the gorgeous Eugene day, were certainly in a state of shock.
That kickoff would result in the only points Santa Barbara would score all afternoon. Oregon would rattle off 55 unanswered points, led by John McKay’s three touchdowns, and Norm Van Brocklin going 7 for 8 on extra points; with his sole miss coming after a holding call forced him to kick from the 25. Oregon punctuated the win with big defensive plays: DB Earl Stelle recovering a fumble, followed by DB Bob Oas intercepting two passes by the Gauchos’ Dick Gorrie late in the game.
Oregon dominated Santa Barbara not only on the scoreboard, but in the stats; rushing for more than 300 yards, led by McKay’s 114 yards. Oregon was penalized 13 times for 115 yards, but Aiken’s only criticism, aside from the penalties, was with the number of passes dropped by Oregon’s receivers. Still, it was hard to find much fault in a 55-7 victory.
Oregon’s next opponent would be the Stanford Indians in Palo Alto, CA, the first of three consecutive road games. Stanford lost every game in 1947, including a 21-6 loss to the Ducks. Stanford didn’t carry that losing into 1948 season, winning their opener over San Jose State. Despite that victory over San Jose State, Oregon was heavily favored to defeat Stanford. The conference matchup would draw a sparse crowd of only 32,000.
Oregon went up 6-0 early behind yet another John McKay touchdown, before Stanford scored 12 unanswered points. For the first time since that opening kickoff the week before in Eugene, Oregon trailed.
Oregon came back, with John McKay scoring again to give Oregon a precarious 13-12 lead. Yet Stanford remained undeterred, crossing midfield and making things tense for the Ducks. But it was Oregon defensive end Wayne Bartholemy who made sure Stanford would not prevail, picking off a pass from Tom Shaw (older brother of future Duck star George Shaw) and returning it for a touchdown to make it 20-12, Oregon. Despite Norm Van Brocklin’s fumble (and Stanford’s recovery) on the game’s final play, Bartholemy’s points ended up being the last of the day.
It was not a particularly well-played game for the Ducks, certainly costing them some prestige among the media and pollsters, who wouldn’t rank the Ducks until October 25th. However, they had come from behind on the road to win, and that’s all that mattered. Now it was on to Michigan (and Part 2 of this series…)