Blast from the Past: The 1949 Rose Bowl Champs

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With Northwestern in the midst of a potentially special season, WNUR Web Director Eric Klaus looks back at one of the most successful teams in Northwestern history: the 1949 Rose Bowl Champions.

On New Year’s Day 1949, the Northwestern Wildcats beat the California Golden Bears 20-14 to do something that no other Northwestern team has ever done: win a bowl game. And the bowl win just so happened to be in the “Grandaddy of them all”, the Rose Bowl. However, as significant as the victory was, it was the story that led up to and through the Rose Bowl game that made these Wildcats particularly memorable.

When September 1948 rolled around, expectations for the Northwestern football team were far from high. In the previous year, a very similar group of players had finished just 3-6 under new and inexperienced head coach Bob Voigts. There was some reason for hope though, as the team had a fair amount of talent (at least by Northwestern standards) and experience on both sides of the ball. They also had another undervalued element going for them: toughness. Since the nation was just years removed from WWII, nearly half of the roster consisted of players who had fought in combat, including one (Al Thomas), who had won a Silver Star. In hindsight, the Wildcats combination of talent, experience and toughness, should have made their success less of a surprise.

The ‘Cats started the season in dominant fashion by shutting out both UCLA and Purdue (by scores of 21-0 and 19-0), to vault up to #3 in the AP Poll. They then came back from a 16-point deficit the following week to knock off 8th ranked Minnesota, 19-16. After the win over Minnesota, Northwestern then travelled to Ann Arbor to face reigning National Champion Michigan. However, in what would end up being Northwestern’s sole poor performance of ’48, they lost handily 28-0. Nevertheless, in a fine showcase of the team’s great maturity and toughness, Northwestern rebounded to win their next three games against Syracuse, Wisconsin and Ohio State, outscoring the teams by a combined score of 84-14.

At 6-1 overall, and 4-1 in conference, Northwestern’s confidence was soaring heading into their game against perennial power and #2 ranked Notre Dame. For 60 full minutes, Northwestern went toe-to-toe with the Fighting Irish, which was especially impressive since the game was being played in South Bend. Unfortunately, in a game defined by defense, Notre Dame prevailed 12-7, even though the ‘Cats led 7-6 for a good portion of the game.

Even with losses to Michigan and Notre Dame, the Wildcats had the opportunity to do something special: clinch a spot in the Rose Bowl game. All they had to do was beat in-state rival Illinois at home the following week.

At this point, some readers may be wondering why Northwestern had this opportunity, considering that Michigan had not only beaten the Wildcats, but had also gone undefeated and won the Big Ten. The reason is because conference rules prohibited teams from going to the Rose Bowl in back-to-back seasons. Since Michigan had played in the Rose Bowl the year before, they were ineligible for it in 1948. Therefore, Northwestern only needed to finish 2nd in the Western Conference (later the Big Ten) to clinch a spot in the Rose Bowl. They could do just that with a victory over Illinois.

On a cold Saturday in late November, Northwestern and Illinois renewed their rivalry in front of a sellout crowd at Dyche Stadium. The Ilini entered the game at a paltry 3-5, but were looking forward to winning back the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk (the trophy the teams play for each year) after losing to Northwestern the previous year. Northwestern was having none of it though, as they jumped out to a big first half lead, thanks to a powerful run game and a swarming defense. In the second half, a strong defensive effort was enough to keep Illinois at bay, giving Northwestern a decisive 20-7 victory and a spot in the Rose Bowl.

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After the victory, the Northwestern campus erupted in a manner that is nearly impossible to imagine, as 8000 students paraded through campus and into downtown Evanston, singing and cheering along the way. The festivities ensued for more than 24 hours, and included pep rallies, parades and open houses all across campus. Some students even took the celebration to Chicago, as nearly 500 students reportedly danced their way through Marshall Field’s. Only adding to the excitement was the news that Northwestern had decided to cancel classes for the upcoming Thanksgiving week. All in all, the spontaneous celebration came as a surprise to many.

Northwestern’s opponent in the Rose Bowl was the fourth-ranked California Golden Bears, who had just completed a perfect 10-0 regular season. In the views of many the game was a huge mismatch. In particular, many did not think that the Wildcats defense would have an answer for a prolific Cal offense that had averaged 28 points a game in the regular season. Additionally, members of the media were also quick to point out Northwestern’s somewhat illegitimate road to the Rose Bowl, which in their eyes made Northwestern a much lesser team than Cal.

After six weeks off, Northwestern was more than ready to play the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. This became evident early on in the game, when Northwestern running back Frank Aschenbrenner scampered 73 yards (a Rose Bowl record) for a touchdown to give the Wildcats a quick 7-0 lead. In addition to simply giving the ‘Cats a lead, Aschenbrenner had also silenced almost all of the 93,000 people in attendance. Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, their lead lasted less than a minute as Cal’s All-American fullback Jackie Jensen sprinted 67 yards for a touchdown just two plays later. After one quarter, the two teams were knotted at seven.

Midway through the 2nd quarter, the ‘Cats were on the move again thanks to a long punt return by Johnny Miller that put them at the Cal 22. Just moments later, the ‘Cats found themselves with 1st and goal on the Cal 1. On first down, the ‘Cats gave the ball to fullback Art Murakowski, who quickly lunged forward towards the end zone. However, at some point during the play, the ball popped out of his hands and into the back of the end zone where California recovered. Fortunately for the ‘Cats the referee ruled that Murakowski had crossed the goal line before losing the ball. Thus, Northwestern took a controversial 13-7 lead. The rest of the quarter was uneventful and Northwestern went into the half with taht 13-7 lead.

For the first portion of the second half, both defenses dominated, causing few scoring threats. This quickly changed however, in the middle of the quarter, when Northwestern quarterback Don Burson fumbled at midfield. An opportunistic Cal team took full advantage, and proceeded to score a go-ahead touchdown eleven plays later. After three quarters, the ‘Cats were still alive, but were trailing for the first time at 14-13.

For the majority of the fourth quarter, both offenses struggled, and Northwestern’s offense in particular continued to stall drive after drive. However, with less than five minutes left in the game, the Northwestern offense found an extra gear. On a second down play from their own 12, Aschenbrenner (a running back), fired a 17 yard bullet to Don Stonestifer, for Northwestern’s first and only completion of the game. The play shocked the Cal defense, and from there on out, the Cal defense loosened up quite a bit. With run play after run play, the ‘Cats got the ball into Cal territory with three minutes remaining. Then on a second down play from the Cal 43, Northwestern center Alex Sarkisian snapped the ball directly to tailback Ed Tunnicliff, instead of quarterback Don Burson. Nevertheless, Burson acted like he had the ball and faked a pass to Aschenbrenner. Confused, the Cal defense was slow to react, and seconds later, Tunnicliff was in the end zone and the ‘Cats had retaken the lead at 20-14.

Cal marched furiously down the field in the game’s final moments, driving deep into Northwestern territory. Fittingly, the Northwestern defense came through and saved the day, as cornerback Pee Wee Day picked off a pass inside the 10 to clinch the victory. Northwestern had done the unthinkable and upset Cal. The Northwestern faithful was sent into a frenzy.

Even today, the Rose Bowl victory is one of the most significant in Northwestern sports history, and is one of the crowning achievements of the Northwestern football program. Since the victory, Northwestern has gone to nine bowl games (all since 1995), losing every single one, albeit typically in thrilling fashion. The 2012 squad will have a chance to break the bowl losing streak later this year after clinching a bowl berth last week in their win over Iowa. In fact, if everything falls right, they might even have a chance to do it in the Rose Bowl.

One comment

  • This game preceded my entry to NU in 1949. I heard the game on the radio in Great Falls, Montana. It was an exciting experience and the following term I joined Theta Xi fraternity on the Evanston campus. One of my fraternity brothers was Rudy Cernoch, who played tackle for NU in the Rose Bowl and in the following year at NU.

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