Oklahoma 7, Army 21

September 28, 1946 | at West Point | Attendance 25,500

In the state of Oklahoma, the disastrous Dust Bowl years of the 1930's had provided the inspiration for author John Steinbeck's '39 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, based on the suffering of the "Okies". The book was published in the year following the University of Oklahoma's football team attending their first-ever bowl game, the Orange Bowl, and it had left America with an impression that the state had become a land of nothing but barren ground and a home to poverty, a picture that was not entirely accurate. In an effort to help rid the nation of the images portrayed by Steinbeck, the university's president and regents decided the best way to boost the state's self-esteem would be to field a dominating football team, which happened to agree with a coaching vacancy.

Dewey "Snorter" Luster had made a slight mark at his alma mater as a football coach, guiding Oklahoma on the gridiron for five years from 1941-45 and posting a 27-18-3 record. In that time, he piloted the Sooners to Big Six Conference titles in '43 and '44, and his team never finished below second place in the league. But because of ill health, Luster had missed several practices and the final game of the '45 season against undefeated and #6 Oklahoma A&M, a 47-0 Sooners' loss that closed out a 5-5 season for Luster. He resigned afterwards, and Oklahoma needed a new football coach.

In '46, a North Carolina alumnus named Jim Tatum, who had spent a few years as an assistant at Iowa Preflight under former Missouri coach Don Faurot, interviewed for the head position in Norman. Along with him for the visit was his assistant coaching counterpart and buddy, Bud Wilkinson, and together they impressed the administration. Tatum got the job with a three-year contract that totaled $27,000, comprised of yearly salaries of $8,000, 9,000 and then $10,000, but Wilkinson also had to come with him, and he would get a $6,800 salary.

Coinciding with the end of World War II, college football had an influx of players returning, most of them older and in their mid 20's, and eligibility requirements were so loose that they could move from school to school without any problems. Tatum devised a massive recruiting effort that included tryouts and spring and summer practices, and with the number of conventional high school players coming in, players numbered in the hundreds of which Tatum could pare his squad. As a result the Sooners were able to get a lot of great talent, but it didn't come cheap, for reputedly, Tatum had spent the athletic department's entire surplus of more than $100,000 before the first game.

Oklahoma's imposing array of talent notwithstanding, there was a fairly substantial feeling throughout the Big Six that Missouri was the team to beat, for Faurot had done a similar mass recruiting. But Tatum, who thought his team would do well to win half their games, was installing the same "Split-T" offense with the Sooners that he had learned under Faurot. Given the heavy financial investment, all those involved in Norman would quickly find out if it were all worth it as Oklahoma's opener was against the finest collegiate football team in the land, the United States Military Academy.

Taking a step back, William Wood had taken over the Army football program in '38 and opened with an 8-2 season, including a 14-7 victory over rival Navy, but it turned out to be a high point. The Cadets slipped to 3-4-2 in '39, and Army pretty much hit rock bottom during the '40 season when a 14-0 loss to Navy was the Cadets' sixth straight loss and it capped the worst season in the history of football at West Point, having posted a 1-7-1 record. A once-proud program needed rebuilt, and after watching Army's gridiron fortunes slipping further down the ladder, new superintendent Brigadier General Robert Eichelberger decided something must be done to change the direction of the football program as he began his tenure. He quickly did it.

The first step in the process was the hiring of Earl "Red" Blaik. In '34, he had taken his first head coaching job at Dartmouth, enjoying a 45-15-4 record during his seven years there, and his '37 team went undefeated (7-0-2) and finished ranked #7 in the final Associated Press poll. Blaik, who had played football at Miami of Ohio, was appointed to West Point, graduated in '20, and left two years later, returned to Army as head coach for the '41 season. But his hiring was a bit controversial because he was not an army officer as all of the previous West Point head coaches had been. Regardless, Blaik was the head man.

In his first season, the Cadets immediately improved by a full four games to a 5-3-1 record. Next, although there were some concerns about de-emphasizing football at West Point following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1941 and the United States' subsequent declaration of war, it did not occur. Blaik followed his rookie season with a 6-3 mark in '42, showing progress with a second straight winning record, and from there, it continued to get better.

With World War II raging, colleges all over the country suspended the eligibility rule for freshmen, and West Point was no exception where Blaik was able to secure appointments for some of the nation's top young players. The most important addition to the Army team in '43 was Glenn Davis, a standout young halfback from LaVerne, CA, where he had set all kinds of offensive records in high school. Although only a plebe, a first-year cadet, Davis starred for the team as they posted a 7-2-1 record, running Blaik's three-year record to 18-8-1, but Army had still not beaten the "Big Three" on their schedule. Against elite and traditional power Notre Dame, the Cadets had lost twice and tied once, they did the same against Pennsylvania, and they had lost all three to rival Navy.

As the '44 football season approached, Army football followers were bullish on the prospects for Blaik's fourth West Point team, after all, the Cadets had excellent personnel returning, such as Davis and two quality senior quarterbacks, Doug Kenna and team captain Tom Lombardo. The plebe prospect list also looked promising, but the best of the lot was fullback Felix "Doc" Blanchard from Bishopville, SC who could run, block and catch. He complemented the talents of Davis so well that they became the most fearsome running combination in the country. Behind the pair, everything changed and Army became as devastating on the gridiron as they were overseas during the war.

Still the hard-running backfield tandem was but a single component within the Cadets' vast arsenal. In fact, Army's depth was so great that Blaik fielded two squads named for their respective signal-callers, the "Lombardo Team", which included Blanchard and Davis, and the "Kenna Team", which started every game before yielding to Lombardo's unit at the start of the second quarter. As a whole, the arrangement was awesome.

Blaik had rolled out one of the best teams in the history of college football in '44, posting a 9-0 record and scoring 504 points to average 56 points per game offensively, while permitting only 35 all season, no more than seven to any one team, an average score of 56-4, and the Cadets' closest game was 16 points. They closed their year by even pounding defending national champion and #5 Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium by a 59-0 count, the most lopsided Fighting Irish loss ever, Pennsylvania, 62-7, and #2 Navy, 23-7. After the season, two players were named consensus All-Americans, the sophomore "Touchdown Twins". Halfback Davis had led the nation by averaging 11.1 yards per carry and in total scoring with 120 points, and won the Maxwell Player of the Year award and the Walter Camp Back of the Year award while finishing second in the Heisman Trophy voting, and fullback Blanchard finished third in the voting.

As the Army football team prepared for the '45 season, victory had been declared in the Pacific and General Douglas MacArthur called for a "better world" to emerge from the ashes of World War II. On the field, Blaik made sure that the Cadets' story was not about to end, even though graduation had stripped him of many key performers, but there was still a formidable nucleus remaining, and he set about to author a new chapter. With Arnold Tucker the new quarterback, Army blended its attack with the pass more often in '45 than it had previously, and the backfield of Davis, Blanchard, Thomas "Shorty" McWilliams, and Tucker, who did not get the publicity he probably deserved for being a perfect director of their offense, was undoubtedly one of the finest in West Point history.

Army finished the season undefeated (9-0) for a second straight year, and had extended their winning streak to 18 games. They averaged 46 points per game and permitted only 46 all season, for an average score of 46-5, and no team came closer than 19 points to the Cadets. They beat #9 Michigan at Yankee Stadium, 28-7, and then a month later Army closed their schedule by once again with a trifecta by crushing #2 Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium, 48-0, and then #6 Pennsylvania, 61-0, and finally new #2 Navy, 32-13. After the season, all 116 AP voters unanimously named Army national champions, and four players were named consensus All-Americans.

Blanchard and Davis had played just over half the time during the season, but it was enough to catch the attention from the news media that George Trevor of the New York Sun had nicknamed them "Mr. Inside" (Blanchard) and "Mr. Outside" (Davis). And it was Blanchard's year in '45, as he scored 115 points and swept the awards, not only grabbing the Sullivan (for Amateur Athlete of the Year), the Maxwell and the Camp, but also claiming the Heisman, becoming the first junior to ever win the award, while Davis, who scored 108 points, again finished second, but just narrowly.

The only disappointment associated with the season came when Army had turned down a bid to play in the Rose Bowl. And in evaluating the '45 squad, Blaik called it the greatest team he had ever coached, and one look at the their accomplishments made it hard to debate that assessment. In fact, it was hard to imagine that any college coach had ever experienced the depth that Blaik had enjoyed during the war.

An absolute powerhouse, the Cadets entered '46 as two-time defending national champions, and since there was no reason to believe that the "Touchdown Twins" were going to slow down, Army was favored to win its third straight national title. If any other team wanted it, they had to go through West Point.

But Army was also faced with some difficult challenges. The line had suffered heavily through two graduations and one resignation, and then the backfield lost some of its depth when McWilliams resigned amidst a great deal of controversy to return to Mississippi State, and only eight starters from the '45 national championship team returned to the West Point fold. Undaunted, Blaik and his staff went about the business of preparing for a season that featured another rough schedule. Fortunately, the returning players included a trio of standouts, quarterback Tucker and those two wonderful backs, Blanchard and Davis.

"Mr. Inside" and "Mr. Outside". They were unquestionably one of the best backfields ever assembled, and as national icons, there hadn't been anything like it since Notre Dame's fabled "Four Horsemen" over 20 years earlier. Blanchard was the bigger of the two at 6'0" and 205 pounds, while Davis, at 5'9" and 170 pounds, may have been the better athlete.

They were a tough chore for any defense. If it tightened up to stop Blanchard, it would be Davis that could skirt around the flank, and if the defense widened to stop him, Blanchard would bust up the gut. It was rather an impossible task to concentrate on stopping both of them, but if a defense somehow succeeded in doing so simultaneously, then Tucker and new starting fullback Ug Fuson had the ability to also run roughshod. Such was the predicament that Army's opponents faced.

The first AP poll wouldn't be released for a few weeks, out on October 8th, but everyone in the college football universe knew what team would be at the top. The Cadets kicked off their '46 campaign against Villanova at home, powering to an easy 35-0 victory to run their winning streak to 19 straight games. But it was costly, as Blanchard had suffered a serious knee injury that would sideline him for at least a minimum of a month, if not longer. The challenge for Army had just become greater, and next up for Blaik and his Cadets was their first-ever meeting with Oklahoma.

In front of over 25,000 in Michie Stadium at West Point along the Hudson River, a gathering that included United States President Harry S. Truman, Blanchard was in uniform and walked out to the center of the field for the coin toss, but that was about the extent of his duties. Once the game got underway, with the visitors being anywhere from three to four touchdown underdogs, it was Davis who would assume the brunt of the burden.

Once the whistle blew to begin play, it was the determined big and scrappy Sooners that inflicted most of the punishing early on in a fierce and bruising game. They did it by using a defensive alignment that had seven down linemen and two linebackers so close behind that it almost amounted to a nine-man front. Army could not get out of its tracks against the array, and while the alignment seemed an invitation to pass, Cadets Tucker and Davis were constantly overpowered as they tried to launch aerials.

After a scoreless opening period in which the Oklahoma offense experienced the normal learning curve associated with having a new offense in less than a month of practice time, it was their defense that turned in a big play. With regular punter Blanchard sitting on the sidelines, Army had to call in a green plebe, Joe Green, to kick from behind their own goal line. He fumbled the snap from center, and before he could get the punt away, the Sooners' Stanley West blocked it, and teammate Norman McNabb fell on the loose ball in the end zone for a touchdown. A successful extra point by junior Dave Wallace gave the visitors the lead, and a once-seemingly invincible team trailed 7-0.

When Army took over for their next possession, they had only made two first downs and had been slammed down on almost every attempt to rush or pass the ball by the tough Oklahoma defense. But then it was Tucker, maybe just a little under-appreciated before, who proved just how valuable a cog he was to their "T" when they took over at their 39. Along the way, he fired a 46-yard pass right down the middle of the field and into the arms of Davis, who had been mauled and battered to a standstill for the first 28 minutes of play, moving the Cadets close as the half drew near to a close. Tucker then fired a four-yard scoring toss to Hank Foldberg, and the extra point from Jack Mackmull tied the game, 7-7, with just 47 seconds left in the half. Army hadn't lost in three years, but at halftime the Sooners had the game dead-locked at 7-7.

After intermission, and early in the third period, giant cadet Barney Poole, a demon on defense, blocked an Oklahoma punt on the Sooner 15. Then it was Tucker again who fired a nine-yard pass to Davis. It set up Fuson's one-yard touchdown burst, and Army had their first lead of the game. The successful extra point made it 14-7.

Late in the third, and after Army's berserk line had hammered the Sooners into a state of grogginess for Poole and Foldberg, Oklahoma and their Split-T offense put together a substantial and rip-tearing march of 74 yards. Once again though, it was Tucker who came up big. First, he broke through two blockers to throw freshman halfback Darrell Royal back to the six-yard line on a sweep after a first down had been registered at the Army three. On the next play, tucker leaped into the air and snared Royal's pass to squelch the threat. It was Tucker's pair of spectacular defensive plays that halted the Sooner advancement at the Army three-yard line, denying a possible game-tying touchdown.

The Cadets had no sooner taken possession of the ball than a fumble gave it right back to Oklahoma at the 18. Sooners' halfback Joe Golding, a powerful runner who had lettered with the team back in '41 before the war, carried the ball to the 8 ½-yard line as the third stanza ended with the visitors threatening.

On the first scrimmage after the teams switched sides, Oklahoma sophomore quarterback Jack Mitchell lobbed the pigskin back to Royal, but sizing up the play was an alert Tucker, who came in like a flash and gobbled the ball out of the air, and before any Sooners could realize what had happened, he was off. Oklahoma's players reacted late, and Tucker had opened up a lead of about ten yards in the other direction. With the stands on both sides a bedlam of screaming and cheering fans, including Truman who was seated in the superintendent's loge and trying to remain impartial, Tucker sped the required 86 yards across the goal line for a touchdown. The extra point made it a 21-7 fourth quarter Cadets' lead, and the Sooners appeared drained.

Oklahoma did manage to come back to make one last try of it. Golding threw two passes to reach the Army 44, but the final ten minutes of the game found the Cadets recovering fumbles and intercepting passes, and two new backs, John Shelley and Bill West, did some of the best running of the afternoon. As such, Army was completely in command and then eventual possession of one of the most dearly earned victories of the last few years, a 21-7 triumph representing their closest game in three seasons.

To appreciate the fight the Cadets had on their hands, the Sooners had gained 129 yards rushing while holding Army to the unbelievable total of just 83. The Oklahoma defense, led by senior lineman Plato Andros and junior John Rapacz, had held Davis to a mere 19 yards on 12 carries in the contest, his all-time low, and zero points. The visitors also had two more first downs than their hosts, 9-7, and they averaged 50% more distance on their kicks.

The Sooners had battled valiantly. Given their first game with a new offense, the usual growing pains were to be expected, and it was their turnovers that were principally responsible for their undoing in the form of four lost fumbles and three thrown interceptions. But Tatum had to be proud, regardless of how tough the defeat appeared, for if Army represented the measuring stick, Oklahoma certainly had stacked up.

Right before the eyes of Truman, the state of the nation had come to an alarming pass. Army may not wind up being the killer team it was in '44 and '45, but it did prove to be one of the toughest teams that had ever donned black, gold and gray, and they had come on like champions in scoring three touchdowns. Much thanks certainly had to be sent in Tucker's direction, a youth whose luster had been dimmed for two years by the "Touchdown Twins", for it was his running from scrimmage, his returns of punts, his passing, and his brilliant defensive exploits that had provided both a spark and probable difference. So now the Cadets' winning streak stood at 20 straight games.

Source: Jeff Linkowski

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