The first edition of this column could have been pretty boring. Obviously Cal hasn't played many games against Northwestern, so we might have ended up looking back at a meaningless 28-24 type of game during some random season in the 80s when both programs combined for 7 wins. At least, that's what I was expecting to happen.
As it turns out, Cal has only played Northwestern once. But rather than a random early season clash we will instead be talking about what looks like one of the most improbable bowl matchups in college football history. There's a pretty good chance you've already read about the game a few times this week.
In 1949, Cal and Northwestern met in the Rose Bowl, where the Wildcats emerged with a 20-14 victory. Those 14 points stand as the most the Bears have ever scored against the purple, Midwesterny version of Stanford.
To be fair, it wasn't especially unusual for Cal to appear in Pasadena back then. The 1949 edition was the 5th out of 8 appearances the Bears made between 1921 and 1959. But nowadays the Bears are in many ways defined by a 54 year drought. The Wildcats? 1949 marked their first appearance, and they have only returned once, when they faced USC in 1996. About the only more unlikely Pac/B1G matchup would be Arizona and Indiana . . . at least, until Utah and Rutgers face off in 2022. But that's an annoying hypothetical reality for a different day.
Cal entered the game with a perfect record, a #4 national ranking, and a hypothetical claim for a mythical national title. Northwestern was only at the game because the Rose Bowl had a ‘no-repeat' clause at the time, preventing Big-10 champion Michigan from appearing for the 2nd straight year. As a result, Pappy Waldorf's Bears were solid favorites.
Unfortunately, Vegas didn't have it right this time, and Northwestern's victory started a three year run of New Year's Day frustration for Waldorf's Bears. It's a game that just didn't go Cal's way. Consider that star Jackie Jensen, one of a handful of Bears that can be argued the greatest of all time, was injured in the 3rd quarter and was unable to return. Consider that Cal maintained a lead until late in the 4th quarter. Consider that Cal was perhaps victim to a ref blunder of epic proportions. As always, CalBear81 has all the grisly details, and she can describe it much better than I can:
The Bears faced Pappy's old team, Northwestern, in Pasadena on January 1, 1949. With the game tied 7-7 in the second quarter, Northwestern went on a drive to the Cal goal line. But Cal's Norm Pressley grabbed the arms of Northwestern ball carrier, Art Murakowki, from behind, causing a fumble, which the Bears recovered in the end zone for a touch back. Except that the referee called it a touchdown. Looking at photographs after the game, the press was unanimous that Murakowski had fumbled before he reached the end zone, but the infamous "phantom touchdown" stood.
Art Murakowki's "Phantom Touchdown" in the 1949 Rose Bowl
The Bears took a 14-13 lead in the third quarter, but then Jackie Jensen went down with a foot injury. With Jensen out, the Bears were not able to score again. A late Northwestern touchdown gave them a 20-14 win, and left Cal fans complaining about the "Phantom Touchdown" for years.
So yeah, a tough loss. But better a Rose Bowl loss than some garden variety loss? Maybe?
Can Sonny Dykes break the record?
He darn well better. I don't think Cal fans are demanding a victory to start the season, but if the Bear Raid can't manage more than two touchdowns, it will be an inauspicious start of Leachian proportions. Pappy Waldorf was a coach from a different era - his 1949 team entered the Rose Bowl with a perfect record despite averaging just 28 points a game. And while the 2012 Wildcats were certainly an excellent team, they still allowed 23 points/game. I would like to think that a Sonny-Dykes-led offense, playing at home, would be able to score more than the average team against Northwestern.
We'll have much more information about what to expect in the match-up between the Cal offense and the Northwestern defense tomorrow morning. For now, you can note that Northwestern did hold 5 teams to 14 points or fewer last year, although those were uniformly bad teams with bad offenses (Vanderbilt was probably the best offense Northwestern held below 14, which . . . yeah). Simply put, Cal fans should be hoping for a point total into the 30s.
And hopefully that can help to enact some revenge. I don't know about the rest of you, but I've been stewing about that 1949 game for years. WIN IT FOR PAPPY'S BOYS*!
*No Cal's Pappy's Boys. Not Northwestern's Pappy's Boy's. Why does this have to be so confusing?