DEFENSE! DEFENSE! DEFENSE!
The Broncos loosed few offensive salvos in their first four games, scoring only 60 points in wins over Stanford, San Francisco, Portland, and Loyola while gaining virtually all of their yardage on the ground.
The Bronco defense was tougher than tough. They allowed only one touchdown all season.
At Soldier Field in Chicago, Santa Clara took on Marquette before a crowd of 40,000. While the Broncos had passed hardly at all in their first four games, in the Windy City they unleashed a fusillade of thrown footballs against the Marquette secondary. The Broncos won 38–0.
Three different passers in Shaw’s Notre Dame box formation collaborated with three different receivers to account for SCU’s first four touchdowns. Bruno Pellegrini ’39 passed 40 yards to Jim Barlow ’39. Barlow in turn hooked up with Bill Gunther ’39 on a 5-yard scoring play. And Jack Roche ’40 added TDs on 25- and 40-yard throws to Tom Gilbert ’39. The Broncos wound up with 173 passing yards, the equivalent of a 400-yard passing game today.
AN INVITATION TO THE BOWL?
The victory over Marquette vaulted the Broncos from 14th to 10th in the following week’s AP rankings, and the Broncos subsequently beat San Jose State, St. Mary’s, and Gonzaga to complete their 8–0 regular season. They were tied for ninth in the final AP poll, which in those days was conducted at the end of the regular season and did not reflect bowl-game results. Aside from Stanford’s opening-game touchdown, the Broncos had given up only two other points all season, on a safety scored by San Jose State.
Even with that résumé, though, the Broncos were fortunate to get a return invitation to the Sugar Bowl, then second only to the Rose Bowl in prestige and payout. Third-ranked Fordham and its famed Seven Blocks of Granite line, which included future NFL coaching nonpareil Vince Lombardi, originally was extended the invitation to play No. 8 LSU but declined because the Rams were expecting a Rose Bowl invitation that instead went to Alabama.
Despite Santa Clara’s victory the year before, LSU was a 2-to-1 betting favorite entering the game, given the Tigers’ stronger schedule and virtual home-field advantage in New Orleans. This didn’t faze the Broncos, who felt their defense could withstand any opponent and knew they wouldn’t be detoured by distractions during their weeklong trip and stay in New Orleans.
“The year before, we knew we’d have to play over our heads to beat LSU,” Al Wolff said later. “But for the 1938 game, we were the better team. Our feeling was LSU would have to play over their heads to win.”
GRUDGE AND GRIND
Before 41,000 spectators, Santa Clara was on the precipice throughout a game that was played in grudging increments as each team punted 14 times. LSU outgained Santa Clara 201 yards to 101 and racked up 10 first downs to Santa Clara’s four. The Broncos lost three fumbles. The first, by backup halfback Orv Hanners ’39—who replaced starter Tom Gilbert after Gilbert suffered a head injury on the first play of the game—gave LSU the ball on the Santa Clara 28-yard line. The Tigers quickly advanced to a first-and-goal at the 4, but three thrusts into the line resulted in no gain, with Wolff making a one-on-one stop on the third-down play. On fourth down, Phil Dougherty, Fran Cope ’38, and Lou Farasyn ’38, J.D. ’41 stopped the LSU runner at the 3.
Even though the Broncos could make little headway against the LSU defense, their defense and their superior depth began to grind down the Tigers as the game progressed. Early in the third quarter, Santa Clara drove to the LSU 28, whereupon Shaw took advantage of LSU’s tendency to overpursue on sweeps. Jim Barlow took a handoff and simulated a sweep to his left, while quarterback Ray McCarthy ’40—like Barlow, a nonstarter—meandered through the flow of the play almost unnoticed. Barlow suddenly wheeled and threw a diagonal pass over the LSU defenders to McCarthy, who made his way to the 8 before being tackled. One play later, Bruno Pellegrini passed in the flat to Jim Coughlan ’39, who staggered into the end zone after being hit by three defenders. Santa Clara led 6–0.
A 55-yard punt by Barlow on a play that started at the Santa Clara 1 rescued the Broncos from a field-position dilemma. Johnny Schiechl, a sophomore center who in 1939 would become Santa Clara’s third and last consensus All-American (after Nello Falaschi ’37 and Wolff), saved a touchdown with a tackle at the 4, and Santa Clara engineered another goal-line stand. Finally, after a short Santa Clara punt and a failed fourth-down-conversion try by the Broncos, Gunther brought down LSU star Ken Kavanaugh at the SCU 23 on the final play of the game.