Fourth Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1938
#9 Santa Clara 6 (Final: 9-0)
#8 LSU 0 (Final: 9-1-1)
How Santa Clara and LSU Met in the 1938 Sugar Bowl
LSU may never have had a more frustrating game. The Bayou Bengals out-gained (201-101) and out-first downed (10-4) Santa Clara. The Broncos even returned the favor of their last meeting, losing three fumbles to LSU’s none.
With all that, the Tigers spent the day threatening the Bronco goal line – but never getting in the end zone.
“The year before,” said junior tackle Al Wolff of Santa Clara, the first undefeated, untied team to play in the Sugar Bowl, “we knew we’d have to play over our heads to beat LSU. But for the 1938 game, we were the better team. Our feeling was LSU would have to play over their heads to stay close to us.”
That said, LSU was dominate – and still lost.
LSU put pressure on Santa Clara from the outset, getting a fumble recovery and driving to the Bronco 4, where Wolff prevented a touchdown by dropping Pinky Rohm.
“I was able to save that touchdown because I broke one of our fundamental rules,” Wolff said. “Something just told me they were going to try something wide, and instead of penetrating the way we were coached to do, I just ran laterally across the field. As it turned out, I was able to save a touchdown.”
And, really, the game.
On three of the five plays, starting with Rohm’s jaunt to the 4, Wolff was Santa Clara’s sole protector. “I’m convinced,” he said, “that series made me an All-American (as a senior). All those sportswriters remembered it the following year when, in all honesty, I didn’t have as good a season.”
With the Broncos on the Tiger 29, Coach Buck Shaw dug deep into his play-book and came up with a play he had used the year before against LSU.
James Barlow, a substitute halfback, took the ball on what appeared to be a developing sweep to his left. As he reached the end, Barlow wheeled and threw diagonally across the field to quarterback Ray McCarthy. The play covered approximately 50 yards, but the 20 that were officially credited to Santa Clara gave the Broncos a first-and-goal at the LSU 9.
A play later, Pellegrini took the snap and lofted a pass over end Jimmy Coughlan’s shoulder in the flat. Coughlan, in almost one motion, made the reception and bounded into the end zone, despite the jolt of being hit by three Tigers. Pellegrini’s PAT was wide, leaving the door teasingly open for LSU the rest of the afternoon.
Santa Clara narrowly averted a safety in the fourth quarter, just inches from the goal line. Then Barlow got a 55-yard punt.
Ultimately, Rohm also went back in kick formation near the Bronco 25, but as his leg arched he handed the ball to Cotton Milner, who raced 21 yards to the 4. In what must have been one of the most vexing days in LSU annals, the last man, John Schiecht, stopped Milner.
LSU eventually turned the ball over at the Broncos 20.
Still, the Tigers would get one last chance when, from the Bronco 29, Santa Clara got off a terrible 16-yard punt with less than three minutes to play.
The rules at the time prohibited anyone but the signal-caller to speak in the huddle. In a bizarre twist, Shaw sent in sub Charles Pavelko on third down. Center Phil Dougherty, who normally called the plays, thought Shaw was sending in a play through Pavelko. Dougherty whispered, “You call the play.” Pavelko’s eyes got as big as half-dollars. Finally he said, “We’ll punt.” Dougherty said he was shocked. “He could have called anything, but he called for a punt.”
There was more. Santa Clara got the ball back, and on fourth and a long four from midfield, Shaw ordered his team to go for it. The play fell short.
On the game’s final play, Young Bussey connected with Ken Kavanaugh, who briefly looked as if he were getting away. Bill Gunther brought the big end down at the 23. “We just figured they would go to him,” said Wolff. “We were waiting on that play…but he still nearly did it. And that’s the way the game was played all day.”
Indeed it was. Despite its statistical superiority, LSU was held scoreless, its first shutout in 50 games. That little stat allowed LSU to become the first school to lose three bowls in successive seasons.
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.