Grantland Rice, the famed sportswriter, covered many of the biggest sports events of the first half of the 20th Century. He said he never saw a game the equal of the 1945 Sugar Bowl, a game of contrasting styles, a game that changed hands four times, and a game that was in doubt until the last second. Literally.
This game came to a stirring climax exactly 60 playing minutes after the kickoff, with 24 open yards to the end zone in front of a ball-carrier straining to get free of a defender hanging on for dear life as the gun sounded.
As the chilly, golden afternoon began to fade, Rice searched for the precise words to describe what he had just witnessed. He settled on a simple and succinct lead: “The Sugar Bowl classic of 1945 must go down in the book as one of the great thrillers of all time.”
At the same time in the Duke locker room, Blue Devil captain Gordon Carver was sighing, “I sure was glad to hear that final whistle.”
The civilian kids from the Capstone of Alabama put on a show against the war veterans of Duke. The power-running of Tom Davis and George Clark prevailed over the arm of the Crimson Tide’s Harry Gilmer. But just barely.
In a game that went off like a Roman candle, Clark broke off a 52-yard run on Duke’s first possession, leading to a touchdown.
Then Gilmer lit up the crowd, rearing up and hitting Hal Self, who was stopped by Davis a foot from the end zone. Norman Hodges took it in from there, but the PAT was missed.
Shortly after, it happened again. On a third-and-27 from the Duke 41, Gilmer was chased back again, almost tripping over a defender and nearly in the grasp of two more Blue Devils. Suddenly he broke loose, leaped high, arched his back, and whipped the ball 40 yards to end Ralph Jones.
“He wasn’t supposed to throw to me . . . just picked me out,” Jones marveled afterward.
Hodges scored on the next play, but Paul Stephanz blocked the PAT.
The first quarter wasn’t over yet and three touchdowns were already on the board. Things were heating up. Gilmer took ’Bama on yet another binge. From the 49, Gilmer, again being rushed by the tormented Blue Devils, leaped on the dead run and duplicated his bulls-eye to Jones, this time to the 10. Gilmer then threw over the middle to Jones who stepped into the end zone from the 2. This time Gilmer kicked the PAT, making the score 19-7 in favor of Alabama, putting the crowd in a frenzy.
Smarting, the Blue Devils struck back, cutting up the Tide defense as it was expected to do before. Cliff Lewis raced 26 yards to the Bama 1, where Davis scored. The half ended with the Crimson Tide ahead 19-13.
The vaunted Duke runners began asserting themselves in the third period with Davis getting 10 straight carries and a one-yard touchdown. The PAT put Duke back in front 20-19. However, the Tide’s Bobby Morrow changed that with a 75-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Duke charged right back, but the gritty Tide stopped the Devils at the 1, then took an intentional safety so Gilmer could kick out from the 20. The strategy backfired when Devils’ halfback Jim LaRue raced around left end on a reverse from the 39, bounced off a pair of Alabamians, and carried two with him until he went down at the Tide 20.
“The play was run precisely as called and diagrammed,’’ LaRue recalled.
Clark, on a spectacular burst, went off tackle and covered the remaining distance to put Duke in front 29-26 with less than a minute remaining.
Gilmer got the Tide to its 43 with time for one play. He heaved a shot to Jones at the Duke 30. Jones pivoted and had a clearing for an instant. He only had to beat Duke safety Carver and ’Bama was home, but Carver managed to grab and hold on to the receiver’s woolen stocking and finally brought him down at the 24 as the gun went off.
“The sad thing is that I had another receiver further downfield, Jack McConville,” Gilmer said. “I got off a weak pass to Jones, but McConville recognized instantly what to do and turned to block the only defensive back that had a chance of getting Ralph. But when he turned, he slipped. On the film you can plainly see him beat the ground.”
Rice could scarcely contain his enthusiasm, saying the 18-year-old Gilmer, who rolled up 142 yards passing – almost a hundred yards fewer than Duke’s 336 yards rushing – was “the greatest college passer I ever saw.”
Gilmer finished the game a perfect 8-of-8 for 145 yards.
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.
Duke 7 6 7 9 – 29
Alabama 12 7 0 7 – 26
SCORING SUMMARY Duke: George Clark 15-yard run (Harold Raether kick)
Ala: Norman Hodges 1-yard run (Kick failed)
Ala: Hodges 2-yard run (Kick failed)
Ala: Ralph Jones 13-yard pass from Harry Gilmer (Morrow kick)
Duke: Tom Davis 1-yard run (Kick failed)
Duke: Davis 1-yard run (Raether, kick)
Ala: Bobby Morrow 80-yard interception return (Morrow kick)
Duke: Clark 20-yard run (Raether kick)
Rushing Duke: George Clark 14-114, 2 TDs; Tom Davis 28-87, 2 TDs; Cliff Lewis 11-53; Gordon Carver 2-30; Jim LaRue 2-36; Lee Spears 4-5; Clarke Jones 1-(-1); Cliff Haggerty 1-(-7); Team 1-(-3)
Ala.: Harry Gilmer 11-36; Norman Hodges 11-30, 2 TDs; Lowell Tew 5-23; Fred Grant 3-12; George Albright 1-0
Passing Duke: Cliff Lewis 3-7-1, 40 yards, 0 TD; Tom Davis 1-1-0, 6 yards, 0 TD
Ala.: Harry Gilmer 8-8-0, 145 yards, 1 TD
Receiving Duke: Gordon Carver 3-33, Harold Raether 1-13
Ala.: Ralph Jones 4-138 TD; Hal Self 2-6; Bobby Morrow 2-1