25th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1959
#1 LSU 7 (Final: 11-0-0)
#12 Clemson 0 (Final: 8-3-0)
Clemson head coach Frank Howard was fully prepared and motivated to knock LSU from its pedestal – as were most of the South Carolina contingent on the chilly, overcast New Year’s Day, 1959.
How LSU and Clemson Met in the 1959 Sugar Bowl
“They (the press) keep telling us we’re not worth a darn,” the tobacco-chewing coach of the 11th-ranked Clemson Tigers drawled. “I don’t know, maybe we’re not. But you keep telling a feller that long enough and it begins to get under his hide.”
It was, however, the quick-silver LSU Tigers that put in the early bid for points, driving to the Clemson 22-yard line late in the first quarter before a fumble thwarted the march. When Clemson couldn’t move the ball, Charlie Horne dropped back to punt. He got a bad snap and under a strong rush by Max Fugler, hooked the ball straight up and out-of-bounds for a minus two-yard punt at the 29-yard line.
LSU inched to the 12, but came up empty again when quarterback Warren Rabb missed on four straight passes, including one on a fourth-down fake field goal.
Later in the second period, Rabb ignited another drive, running for 33 yards but breaking his hand on the tackle. “I didn’t know it was broken until I came out before the half,” he explained. “I think it got hit with a helmet.” Rabb continued to pilot the drive, completing a 24-yard pass to end Mickey Mangham and guiding the Tigers to the 1. J. W. Brodnax crashed into the end zone but fumbled. Doug Cline recovered for the Clemson touchback. “I thought it was over,” Brodnax said with insistence afterward.
LSU had muffed three scoring opportunities in the first half, and lost its quarterback in the process, changing the game plan.
“I was glad, in a way, the first half ended the way it did . . . I felt certain they thought they had us,” Dietzel said.
That’s what it seemed in the third quarter when Clemson, which posed no serious threat in the opening half, pounded its way to the LSU 20 – where George Usry was hit by Red Hendrix and fumbled.
Fighting off every Clemson thrust, George Strange recovered for LSU on the play.
Tommy Davis boomed a 52-yard punt, and when Clemson failed to move again, it appeared the two sets of Tigers were settling down into trench warfare. A reserve center, Paul Snyder, was in during this series. As it happened, when Clemson tried to punt, Synder’s snap went awry and bounced off the leg of kicker Doug Cline. LSU tackle Duane Leopard fell on the loose ball at the Clemson 11.
On third and nine, Billy Cannon took a pitch-out, rolled to his right, and shot a pass to Mangham, who was clear in the end zone. The play was not run as diagrammed. “I didn’t throw it, the Lord did,” Cannon said later. “I looked for (halfback) Johnny Robinson, and they had him covered. . . . then I spied Mickey and let go . . . I wasn’t sure it would get to him until he grabbed it . . . It went off with a prayer.”
With time becoming critical, quarterback Harvey White started a drive from the Clemson 17 and whipped his unit to within sight of the goal line. Dietzel sent in his rested Chinese Bandits, the third-string unit of over-achievers that had sparked the Tigers throughout the season.
At the 25 the Chinese Bandits threw up one of their patented stands. Gaining one yard in three plays, White flipped a screen pass to Usry, who appeared to have running room. The left halfback started to run before he had complete possession and dropped the ball. Howard was certain Usry “would have gone all the way,” had the pass been complete. “It was the perfect play,” he added. “All the downfield blockers were in position to clear the road to the goal.”
Howard admitted his strategy didn’t work out the way he figured and said, in his opinion, Strange, not Cannon, deserved the MVP award, dismissing the Tiger halfback’s touchdown pass, his PAT, his 51 yards rushing out of LSU’s total of 114, and being in on several key tackles. “We figured we could drive Strange back 10 yards a crack – and planned our offense to run right at him,” Howard said. “But, as it turned out, he was the toughest man on the field.”
Because he was, LSU finally won a Sugar Bowl game – and in the process became the first national champion to do so since 1940.
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.