Sugar Bowl Champions 1957 | From The Archives

by Baylor Line Foundation | December 31, 2019

They were calling it “Baylor’s greatest victory of all time” as most of the record 81,000 watchers in the fabulous Sugar Bowl still stared in shocked disbelief at the stadium scoreboard which read: “Baylor 13, Tennessee 7.”

“I’ll buy that,” said exultant Baylor Coach Sam Boyd. To see Baylor win the Southwest Conference title and gain the Cotton Bowl has become an obsession with me . . . but until we do that . . . THIS is the one . . .”

It was a great Baylor triumph . . . one that nobody in New Orleans expect the 10,000 Texans who accompanied the Bear squad to the Sugar Bowl classic, had believed possible.

There were many explanations afterward of how an underrated Baylor team, ranked No. 11 in the nation in the final 1956 national grid polls, had downed Tennessee, the No. 2 team, by a far more decisive margin than that final 13-7 score would indicate.

Some pointed to Vol overconfidence, the Tennessee tendency to do its celebrating before the game in contract to the quiet Baylor approach to the game. In most minds in New Orleans it had not been a question of whether Tennessee would win . . . just a question of how large the margin would be.

Beat’em at Own Game

Others were quick to note that “Baylor beat Tennessee at its own game . . . the strategy of beating the other fellow with his own mistakes . . . that fumbled punt by Tennessee set up the winning Baylor touchdown . . . while Baylor didn’t make any fatal mistakes that would give Tennessee an opening . . .”

Still others pointed to the great Bear defense: “That big Baylor line would let Tennessee gain on its favorite plays . . . forced the Vols to use plays they didn’t want to use . . . and the Baylor pass defense made the Vol passing game useless . . . forced them to try to run against the big tough line.”

But most of the expert observers who watched . . . observers from the national ceneres and observers from Tennessee’s home Southeast territory . . . charged off the Baylor triumph to several factors . . . “The Bears were a lot better team than most of us suspected . . they were ‘hungrier’ than the Vols . . . they were superbly coached, prepared, and conditioned . . . they were too big, too deep, too aggressive for Tennessee . . . they were simply the better team and they proved it beyond anyone’s doubt . . .”

And none ever could completely answer the question one exultant Baylor adherent was asking everyone in earshot in the post-game pressbox:

“Say,” he would ask, “If Tennessee is No. 2 in the country . . . what does that make Baylor???”

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Single-Wing Attack

One of the big factors in Tennessee’s pre-game position as topheavy favorite . . . other than their undefeated season and high ranking . . . was the often pointed out fact that the Tennessee sing-wing attack left the Bear defense at a disadvantage.

It was recalled often that Baylor had not seen nor played against the single-wing for most of three seasons, had last played a single-wing team in early 1954 when the Bears were edged 21-20 by the Bowden Wyatt-coached Arkansas Razorbacks . . . a game that was 27 games ago.

All the determined Tennessee “army ahead of the ball” and two-on-one blocking was expected to run over a Baylor defense accustomed to waiting for the trickery, the trapping, the customary one-on-one blocking of the familiar T attack to develop.

What the Vols and most observers didn’t realize was that the Baylor coaches had all played against the single-wing in their playing days or had coached against it.

Superb Scouting

What they also didn’t realize was that “Uncle Jim” knows the knows the single-wing about as well as any living man and “Uncle Jim” scouted the Vols in their final 1956 game against Vanderbilt. The Vols didn’t do anything that day that “Uncle Jim” didn’t already know about and hadn’t seen Bowden Wyatt teams do many times before.

The Sugar Bowl victory gave “Uncle Jim” a record of having scouted Wyatt teams for a total of four games, with Baylor winning three of the four and losing only the one . . . that 21-20 heartbreaker decided by a last-minute field goal in 1954, a field goal that edged Baylor out of the at least a tie for the conference title which Arkansas won that season.

What pre-game observers at the Sugar Bowl also didn’t realize . . . (All, that is, except the handful of Texas writers, on hand and certain that Baylor would win) . . . was that many of the Bear starters and other top hands due to play against Tennessee also were not wholly unfamiliar with the Wyatt single-wing.

Co-Capt. Tony DeGrazier at left end, Bill Glass and Dugan Pearce at left guard, Bill Glass and Dave Lunceford at right tackle, Co-Capt. Bobby Jones at quarterback, Del Shofner at left halfback and Reuben Saage at fullback, had all played big roles for Baylor as sophomore stars in the 21-20 game. And right guard Clyde Ledbetter had played as a star sophomore tackle in Baylor’s 14-7 triumph over Arkansas in 1953. So these were no green hands at defending against the Wyatt system in mounting an offense against the customary Wyatt 6-2-2-1 defense.

Films Exchanged

At Tennessee’s suggestion, Baylor and the Vols had exchanged 1956 game films, too, each getting four . . . and the Baylor players who were unfamiliar with the single-wing had several weeks to study those differences between the single and the T, and to learn how the “key” against certain actions by the Vol offense.

Letbetter had proven particularly adept in graphing these “keys” during the final 10 days of Baylor’s preparation for the Bowl game, so it was no big surprise to Baylor folks when he, Bobby Jack Oliver, Dave Lunceford, Paul Dickison and the like had a last-quarter field day hounding the Tennessee backs on defense when the Bears were getting and holding their victory margin.

Baylor set up to discourage the Tennessee wide stuff and passes, encouraging them to try the Bear middle, and this over-all plan worked well, as was attested by Tennessee’s scant game one out of 10 passes completed for just 16 yards and completed 3 of 11 passes for 24 yards and one touchdown.

The one most dangerous and most feared Tennessee weapon was the tailback run-pass option, as Coach Boyd pointed out after the Bear victory.

“We decided we had to be always in position to cover the deep pass,” Coach Sam said, “and that left us in the position of having to cover EITHER the run or the short pass from the run-pass option . . . we had to guess on each play which of these two we should cover closely . . . in ADDITION to the deep pass . . . it’s just an impossible thing to cover ALL THREE.”

Guessed Right

“Fortunately for us . . . we guessed right most of the time . . . and we’re still very thankful Tennessee didn’t try the short pass more often . . . we guessed the short pass would come on three or four occasions when we guessed wrong and the run gained some good yardage around our end on those occasions . . . and one time we guessed wrong on the hit and they hit that lone pass . . . but other than those we guessed right most of the time . . . and it kept them from sustaining a big drive . . . enabled us to stop them for no gain or big loss on many an occasion when it sure helped.”

Always covering the deep pass paid off big, too, as Baylor’s four killing interceptions of Tennessee passes revealed. Coach Boyd always revealed one important defensive “key.”

“We noted in our scouting of Vanderbilt and in the films of other Tennessee games . . . that End Buddy Cruze, their best receiver always played ‘weak’ side end . . . so we always played our right halfback opposite Cruze . . . Our fullbacks are a little tougher against running, our halfbacks a little faster against passing, so we had our fullbacks always playing against their ‘strong’ side at outside linebacker, and our right halfbacks playing the outside linebacker post against the weak side.”

“That way we always had our best outside defender against running matched against their strongest running and our fastest pass defenders matched against their best pass receiving threat. It was the one really big change we made in our normal defensive set-up that we had used against everybody . . . actually not a change, just a switch in personnel to meet personnel, something that all teams do in similar situations.”

Surprised Experts

It was a game that surprised the experts not only in the way Baylor stymied the single-wing attack that was supposed run over them . . . but also in the way the hard slugging Baylor offense rammed the power down the throat of what was supposed to be one of the nation’s great defensive outfits.

“Let ‘em run,” Vol adherents were audibly chuckling to themselves in the stands, on the bench, in the press-box “they’ll never score.” But the Bears did score and they didn’t fumble or otherwise set up a score for the Vols.

Four or five Baylor passes, dropped by over-anxious Bear receivers, kept the Baylor margin from being larger. When Baylor stopped it usually was a case of the Bears stopping themselves.

Baylor dared the Vol middle, preferring the straight ahead power of the dive play to the delayed handoff and making the dive work for big yardage all afternoon.

“We knew that the 6-2-2-1 Tennessee had some fine hand-fighters,” Coach Boyd said, “and we figured the direct power . . . running straight at ‘em . . . was our best bet . . . we put aside our delayed handoffs, fired right at ‘em . . and it turned out to be the best policy.”

Elbow Tipped

“We kept pounding between the tackles, got them conscious of it, went around or over them when they adjusted to the power game . . . And I can still see Shofner on that one play . . . 5 full yards behind their safety man when Traylor’s elbow was tipped just as he fired and the ball fell far short with Marcontell having to dive to get it for just an 8-yard gain . . . that was a 6-point play.”

Bobby Peters, Saage, Charley Dupre, Shofner, et al tore off many good gains between the tackles in one of the finest days of running any Baylor backfield ever enjoyed. And most of it was up the middle.

Except for the Nebraska game (286 net rushing) the Bears gained more on the ground against Tennessee than they did against any 1956 regular season foe.

The Bear passing hewed close to the 1956 regular season average . . . 11 tries per game with 5 complete . . . being two completions short and that’s not Tennessee’s fault.

The Baylor defense was the usual . . . permitting just one touchdown enemy aerials just as they had grabbed 4 against each of the other more dangerous aerial teams they had faced . . . Texas, SMU, and Rice.

Baylor was able to keep the pressure on a team that was used to winning by keeping the pressure on the other club. They started with Bobby Peters’ brilliant kickoff return to the Vol 44, where the safety man had to make the stop or else as was so often the case that day. They poured on down to the Vol 4 where a delay penalty forced a field goal try that was wide.

They rolled up one more drive of 40 yards, ran a third march down inside the Vol 35 during the first half, never let the Vols get anything going, finally moved 80 yardsto the score that made it 6-0 Baylor at the half. Shofner’s 54-yarder to the Tennessee 26 was the big gainer of the scoring drive, which needed only 8 plays. Bobby Jones’ 12-yard forth down clutch pass to Jerry Marcontell got the score.

They Cashed In

Tennessee got as far as the Bear 30 after the Baylor score, but here Shofner reached up to grab a Tennessee pass in the Baylor end zone to end the one big Vol threat of the first half. Arthur Beall’s interception in the first quarter had ended the only other Tennessee move.

Baylor fumbled the second half kick-off to start off in the hole and covered on the Bear 13. Another Baylor fumble, also recovered by the Bears, then stymied the move to get out of the hole and Baylor kicked out. A 15-yard penalty against Baylor on the tackle made on the Tennessee return, a call Bear partisans still couldn’t agree with after seeing the game films, set Tennessee up in business inside the Baylor 40 and led to the Vol score and their 7-6 lead. It was their one time all day to have a situation set up for them, and they cashed in.

Soon after the next kickoff, another 15-yard penalty set Baylor back to its 9 leaving them in dangerous position, but Hickman punted out for no return, the Bears assessed the Vols 6 yards in losses in three plays and forced a punt. The Bears then drove inside the Tennessee 31 before another penalty of 15 forced them to punt.

On that punt, fielded by the Vols’ All-America back, Johnny Majors, Baylor made the defensive play that won the game. Lunceford, Letbetter, Oilver, et al swarmed Majors on the return at the Vol 15, the ball squirted up and Saage almost fielded it with a clear field ahead. Instead it dropped to the ground and Saage covered. Saage hit the middle once and Shofner twice to get a first down on the 5 and three plays later Buddy Humphrey scored from the one. Don Berry kicked point to the end scoring, but not the fun.

For, during the 9 minutes of play remaining, Tennessee had the ball for 14 plays, gained only 16 yards rushing, tried five passes, completed not any, and had two intercepted as the Baylor defense tightened the clamps.

The Bears found the Vols a poised, hard-hitting team, one whose downfield blocking drew Baylor’s highest praise. The Bears still labelled the bigger Texas Aggies the best and hardest-hitting team they had met.

Most Valuable Player

Shofner, having another of this great all-purpose days, easily won the “Most Valuable Player” trophy, a handsome, well-deserved reward for a big day.

Four days later the two big Bears of 1956, Shofner and All-America Bill Glass, both starred once again, in the annual Senior Bowl at Mobile, Ala., thus turning professional. Both players, No. 1 pro draft choices to give Baylor the distinction of being the only college in American to furnish two No. 1 choices, signed for sizeable contracts and bonuses soon afterward to play 1957 pro football. The pro also were offering extremely good contracts to Charley Dupre and Dave Lunceford as the Baylor Line’s mid-January deadline arrived.

A version of this story, originally written by George Wright, was published in the January-February 1957 Baylor Line issue. Frances Province served as managing editor.

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2 thoughts on “Sugar Bowl Champions 1957 | From The Archives

  1. Loved reading about my husband Dave Lunceford. I was at that game and have some old 8 mm movies of it. What a wonderful time. Precious memories.

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