Recently ESPN gave us the 150 greatest games in college football’s 150 year history. Which is fine, it’s like child’s book report that provides no context, or explanations as to why these games are important. But, hey, Minnesota is on the list! The game featured here is number 129 on ESPN’s list. Since this Saturday has a match up against Penn St. I like that writing about a game against Pitt is some kind of low level historical trolling.
On October 20th, 1934 Minnesota played Pittsburgh.
It was a huge game. The year before, in 1933, Pitt had traveled to Dinkytown to catch an L. But the game in Pennsylvania was a bigger stage. It was the furthest East the Gophers had ever gone. Doing well in front of Easterners mattered in the pre-World War II era when the center of college football was out that way. At least 65,000 were expected at Pitt Stadium, almost three times as many fans as had shown up to Memorial Stadium to see the match up in 1933.
Additionally it was a big game because Pitt was a nationally dominant team at the time. They claimed a national championship in 1931 and despite the loss to Minnesota in 1933 several selectors named them as the best team in the country that year too. Jock Sutherland’s Pitt Panthers had a distinct advantage, they could pay players. In the time before the NCAA, conferences made up school rules. As an independent Pitt did whatever it wanted. Starting in 1924 Coach Jock began paying his student athletes. Average players received $550 per year plus books and tuition, up to $1,000 for star players. Compared to NFL players at the time who were making $150 per game or $1,500 per season.
All of this is to say the game on October 20th, 1934 was a big deal for Minnesota. The Gophers had gone undefeated the year previously and Bernie Bierman in his third year had the team steadily improving. Newspapers were advertising the game as the defacto national championship game. If the players were nervous they didn’t show it. On the train to Pittsburgh All Big Ten tackle Butch Larson ‘goosed’ Bernie Bierman. The coach didn’t find it funny.
The 1934 season had started out well for the Gophers but they had only a couple of soft non conference opponents (North Dakota, and Nebraska). The bye week came before Pitt which gave the coaches and players time to scheme, and everyone in Minnesota ample times to lose their minds awaiting the game.
The Gophers played the first half as conservatively as possible. If the play on first down didn’t net enough yards, Minnesota would punt on second down. Bierman was that confident in its defense, and preferred to play for field position.
Unfortunately Pitt scored first on what sounds like an awesome play that involved a spin move and a lateral for a long TD run. The half ended with Minnesota trailing 7-0, with the Gophers only only recording one first down.
Bernie Bierman was never a rah rah guy and did not say much to his players before or during games. In a later retelling of the Pitt game of 1934 players claimed his halftime speech was only 5 words long saying. “You can win this game.”
To begin the second half the Gophers dispensed with the field position strategy and introduced a ground and pound approach. With a different Gopher rusher running on each play Jules Alfonse finally sprung free for a 23 yard score to put Minnesota on the board. Alfonse who had been severely concussed earlier in the game, has no memory of scoring.
Then came one of the greatest plays in Minnesota football history.
With the score tied, 5 minutes left to play, it was fourth and two from the Pitt 24 yard line. In a play that seems difficult to describe in words, four players touched the ball on a buck lateral. Described here:
Stan Kostka took the snap from center and as he headed into the line he handed off to Glenn Seidel, who lateraled to Halfback Pug Lund. Lund ran wide and then threw a pass to Bob Tenner, who caught the ball at the 7-yard line and went in for a touchdown.
Several things about the play are remarkable, other than it being a dramatic play that won the game. The 1933 game was won on a touchdown from Bob Tenner, same as the 1934 season. In the game the year before, Pug Lund had injured his finger so badly it would later be amputated, making it remarkable to me he was able to throw an accurate pass in 1934. Bierman would later call the play the favorite from his career.
The week after the big win over Pitt, Minnesota turned around and demolished Iowa. The 1934 season would be the first of three back-to-back-to-back national championships.