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How Cal spoiled Ohio State’s 1st Rose Bowl by beating the Buckeyes at their own game

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The Buckeyes took a blowout loss on New Year’s Day 1921, because they game-planned poorly for a Golden Bears squad that was ready to throw all over them.

Rose Bowl Game - Oklahoma v Georgia Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Ohio State has a rich history in the Rose Bowl.

This season marks the Buckeyes’ 15th appearance, more than any Big Ten program except Michigan at 20. If they beat Washington in Urban Meyer’s last game, they will equal the Wolverines’ eight Rose Bowl wins for the most all-time by a Big Ten team (and second-most by anyone behind USC, which has won the Rose 25 times.)

But the story of OSU’s first Rose Bowl is the story of a team that wasn’t ready to play, and an opponent that had skills the Buckeyes didn’t prepare for.

Much like the 1926 Rose Bowl would a few years later, the 1921 Rose Bowl was about an assertion of regional supremacy. But this was about the West Coast’s claim to the upper echelon of college football nationwide.

There was no doubt that both Cal and Ohio State were good programs after the 1920 season. But conventional wisdom at the time said the Buckeyes were better. They entered the game with a blind spot, which Cal comprehensively exploited to win the game.

Ohio State only got in because Princeton couldn’t make it to Pasadena.

The Buckeyes met the Golden Bears at a time when the Rose Bowl was still in its infancy and known as the East-West game. The Buckeyes were the second Midwestern team to represent the Eastern part of the US in the Rose Bowl.

The first Rose Bowl Game was in 1902 between Michigan and Stanford, but the bowl wasn’t an annual thing until 1916. We were still two decades away from the official agreement between the Pac-12’s and Big Ten’s predecessors that still structures the game today in non-Playoff semifinal years. After Ohio State, another Western Conference team wouldn’t play in the Rose until Illinois got there in 1947.

In those days, it was just a good team from the West versus a good team from the East. But it wasn’t even a slam dunk that a good team from the East would go. Nebraska’s 8-0 1915 team didn’t go to the Rose Bowl because it was too expensive. The journey wasn’t easy. It took Ohio State six days to get there by train, with multiple stops to practice along the way. According to a Dayton Daily News story, the Buckeyes left Columbus on December 18, and arrived in the Los Angeles area on Christmas Eve. They practiced in Denver and on Stanford’s campus while en route.

Ohio State’s resume was also not opened and shut. The Tournament of Roses Association originally wanted to bring 6-0-1 Princeton, but “academic permission was refused,” when athletic administrators requested it and Ohio State was the next-best option per the Dayton Daily News.

That doesn’t mean Ohio State was necessarily a bad option. The Buckeyes were undefeated after a last-second win over Illinois on their final regular season game.

“Among football men of the West the selection of Ohio State and the acceptance of that institution marks a new epoch on intersectional football contest,” a December 1920 article in The Dayton Daily News read. “And the fact that the champions of the Big Ten have been able to show a clean pair of heels to all opponents in the championship race marks them as a worthy opponent for the best team the West can produce.”

OSU received a grand welcome in pre-bowl events that included multiple balls, being honored guests at dinner, and a car tour through the Los Angeles area on Christmas. “Theatrical stars” entertained them at their hotel during the run up to the game, per the Dayton Daily News.

USC got consideration as the Western rep, but undefeated Cal got the nod instead. In the end, it was the right choice.

The Buckeyes’ passing game was supposed to lead them to victory.

They drew major hype. A Los Angeles Times story heaped all sorts of praise on OSU:

“Everybody is rushing into print with nice things to say about the Ohio State football eleven. By the time the Buckeyes reach these parts, the arrival being scheduled for December 22 [a date that would change] they will be the best press-agented bunch of moleskinned warriors that ever put a cleat on soft Southern California sod.”

The forward pass was key. The 1920 team’s QB was Harry “Hoge” Workman, who eventually became one of the school’s first All-Americans. The Buckeyes entered thinking that their passing game gave them a clear edge over Cal. A report days before the game in the Dayton Daily News said the Buckeyes were drilling hard on the forward pass because they “conceded to excel the California eleven” in that part of the game.

One of the fathers of the modern game, Walter Camp, wrote during the run-up to the Rose Bowl that old-fashioned football was dying and anyone who said the old way was as good as the new was “foolish.”

It was thought that Cal wouldn’t be ready for Ohio State’s passing attack, because it hadn’t faced any teams that passed during the season, and the the forward pass wasn’t a big cog in the Bears’ own offense. One Ohio State fan who observed Cal in a few games wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

“The team plays eastern football of the smashing, driving type with the free use of punting. I did not see it use the forward pass at all in the games I attended. It was a bucking, end-running game of power. They do little shifting on the offense. I would think from their style of play that a forward passing attack such as Ohio State uses would surprise them and baffle them.”

That sentiment was proven very wrong in Cal’s 28-0 win.

Cal ran all over Ohio State to the tune of 4.9 yards per carry and 229 total on the ground. The Bears’ rushing attack was expected to be good, but their passing game wasn’t.

Ohio State did barely throw for more yards (134-130), but a wholly inefficient aerial attack that featured four interceptions gave them no shot. Workman was hurried on many of his passes, and all around, it seemed like the Buckeyes weren’t ready for the speed Cal brought to the table. i wonder if

OSU game-planned for an exclusively rush-baed attack, and they got torched for their assumption. The 12 yards per attempt and 18 yards per completion Cal managed would make an air raid coach smile.

“I think I was not far out of the way when I insisted that the East could not teach us much about the forward-passing game out here on the Coast,” Joseph Pipal, a West Coast college football coach during that era wrote after the game in the Los Angeles Times.

“California’s open game was so well conceived and so cleverly executed that I doubt if we will ever see a better exhibition of the overhead game. [Pesky] Sprott’s passing was the most consistent work on that end of the passing game I have ever seen.”

Despite Ohio State’s perceived edge, Cal went 7-for-11 through the air, while OSU went 12-for-26 with four interceptions.

What nobody at Ohio State knew was that Cal’s Sprott was a good passer in high school. Brick Muller also excelled in the passing game for Cal, throwing a double-pass touchdown that awed everyone and break the game open:

One of the scores of the second period stood out. Muller, playing end, took a pitchout from Sprott, and launched a majestic 46-yard touchdown pass to Brodie Stephens.

The forward pass was not a major part of the game in those days, and the beauty of Muller’s long toss mesmerized fans and sports writers.

One writer called it the “heave that will be talked about for years to come.”

Another wrote that the pass “will be used as a basis of comparison for all other throws for years to come.”

A third said the pass “stands out like a Campanile.”

Things would’ve been worse if a penalty hadn’t wiped out a 40-yard Cal TD pass.

Ohio State’s coach, John Wilce, wrote in a syndicated postgame story that he thought Cal was good, but not 28 points better. He blamed the Southern California heat but admitted Cal’s offense was a surprise. He finally conceded that “under the circumstances, as they were, California would have defeated any team in the country.”

Ohio State wouldn’t return to the Rose Bowl until 1950, when it avenged this loss by beating Cal 17-14.

The Buckeyes are 7-1 against the Golden Bears, with wins in each meeting since 1921.

This game marked the beginning of a stretch of true dominance by Cal. It was the first in a stretch of four national championships that Cal claims, and it’s arguably the firmest of those claims. It’s the only one in which the Golden Bears finished unbeaten, untied, and Rose Bowl champions. Two of the four Cal title claims approach consensus status.

Ohio State would spend the ‘20s as an average program before ascending to its level as one of the sport’s behemoths in the 1930s. And now here the Buckeyes are for a 15th time.