The date: January 2, 1939
The matchup: No. 2 TCU (10-0) vs. No. 6 Carnegie Mellon (7-1)
The stakes: A TCU win would wrap up an undefeated season and justify the Horned Frogs’ year-end No. 1 ranking.
The back story: TCU wasn’t supposed to be back so soon. Following the loss of Slingin’ Sammy Baugh after the 1936 season, the Horned Frogs slipped to 4-4-2 in 1937 in their first year led by undersized quarterback Davey O’Brien. But Dutch Meyer made some tweaks to his pass-happy offense to cater more to O’Brien’s skill set, and when combined with probably the best line in the country, the effects were devastating.
Ki Aldrich and company opened holes in the run game, and O’Brien slung the ball around perhaps even better than Baugh, and TCU plowed through the regular season unscathed with only one game decided by single digits.
That Meyer offense, by the way? It has all sorts of similarities with today’s spread offense.
Carnegie Mellon, meanwhile, came out of nowhere. The Tartans had gone just 6-16-2 from 1935-37 and hadn't finished more than a game above .500 since going 5-3-1 under Walter Steffen in 1929. But halfback Merl Condit led a surprising charge. Mellon lost only to No. 5 Notre Dame, 7-0, and set the table for TCU's national title run by thumping No. 1 Pitt, 20-10, in early November.
Shutout wins over Duquesne and NC State wrapped up a one-loss season and a No. 6 final ranking.
The game: From 50 Best*:
The final game of O’Brien’s career was the toughest of TCU’s season. A long touchdown pass from Pete Moroz to George Muha gave Tech a 7-6 lead at halftime. It was the first time TCU had trailed all season.
You never know how a dominant team is going to respond to first-time adversity, but TCU did fine. On the first drive of the second half, O’Brien threw a dart to Horner for a 44-yard touchdown and a 12-7 lead. O’Brien strangely missed both extra points, but he made a short field goal to put the Frogs up 15-7 — a two-possession lead — with seven minutes left.
O’Brien finished 17-for-28 for 225 yards, and fittingly enough, he picked off a pass to shut down Tech’s final scoring opportunity. Aldrich, meanwhile, made 19 tackles and picked off a pass of his own. Weeks earlier in the NFL Draft (which was then held in December), Aldrich had gone No. 1 to the Chicago Cardinals, O’Brien had gone No. 4 to the Philadelphia Eagles, and big I.B. Hale had gone eighth to the Washington Redskins.
NEW ORLEANS, La., Jan. 2 -- That little giant of the gridiron, David O'Brien of All-America fame, uncocked his famour right arm today to pass the Horned Frogs of Texas Christian into a 15 to 7 triumph over Carnegie Tech's Tartans in the Sugar Bowl classic.
With the exception of one brief spell in the wildest game of the Sugar Bowl history, the Southwest conference champions monopolized the fifth annual struggle as O'Brien, a 152-pound quarterbacking dynamo, directed the nation's No. 1 eleven to a well-earned victory.
Ably supporting O'Brien's devastating aerial attack was a powerful display of ball carrying by Fullback Connie Sparks and Halfback Johnny Hall behind what was probably the biggest and best line the Southwest had produced.
TCU attempted 28 passes, the equivalent of, I don’t even know, 60 today? But the 367-188 final yardage margin suggests that TCU was really close to winning this by quite a bit more.
After producing two of the best quarterbacks college football has ever seen, Meyer’s recruiting luck ran out. He continued to innovate offensively, but without the same caliber of passer, the results dried up.
After going just 6-14 in 1939-40, TCU did rebound with back-to-back seven-win seasons in 1941-42 and reached the 1942 Orange Bowl. But the Frogs would bowl just three more times and finish ranked just once before Meyer's retirement in 1952.
That was still a hell of a run, though.