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Back to the Future: The 1959 Syracuse Orange

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There have been brighter days in the Finger Lakes

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NCAA Football: Colgate at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

We continue in our quest to look at some of the greatest offenses in college football history. The goal is to see what we can glean from those grainy films. Next up: the 1959 Syracuse Orange.

It would seem almost inevitable that, when Jim Brown graduated from Syracuse and got drafted by the Browns in 1957, the Orange would take a swift fall from grace. Syracuse is not exactly a college football power, right?

When Ben Schwartzwalder took over the team as head coach in 1949, he proceeded to go 26-20-1 before Brown’s first game. With Brown, there was a slight uptick, as he went 16-9 with the greatest running back of all time. This was a middling program that was sure to fall back into the depths of obscurity without Brown.

Luckily, Brown left a parting gift for the university: He hand-delivered them best running back in America, Ernie Davis.

Brown had invited the then high school running back from Elmira, New York, to come hang with him at the university, and Davis was so charmed that it was inevitable he would go to Syracuse.

All Ernie Davis did at Syracuse was smash all of Jim Brown’s records and win the 1961 Heisman Trophy. With Davis, the Orange would go 26-5 in three seasons, winning a classic 1960 Cotton Bowl at the end of a 1959 national title campaign. Tragically, he would pass away from leukemia in 1963.

That 1959 team also featured one of the 23 most perfect offenses in football history.

Here’s what Bill had to say about that team in The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time:

Ben Schwartzwalder’s Orangemen were in the middle of a nice run -- they finished in the top 10 in both 1956 and 1958 and would go 15-5 in 1960-61 as well -- but 1959 was the pinnacle. Despite a schedule that featured eight of 11 teams finishing .500 or better, Syracuse was steady and phenomenal. The Orange beat Navy, 32-6, then took down Holy Cross and WVU by a combined 86-6. They took on eastern powers Pitt and Penn State back-to-back, both on the road, and scored a combined 55 points in two wins. They emasculated Colgate and Boston University by a combined 117-0. And to finish the regular season, they headed west to UCLA and won, 36-8.

Despite tension and (if you believe the telling in The Express) iffy officiating, The ‘Cuse finished the season by putting 23 points on a Texas defense that had allowed just seven points per game to that point.

As a sophomore in ‘59, Davis would rush for 686 yards on only 98 carries for a whopping seven yards per carry average.

In the Cotton Bowl, against the mighty Longhorns, many of the Syracuse players endured racial discrimination at the hands of the white Texas players. Here’s an excerpt from Time magazine in 1960:

At first in the game, the Syracuse players outdid themselves in showing what good sports they were, helping blocked Texans off the ground and slapping their rumps for friendly good measure. But this was short-lived. “Texas was really dirty,” said one Syracuse player afterward. “We’ve never met a bunch like that before.”

What enraged them most was that much of Texas’ dirty play seemed to be directed toward Syracuse’s Negro players. Once when he was plowing through the line, said Negro fullback Art Baker, “one of them spit right in my face.”

John Brown, a Negro lineman, played nose to nose against 235-pound Texas tackle Larry Stephens. To goad him off balance, Brown claimed, Stephens kept calling him “a big black dirty nigger.” Finally, Brown warned him not to call him that again. When Stephens did, Brown swung.

Afterward Stephens apologized to Brown. But Brown had already forgiven him. “That Texas boy was just excited,” he said. “Let’s forget it.”

The first thing we see on the film is Ernie Davis catching a little “extra” from a Texas player:

Like most other offenses of this era, Syracuse was based out of a T-formation — like ‘45 Army and ‘56 Oklahoma before them — but ‘Cuse’s spin on it was to go unbalanced and then sometimes split a back out as a wing player. The formation was what we’d call more of a “tackle over,” and they often threw to the backside tight end.

Tackle over to the left, which gives a ton of room to run the option to the unbalanced side. I love this. So much room to work to the field, plus there are fewer defenders there.

At some point “modern” coaches decided it was too risky for your backs to throw passes. Would be nice to see this stuff come back. Every team in this era was running these types of passes consistently throughout the game. It’s not a trick play, it’s just a constraint play. This was a touchdown catch for Davis.

Cuse ran a lot of “flexbone” motion with their backs. That orbit motion from the “b” backs. Here’s another constraint off the option look: pop pass to the tight end. Not sure modern coaches would want their QB throwing so close to the LOS, but I like it.

Cuse rippin’ a nice sail concept. The flat defender does a nice job not biting on the backfield action, but then Davis goes to work. I like the idea that the the backfield action could get the flat guy to bite up rather than just running a flood concept with third route.

To me this is not that different than Gun Speed Option reverse. Feels like 2002 Utah with Alex Smith/Urban Meyer killed people with that concept. Little different here because you get the inside trap action, too, but it’s similar.

Get all the action to go to the strong side, then throw the post to unbalanced side.

Texas scored an interesting touchdown, a fake dive, fake pop pass, rollback into a pocket and deep touchdown pass. You can see the defense scrambling around. I’ve noticed coaches of the era were very cool with their passers not getting any pass pro.

Finally, I just like that the announcer called the kickers leg “educated”.

I actually think the unbalanced stuff is becoming trendy again. You see Matt Canada run a lot of it. Often, you see a jet sweep from the unbalanced side to the strong side.