The Playoffs for the 1919 Rose Bowl
Among the lesser-known chapters in the history of American football is the round of playoffs that determined the Western representative for the 1919 Rose Bowl. The Great Lakes Naval Training Station was the undefeated, though twice tied, representative of the Eastern side of the country, but the regular season ended with the Rose Bowl committee unsure of which team should represent the West. None of the Western college teams warranted an invitation, so the committee looked to the strong service teams representing the training camps located in the West.
The committee identified five teams as potential candidates for the invitation, but unable to determine which team was best, they arranged a playoff series to determine the invitee. Having five teams in consideration required that the playoff start with a play-in game. That game, played on December 7, saw Rockwell Field of San Diego face the San Pedro Submarine Base from the Los Angeles area. The game was notable for two reasons. First, the San Pedro team traveled to San Diego by submarine and submarine tender, making them the only football team known to have traveled to a game by submarine. Second, the game ended in a 3-3 tie. Nowadays we have overtime procedures to determine the winner of tie games, but those procedures did not exist in 1918 so the committee had to await the outcome of the following week's Rockwell Field-Balboa Park Naval Training Station game to see which team would advance in the playoffs.
The service championship of southern portion of the Pacific Coast was played on December 14 between Balboa Park and Rockwell Field. In a tight game, Balboa Park blocked a third quarter Rockwell Field punt and recovered it in the end zone for the only touchdown of the game. Although the San Pedro Submarine Base argued that is should be considered for the championship game, the committee viewed Balboa Park's victory over Rockwell Field as more impressive than San Pedro's tie with Rockwell Field, so the Balboans were sent to the championship game.
While Balboa Park advanced in the south, the northern championship game was played in the Bay Area. Mather Field, an Army flying school near Sacramento, flew south to meet the Mare Island Marines of Vallejo. Both teams featured a series of college stars, but Mare Island had more and better stars. Dominated by former Washington State players, Mare Island was 8-0, allowing only 14 points all season. Mather Field managed to score 13 points on Mare Island, but two blocked punts recovered in the end zone by Mare Island contributed to its 30-13 victory.
The championship game was originally scheduled to be played on December 21, but Mare Island was nursing injuries and stalled for additional time by refusing to sign the game contract. Once signed, the game moved forward in Vallejo on Christmas Day 1918. Five Mare Island starters missed the game due to injury which, in the days of limited substitutions, was the equivalent of missing ten starters in today's game. Mare Island's missing starters included their primary kicker and punter.
Mare Island was a far better team than Balboa Park when it had its full roster, but it did not, and they found themselves trailing 7-6 with nine minutes left in the game. The Marines were under pressure to score on their next drive, particularly because the game clock moved faster in 1918, most games ended within two hours of the kickoff. (The clock did not stop for first downs, runners going out of bounds, or incomplete passes at that time.)
The Marines received the ball, threw two long passes, and were assisted by a Balboa Park penalty, which left the ball on Balboa Park's ten yard line. Three runs resulted in limited gains, but Mare Island's star running back, Benton Bangs, took it over for the score on fourth down and Mare Island hung on for the win. For the second year in a row, Mare Island was the Pacific Coast champion and was headed to the Rose Bowl, this time to take on Great Lakes, who was well rested and injury free after not playing a game in over one month.
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