Duke football in 1942: The Rose Bowl comes to Durham

Duke football (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Duke football (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images) /

Duke football is the answer to one of the sport’s notable trivia questions.

It’s no secret, the Rose Bowl Game is one of college football’s brightest spectacles. After all, it is labeled the “Granddaddy of Them All.” This bowl game is synonymous with the sunny, warm-weather setting of Pasadena, Calif. However, it hasn’t always been this way.

The early 1940s were a very tense time in the United States of America. War had broken out in both Europe and Asia. To add to this, it was slowly creeping closer and closer to the U.S. While America was not directly involved in the war, the Americans were supplying allied powers with weapons and other forms of assistance.

Tensions exploded when Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on a U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. Shortly after, the United States formally joined the war. This one event would completely change the social landscape of the country for the next three years. Not only was the economy and daily life affected, but even the sports world felt the impact of this conflict.

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Due to the fear of another attack, the U.S. government banned large West Coast gatherings. The first major event to be affected by this ruling was the 1942 Rose Bowl, scheduled to take place less than a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Duke Blue Devils were slated to face the Oregon State Beavers in the Rose Bowl Game that year. Due to the newly placed restrictions, the game needed a venue. Oregon State was not an option to host the game due to the location of Corvallis on the West Coast. This led to Duke University offering to host the game at its Duke Stadium. Despite its century-long history, the 1942 contest is still to this day the only time the game has been played outside of Pasadena.

Duke Stadium had the capacity to seat 35,000 fans, but such a grand occasion called for more seating. Additional grandstands were hauled in from nearby schools to increase the stadium’s capacity to 56,000 for the game. To add to the lore, American entertainment icon Bing Crosby supposedly purchased upwards of 200 tickets to the event. This truly puts into perspective how big of a deal the game was on a national scale.

On Jan. 1, 1942, Durham became the center of the college football world. The No. 2 undefeated Duke Blue Devils entered the game as a 14-point favorite against the No. 12 Oregon State Beavers, who had posted a record of 7-2. Duke legend Wallace Wade was at the helm for the Blue Devils as head coach, while Lon Stiner led the Beavers into battle.

Not many people were giving the Beavers much of a chance to even be competitive. Not only did the Blue Devils have a stronger record, but adding to this was a literal home-field advantage. The weather conditions that day were not ideal, as temperatures neared freezing with cloudy skies. Weather like this was something that the Oregon State players were used to and has been pointed to as a potential advantage for the squad from Corvallis.

Things got off to a rough start for the Blue Devils, as Tommy Davis gave up a fumble on the opening kickoff. This would give the Beavers the ball inside of Duke’s own 30-yard line. Despite this tumultuous opening, the Duke defense held the line and would prevent any further bleeding.

Eventually, the Beavers would strike first as quarterback Donald Durdan rushed into the endzone to capture a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter. However, the Blue Devils would strike back in the second quarter with a touchdown rush by Steve Lach to tie the game. This would be the end of scoring for the first half, as the game entered halftime with a score of 7-7.

The Duke football team’s momentum swing wouldn’t last long

This intermission would be the turning point of the game, as Beavers head coach Lon Stiner would give a legendary speech that would only further inspire his team going into the second half. Despite receiving the second-half kickoff, the Beavers would quickly punt. After a successful series, Duke would be knocked out of scoring range and would have to punt.

Following some punting, the Beavers would put together a solid drive. However, this would end in an unsuccessful field goal attempt from 33 yards out. Oregon State would shut down the Duke offense quickly, regaining possession of the ball. Shortly after, the Beavers would strike through the air on a 31-yard touchdown pass, taking back the lead.

The Blue Devils marched right back down the field, scoring a touchdown to even things back up. The Beavers would once again break through with a 68-yard pass play to take back the lead. This marked Durdan’s third touchdown of the day. The extra point attempt was blocked, allowing an opportunity for Duke to pull off a comeback win.

Despite three trips past midfield during the fourth quarter, the Blue Devils offense just could not break through. These unsuccessful journeys would include two interceptions by the stout Beavers defense. During a botched punt attempt, Oregon State would give up a touchback. This brought Duke within only four points.

In a last-ditch attempt, the Blue Devils would resort to hurling long passes towards the endzone. This would end with the Beavers capturing their third interception of the game. This turnover ended any hopes of a Duke victory, giving the Beavers the win by a score of 20-16.

20. 832. 16. 825. Final

While the game did not end how Duke football fans would have liked, it would go down as a momentous occasion nonetheless. Credit must be given where credit is due, however. The Oregon State Beavers entered a sold-out Duke Stadium as double-digit underdogs and did the unthinkable. One thing is certain, the 1942 Rose Bowl Game will go down as a classic.

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