NCAA FOOTBALL TOP MOMENTS – #6: Ernie Davis and the 1959 Syracuse Orangemen

Coming up with a list of the top 7 moments to feature this week in college football was brutally difficult. Some of these are a series of games, others a specific national championship, and others are an unlikely or inspirational run to a national title. For the most part, I refined this list to postseason moments, or games that decided a national championship, simply because with such an overwhelming list of possible options to feature, I decided that the ones with the biggest impact would be the ones that had championship implications. 

This selection at #6 may not be the most popular pick, but the 1959 Syracuse Orangemen not only surprised everyone by winning the national championship, they did so with dominance and few classic victories sprinkled in along the way. Shoutouts go to a few of the other stunning champions – the 1981 Clemson Tigers and the 1983 Miami Hurricanes being among the top few – but I picked the Syracuse squad due to their story prior to the season, combined with their utter dominance and Hall of Fame talent on their roster. 

Entering the season, Syracuse was unranked and relatively unheralded. They had averaged 5.5 wins per season under head coach Ben Schwartzwalder in ten years, and had cracked the AP Top 10 just twice and finished the season ranked a total of three times in the 23 years of the AP Poll. the Schwartzwalder era had largely been one of slightly above average play and losses in big games, as shown by Syracuse’s 0-3 Bowl Game record. Their most recent bowl game appearance ended in meek defeat, 21-6 to Oklahoma on January 1st, 1959. Little was expected of the Orangemen in the upcoming season. 

However, Syracuse’s defense was an absolute unit in 1959, dominating virtually every opponent they faced. The most points they gave up was 21, and that came in the opener against Kansas. How the Jayhawks scored 21 points is pretty remarkable, given that Syracuse held them to 67 total yards of offense. Syracuse still won 35-21 without major difficulty, and they then embarked on a wild ride of pure dominance. 

In their next five games, the Orangemen gave up a whopping 12 points in total, posting three shutouts. They started by hosting Maryland and beating them 29-0, holding the Terrapins to 29 yards. They throttled Navy 32-6, Holy Cross 42-6, and then they punctuated their string of crushing victories by visiting #13 Pittsburgh and thumping the Panthers 35-0. Pittsburgh ran for negative six yards in the contest. 

Leading the offensive surge was future Hall-of-Famer and sophomore Ernie Davis, who later won a Heisman in ‘61. Davis notched 11 touchdowns and averaged 7 yards per carry for the Orangemen, playing in his first real college action. All-Americans Roger Davis (guard) and Bob Yates (tackle) along with tackle John Brown, who played ten years in the NFL, provided running lanes for Davis. All-American Fred Mautino was a key cog in the passing game and often sealed off the edge for Davis as well. 

Back to their season, Syracuse’s stunningly dominant 5-0 start to the season had vaulted them from unranked to #4 in the country. Their next game was the best one of the season and an instant classic against #7 Penn State. The Nittany Lions were 7-0 on the year, and they quickly became the first team to take a lead against the Orangemen, leading 6-0. Syracuse scored 20 straight points and led 20-6 into the fourth quarter. Despite being held to two yards of offense in the second half, Penn State manufactured two touchdowns on a kickoff return and a blocked punt that gave them the ball at the Syracuse 1. A Penn State touchdown made it 20-18, but as they did all year, the Orangemen stiffened up and turned back the 2-point conversion attempt to stay in the lead in the final minute, running out the clock from there. 

Combined with a tough week from the top three teams in the country, Syracuse’s victory vaulted them to #1 in the AP Poll for the first time in program history. The Orangemen hammered a pair of cupcake opponents and then punctuated their regular season slate with a dominating 36-8 victory at #17 UCLA. 

Syracuse drew #4 Texas in the Cotton Bowl, and they didn’t let the chance for a bowl victory and undefeated season slide by. The Cotton Bowl was a racially charged game, with Syracuse having three African-American starters in Davis, Brown, and fullback Art Baker. Texas was an All-White team, and the game was hosted in the deep south, in Dallas, Texas. There was a mini-brawl during the game, and Davis, Brown, and Baker had to stay in a separate suite from their teammates. Regardless of the situation, and the pressure to claim the national championship, Syracuse didn’t fold as many experts predicted. On the second play of the game, Davis took a pass and raced 87 yards for a touchdown. Later, he rushed it in from a yard out to put the ribbon on Syracuse’s 80-yard drive, catching a 2-point conversion pass for a 15-0 lead. Later, with the score 15-6, Davis snared an interception and returned it to the Texas 24. He then ran for 21 yards and, on a trick play, threw for the final three yards. He caught another conversion pass for a 23-6 lead that iced the game for the Orangemen. They would win 23-14 to secure the national title and their first major bowl victory. 

The Aftermath

Syracuse began the following year ranked #1, but consecutive losses to Pittsburgh and Army saw them slide to #17. They did finish the year with an Orange Bowl victory, but Syracuse has not been ranked #1 since. They haven’t been in the Top 10 since 1996.

Roger Davis was the seventh overall pick in the 1960 draft, running back Gerhard Schwedes was a fourth round pick, Yates got his name called in the 7th, and, back in the days of the extended draft, end Dave Baker went in the 17th round.

Davis, as mentioned above, won the 1961 Heisman Trophy, the first African American winner. He was selected first overall in the 1962 draft, but he was tragically diagnosed with Leukemia, and he died before ever suiting up for a professional game. He was 23 years old. His three years at Syracuse were nothing short of spectacular, and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1979. Below are his Cotton Bowl highlights from the ’59-60 season.

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