August 15, 2011

1958: Second Quarter Surge Propels College All-Stars to Defeat of Lions

The 25th College All-Star Game on August 15, 1958 featured the Detroit Lions, defending NFL champions, against an All-Star team coached for the first time by former all-time great quarterback Otto Graham, who would direct the collegians from the sideline for eight straight years and ten times overall.

The Lions, coached by George Wilson, were a tough defensive club with two star quarterbacks to choose from in Bobby Layne and Tobin Rote, plus FB John Henry Johnson, ends Jim Doran and Steve Junker, and a line anchored by OT Lou Creekmur.

The All-Stars had the usual array of future pro stars that included ends Charlie Krueger of Texas A&M and Jim Gibbons of Iowa, tackles Lou Michaels of Kentucky and Mississippi’s Gene Hickerson, and Idaho guard Jerry Kramer. The players who would have the most impact on the outcome were Illinois HB Bobby Mitchell (pictured above), DB Bobby Joe Conrad from Texas A&M, and Michigan State QB Jim Ninowski.

There were 70,000 fans at Chicago’s Soldier Field for the Friday night game. The Lions were 14-point favorites, but the crowd cheered loudly for the All-Stars. It looked like another night of domination by the pro champions, however, when Detroit took the opening kickoff and went 80 yards in 10 plays, capped by Rote throwing a 24-yard scoring pass to Doran.

On the last play of the first quarter, HB Jim Pace of Michigan caught a pass from Rice QB King Hill and took off for a 57-yard gain to the Detroit three yard line. The Lions defense pushed the All-Stars back to the 11 and Conrad was successful on a 19-yard field goal attempt.

On the next All-Star possession in the second quarter, Mitchell put them ahead in stunning fashion as he gathered in a pass from Ninowski and took off down the sideline on an 84-yard touchdown run. Later in the period Ninowski again tossed a short pass to Mitchell that was turned into yet another exciting TD, this time covering 18 yards.

With two seconds remaining in the half, Conrad kicked his second field goal, of 44 yards, capping the 20-point second quarter explosion by the All-Stars. Not only did the Lions take a beating during the period, falling behind by 20-7, but to add insult to injury, when they went into their locker room at halftime, they found that the power was out and were forced to stay outside.

Things didn’t get any better in the second half for Detroit as Rote, swarmed by a group of All-Star defenders led by Michaels and Iowa DT Alex Karras (a future star for the Lions), was tossed for a safety that made the score 22-7. The safety seemed to reignite the Lions, however, and they drove to a nine-yard touchdown by HB Gene Gedman. The All-Stars responded with a scoring possession of their own, as Conrad kicked his third field goal to start the fourth quarter, from 24 yards.

With the Lions playing catchup, Bobby Layne went to the air and was intercepted by G Chuck Howley from West Virginia, who returned it 39 yards for a touchdown. Conrad kicked a fourth field goal and Detroit scored a late, meaningless touchdown when HB Ralph Pfeifer plunged into the end zone with 30 seconds to play. The final score was a convincing 35-19 win for the All-Stars.

The 35 points scored were a record for the All-Stars, one of 11 records they set during the course of the game, including 16 pass completions, 293 yards through the air, 10 first downs by passing, and Conrad’s 44-yard field goal as he tied a record for most in a game.

Conrad (pictured below) ended up with 15 points between the field goals and three PATs, and also played well on defense. His kicking performance was especially remarkable because he had never attempted a field goal during his college career.

The Lions were held to a humiliating three rushing yards, to 179 by the All-Stars, and they also had fewer passing yards (193). Still, Detroit accumulated 22 first downs, to 11 for the collegians.

Jim Ninowski completed 14 of 20 passes for 243 yards. Bobby Mitchell caught 5 passes for 145 yards and the two TDs. Defensive halfback Jim Jones of Washington intercepted three of Bobby Layne’s passes.

“We got the breaks and I’ve said all along that’s what you need for a chance against a pro team,” said a jubilant Otto Graham afterward. “I still say a pro team should win this game. But those runs by Jim Pace and Mitchell gave us the momentum we needed.”

“Mitchell drove the Lions’ defense nuts,” said Northwestern’s Ara Parseghian, an assistant coach for the All-Stars. “They had to change defenses five different times to try to cover him.”

Summing up for the Lions, Coach Wilson said, “It comes down to the same old story. We didn’t block, we didn’t tackle. They were keyed up, found out that they could score on us, and then there was no stopping them.”

The Lions, who traded Bobby Layne to Pittsburgh after the second game, suffered through a dismal 1958 season in defense of their title. They dropped off to a 4-7-1 record and a fifth-place finish in the Western Conference.

Bobby Mitchell continued to dazzle against NFL defenses as he rushed for 500 yards on just 80 carries for the Cleveland Browns in ’58, teamed in the same backfield with star FB Jim Brown. He would go on to put together a Hall of Fame career as a halfback with the Browns and flanker for the Redskins.

Jim Ninowski was also a rookie with the Browns, but saw little action behind QB Milt Plum and ultimately had a less impressive career, playing with the Lions, Redskins, and Saints, as well as two stints in Cleveland, between 1958 and ’69.

Bobby Joe Conrad intercepted four passes for the Chicago Cardinals as a rookie, but was less successful as a placekicker than he had been in the All-Star Game, succeeding on just 6 of 17 field goal attempts in ’58. He shifted to offensive halfback in 1959 and later starred at flanker, leading the NFL with 73 catches in 1963 and grabbing a total of 422 passes for 5902 yards and 38 touchdowns over 12 years (all with the Cardinals except the last, in 1969, with Dallas).