November 14, 2011

1965: Cuozzo Throws 5 TD Passes as Colts Bury Vikings

The Baltimore Colts, coached by Don Shula, appeared to be cruising toward a second straight NFL Western Conference title as they took on the Minnesota Vikings on November 14, 1965 at Metropolitan Stadium. However, there was a major concern as it would be the first time in seven years that star QB Johnny Unitas would have to miss an entire game due to injury. The 32-year-old all-time great had suffered a back injury against the Bears the previous week and his backup, Gary Cuozzo (pictured above), had taken over. Baltimore won to advance to 7-1 and stay a game ahead of the Green Bay Packers.

Cuozzo had appeared in 18 games over a three-year span as the backup to Unitas but had never started before. Undrafted out of Virginia in 1963, he signed with the Colts after an impressive performance in the Senior Bowl.

The Vikings, meanwhile, had won their last three games and were 5-3 under Head Coach Norm Van Brocklin. The offense, guided by scrambling QB Fran Tarkenton, could put up points, but the defense was a source of concern.

There were 47,426 fans in attendance, and for one half it appeared that they might witness an upset, although Minnesota wasted several scoring opportunities. The Vikings started off with a 49-yard drive following the opening kickoff, but HB Phil King fumbled the ball away at the Baltimore 31. On their second possession, they went 65 yards to the Colts’ 19 but came up empty.

The third Minnesota drive covered 54 yards and ended with Tarkenton throwing to TE Hal Bedsole in the corner of the end zone for a six-yard touchdown. It was the high point for the Vikings, who by that point had run 30 plays for 145 yards to just six for -4 yards for Baltimore.

Cuozzo and the Colts offense were slow to get going until late in the first half, not getting their initial first down of the game until seven minutes into the second quarter. With the Vikings ahead by 7-3 and 23 seconds remaining in the half (Lou Michaels had kicked a 17-yard field goal), Cuozzo threw to flanker Jimmy Orr for a 43-yard touchdown. Minnesota had dominated the first half, controlling the ball for 41 plays to 16 for the Colts, but Baltimore went into halftime ahead by a score of 10-7.

In the third quarter, the tide turned decisively. Cuozzo got on track and completed eight of nine passes for 101 yards and three more TDs. He started off with a 22-yard scoring pass to Orr that made the score 17-7.

Midway through the period, the Vikings capped a 79-yard drive with a 17-yard scoring pass from Tarkenton to end Paul Flatley that made it 17-14. The game was never again as close. The Colts came right back with a four-play drive that included a 21-yard run by FB Tony Lorick and ended with a scoring pass to HB Lenny Moore that covered 29 yards. Before the period was over, Cuozzo connected with end Raymond Berry for his fourth TD pass, covering six yards, and Baltimore was comfortably ahead by 31-14.

Michaels booted a 38-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to stretch the Colts’ margin to twenty points. On the ensuing kickoff, flanker Lance Rentzel fumbled and Baltimore recovered. It led to Cuozzo firing his then-club-record fifth touchdown pass of the game, covering 14 yards to flanker Willie Richardson.

Rentzel made up for the fumble by returning the ensuing kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown, but it was of no consequence to the outcome. The Colts won by the decisive score of 41-21.

The Colts outgained Minnesota, 393 yards to 249, although both teams had 20 first downs apiece. Baltimore sacked Tarkenton four times, while Cuozzo was dumped once, and the Vikings had just 85 net passing yards. Minnesota also turned the ball over twice, to none by the Colts.

After starting slowly, Gary Cuozzo completed 16 of 26 passes for 208 yards with the five touchdowns and none intercepted. Raymond Berry caught 4 of those throws for 85 yards and a TD. Tony Lorick (pictured at right) led the running game with 84 yards on 7 carries. Lenny Moore also ran the ball 7 times, for 34 yards, and added another 45 yards on his two pass receptions that included a touchdown.

For the Vikings, Fran Tarkenton was successful on 12 of 20 pass attempts for 120 yards and two touchdowns with none picked off; he also ran the ball four times for 52 yards. Phil King was the leading rusher with 75 yards on 15 carries, although he also had the early fumble. FB Bill Brown was the leading receiver with 5 catches for 44 yards – he added another 37 yards on 13 rushing attempts. Paul Flatley contributed 43 yards on three receptions that included a TD.

It was a big day for the kick returners. While Lance Rentzel stole the show with the long kickoff return for a touchdown, DB Alvin Haymond of the Colts gained 68 yards on two kickoff returns and 64 more on a pair of punt returns.

The win kept the Colts a game ahead of the Packers, but while Unitas was back the next week for a win over the Eagles, they had to come from behind in the fourth quarter to salvage a tie against Detroit and then lost Unitas for good the following week with a knee injury in a loss to the Bears. Cuozzo went down with a shoulder injury in the next game as the Colts were defeated by Green Bay. With HB Tom Matte serving as emergency quarterback, and the addition of veteran QB Ed Brown to finish out the regular season, the Colts won the season finale and ended up tied with the Packers at 10-3-1. They lost a dramatic overtime playoff game at Green Bay.

As for the Vikings, the loss to Baltimore was the first of four straight. They won their last two games to end up at 7-7 and fifth in the Western Conference.

Gary Cuozzo completed 54 of 105 passes for 700 yards with 7 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, and the five-TD performance against Minnesota made him a hot property as a backup quarterback with great starting potential. Following another year behind Unitas in 1966, he was traded to the expansion New Orleans Saints for a first-round draft pick plus a player (center Bill Curry) in 1967, but lost the starting job to Bill Kilmer. The Saints dealt him to Minnesota for two first-round choices in ’68, and while he got a chance to start following the departure of Joe Kapp after the 1969 season, he never lived up to expectations and ended his career with the Cardinals in 1972.

As a footnote, the five touchdowns remained the franchise record for the Colts until 2003 (it was tied by Gary Hogeboom in 1987; Unitas never threw more than four in a game, which he did on 13 occasions) when Peyton Manning threw for six in a game for the first time.