October 31, 2013

1954: Harlon Hill Stars as Bears Topple 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers were 4-0-1 and leading the Western Conference as they hosted the Chicago Bears on October 31, 1954. Coached by Buck Shaw, the 49ers had a potent offense directed by QB Y.A. Tittle throwing to end Billy Wilson or handing off to an outstanding group of running backs that included halfbacks Hugh McElhenny, who came into the game as the NFL’s rushing leader, and John Henry Johnson plus FB Joe Perry.

The Bears, coached by “The Papa Bear”, George Halas, were struggling at 2-3, having dropped their last two games. Rookie end Harlon Hill (pictured above), out of little Florence State College in Alabama, was proving to be a potent deep threat and there were promising rookies on the line in OT Stan Jones and C Larry Strickland. San Francisco had beaten the Bears two weeks earlier in Chicago by a 31-24 score.

There were 49,833 fans on hand at Kezar Stadium. The teams traded punts to start off the game. On Chicago’s second series, HB Billy Stone fumbled and DE Marion Campbell recovered for the 49ers. San Francisco wasted no time in cashing in on the break as Y.A. Tittle threw to Billy Wilson for a 32-yard touchdown on the next play. Gordie Soltau added the extra point.

The Bears came right back with a seven-play drive that covered 80 yards. Stone and FB Chick Jagade ran effectively and Blanda threw to Stone for a 14-yard gain. Finally, a Blanda throw to Harlon Hill went 47 yards for a TD and, following Blanda’s successful conversion, the score was tied at 7-7.

In the closing minutes of the opening period, the 49ers drove into Chicago territory. On the first play of the second quarter, John Henry Johnson sliced through the line and then cut to his left on the way to a 38-yard touchdown. Soltau was again successful on the PAT to put the Niners back in front by seven points.

On Chicago’s next play from scrimmage, Blanda again threw to Hill, this time picking up 39 yards to the San Francisco 41. Runs by Stone and Jagade picked up nine yards and, going for it on fourth down, the 49ers were penalized for defensive holding. Moved back by a penalty themselves, the Bears reached the 35 before Blanda misfired on two passes and then was short on a 42-yard field goal attempt.

Both teams were stymied on offense and traded punts until a Blanda pass was intercepted by DT Al Carapella, who returned it 27 yards to the Chicago 40. Joe Perry ran for nine yards, another 15 yards were tacked on due to a personal foul penalty on the Bears, and then Hugh McElhenny broke away for a 16-yard touchdown run. Soltau’s kick put San Francisco ahead by 21-7. The Bears were forced to punt from near midfield on their next series and Tittle passed the Niners into Chicago territory before time ran out in the first half.

The Bears punted following a short series to start the third quarter but got the ball back three plays later when safety Stan Wallace intercepted a Tittle pass. However, after Jagade ran for nine yards, Blanda was sacked for a loss of 13 and his long pass intended for end Jim Dooley fell incomplete, forcing Chicago to punt.

The 49ers had good starting field position at the Chicago 47. McElhenny immediately took off for a 20-yard gain, but facing a third-and-five situation, Tittle’s pass bounced off Wilson’s hands and was intercepted by DHB S.J. Whitman, who returned it 27 yards with another 15 added on for a personal foul. Now with the Bears having the good starting field position at the San Francisco 48, they took advantage by scoring in seven plays. Jagade and HB John Hoffman had good runs that set up Blanda’s 20-yard touchdown pass to Hill. Blanda’s extra point narrowed the margin to 21-14.

The 49ers reached midfield on their next series, but when Perry was a yard short on a third-and-three running play, they had to punt. The third quarter ended with the Bears methodically moving the ball and Blanda passed them into San Francisco territory in the early stages of the final period. He completed passes to Dooley for 15 yards, to end Bill McColl for 11 in a second-and-ten situation, and to Jagade for 15 yards to the eight yard line on a third-and-eight play. However, three passes from there were incomplete and the Bears had to settle for a Blanda field goal from 15 yards.

In response, San Francisco put together a long drive. It stalled early, but a punt was nullified when the Bears were penalized for having 12 men on the field, and Tittle (pictured above) took advantage of the break to throw long to McElhenny for 36 yards to the Chicago 24. Two plays later, and facing third-and-11, Tittle connected with Wilson for 17 yards. The Bears stiffened on defense and the 49ers also had to settle for a field goal by Soltau from 16 yards, but the home team’s lead was now 24-17.

Blanda filled the air with passes on the next series, hitting McColl for 17 yards and converting a third-and-12 play with a 22-yard completion to Hill. Dooley made an outstanding catch of a Blanda pass on the next play to pick up 30 yards to the San Francisco 15 and, after a short throw to Hoffman picked up four, Blanda threw to Hill, who grabbed the ball away from DB Bill Jessup at the goal line for an 11-yard touchdown. The 82-yard drive was capped by Blanda’s all-important extra point that tied the score at 24-24.

There were less than four minutes to play as the 49ers started the next series at their 20. Keeping the ball on the ground, they faced a fourth-and-one situation that Perry successfully converted with a two-yard gain. Tittle was sacked and then threw an incomplete pass, but on third-and-14, he connected with HB Pete Schabarum for a 42-yard gain to the Chicago 31. Two plays later, and in the face of a heavy rush, Tittle completed a pass to Johnson for 14 yards and, two plays after that, Soltau kicked a 17-yard field goal. It looked good for the 49ers, who were ahead by 27-24 with 36 seconds remaining on the clock.

DE Ed Sprinkle covered the short kickoff at the Chicago 34. Strong-armed backup QB Ed Brown, setting up wide and taking a lateral from Blanda, fired long for Hill, who gathered in the pass without breaking stride at the San Francisco 25 and raced to the end zone for an electrifying 66-yard touchdown – his fourth of the game. Blanda added the extra point, and the game ended with the 49ers at their own 36. The Bears came away with a stunning 31-27 win.

Chicago led in total yards (469 to 388) while both teams generated 21 first downs. They also each turned the ball over twice and were penalized four times. Harlon Hill was the star of the game with his 7 catches for 214 yards and the four touchdowns.

Hugh McElhenny suffered a shoulder separation in the fourth quarter and was lost for the season, which would prove to be a big blow for the 49ers. They lost three of their next four contests and ended up at 7-4-1 and third in the Western Conference. The Bears, meanwhile, found their stride and lost only once more to finish in second place at 8-4.

Harlon Hill continued to excel in his first year, ranking second in the league with 1124 yards on his 45 catches for a NFL-high 12 touchdowns and 25.0 yards per catch. He was selected to the Pro Bowl. George Blanda, in his sixth of an eventual 26 pro seasons, was limited to eight games due to injury and threw for 1929 yards and 15 TDs with 17 interceptions while connecting on 8 of 16 field goal attempts and all 23 of his extra point tries.