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Daniel Wilco | | October 18, 2019

How Dartmouth won a 1940 football game via a Cornell telegram

The 1940 Fifth-Down Game: Dartmouth vs. Cornell

On Nov. 16, 1940, Cornell — the No. 2 team in the country — left Memorial Field with a 7-3 win over Dartmouth. It was the Big Red’s 19th win in a row.

Until it wasn’t.

One day after the game, Cornell president Edmund Ezra Day sent a telegram to Dartmouth president Ernest Martin Hopkins forfeiting the game, and awarding the victory to Dartmouth.

Cornell — Day had discovered — had gotten five downs on its final drive, with the fifth (illegitimate one) providing the game-winning score. Here is the story of the Fifth Down Game.

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Cornell and Dartmouth background

Cornell went 8-0 in 1939, finishing as the No. 4 team in the country and improving to 18-3-1 since 1937. In 1939, the Big Red averaged 24.6 points per game (the fifth-most in the nation), and bumped that up to 25.1 per game in 1940. They started the 1940 season with six more wins in a row, outscoring their opponents 181-13. 

Dartmouth, on the other hand, was 3-4 heading into the game, with one of those wins (and one loss) coming against non-major opponents. In three games against Ivy League opponents that year, Cornell was outscored 39-20.

The game

According to reports about the game from Cornell's student newspaper, Memorial Field was in dreadful conditions for the game — cold, icy, and covered in straw. 

Neither team could make any headway on offense, and the teams went into halftime tied 0-0. 

Cornell hadn’t been shut out since Nov. 24, 1938, when they tied with Penn 0-0 to end the season. But Dartmouth coach Earl Blaik had employed a new strategy to thwart the Big Red rushing attack.

“We played our ends normally on the line but posted our tackles and guards a yard and a half off the ball,” he said, according to a Cornell Sun article from 2011. “The linebackers, playing shallow, approximated the same depth as the tackles and guards. The plan was for these six men to sit there, forgo early commitment, angle off in the direction of the ball, and by quick reaction give up the short gain and no more.”

But in the fourth quarter, Dartmouth finally broke through, kicking a field goal to take a 3-0 lead.

With just a couple minutes left in the game to save an embarrassing defeat, Cornell took over on its 48-yard line. A few players later, with less than a minute to play, they had a first down on the 6-yard line. Its best chance of the game.

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Cornell's fifth down

Here’s how the final set of downs played out.

First and goal from the 6: Cornell rushes up the middle for a gain of 3 yards.
Second and goal from the 3: Cornell rushes up the middle for a gain of 2 yards.
Third and goal from the 1: Cornell rushes up the middle, and appears to have barely scored a touchdown, but no touchdown is signaled. In the chaos, Cornell calls a timeout. But they had no timeouts remaining, and referee Red Friesell calls a delay of game, moving the ball back 5 yards.
Fourth and goal from the 6: Cornell runs a naked bootleg to the right and attempts a pass into the end zone. It falls incomplete.

This is where most games would virtually be over.

Instead, Friesell put the ball on the 6 yard line again and signaled for another fourth down.

Fourth and goal from the 6 (part two): Cornell runs a naked bootleg to the right, and completes a pass into the end zone for a touchdown.

The Big Red escape with a 7-3 win.

The discovery

The next day, Friesell sent a humbling telegram to Dartmouth football captain Lou Young.

Lou Young
Captain Dartmouth Football Team

I want to be the first to admit my very grave error on the extra down as proven by the motion pictures of both colleges. I want to apologize to you, your players, Coach Blaik, all assistant coaches, and Mr. McCarter. I assume full responsibility. I want to thank you all for the very fair treatment accorded me after the game. Lou, I am so sorry for you were such a grand captain and leader. Give my regards to President Hopkins.

WM H Frisell Jr. Referee

That day, Cornell coach Snavely and Day reviewed the tape as well, and discovered that Friesell was right. They sent a telegram to Dartmouth acknowledging the error and forfeiting the game.

It was the first time in the history of college football that a game was decided off the field.

Cornell would lose 22-20 to No. 12 Penn in the final game of the season, and wouldn’t see another eight-win season until 1948. They finished the year as No. 15 in the AP poll, which would be the last time they appeared in the poll until that 1948 season.

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