On Nov. 11, 1939, in a game between the Centenary Gentlemen and the Texas Tech Red Raiders, more NCAA single-game records (13) were set than in any other game played in NCAA history. What on earth happened?
To set the scene, let's take a quick look at college football in the late 1930s. Last year, in 2017, FBS teams averaged 403.6 yards of total offense per game. Of those, 174 came on the ground, and 229.6 were from passing. In 1939, with teams averaging almost two more plays per game than in 2017, the average yards per game was just 202.3, with a breakdown of 135.9 rushing and 66.4 passing.
So even in perfect conditions, football saw half as much offense in 1939, and teams passed the ball less than half as often.
But Nov. 11, 1939 in Shreveport, Louisiana was very, very far from perfect conditions. According to Weather Underground’s historical archive, there were 2.23 inches of rain in Shreveport that day, making it the fourth-rainiest day of the year. Shreveport only got 38.75 inches of rain that entire year, so this one day accounted for three weeks’ worth of rain.
As a result, conditions were miserable, according to the Shreveport Times on Nov. 12:
“On a field of mud and in a heavy rain that made running and serial plays null and void, the Gentlemen battled the heavier and rugged Red Raiders of Texas Tech to a scoreless tie."
Sounds like a thrilling game, we know. But it gets so much better.
Centenary received the opening kickoff, returning it to the 13-yard line. On the very next play, the Gentleman said "No, thank you," and punted the ball right back to Texas Tech. The Red Raiders ran two plays for three yards, then — you guessed it — punted the ball to Centenary.
The idea was simple: With traditional offense ineffective at best, and dangerous at worst (due to injuries and turnovers, of which there were many), the best option for gaining field position was to boot the ball downfield and hope the returner either muffs the punt or fumbles the ball on the return. Regardless of the absent proof of efficacy, both teams went all in on the strategy, punting a combined total of 77 times, with 67 coming on first down. Those are not typos. During one stretch in the second half, there were 22 punts in a row.
Here's a fun breakdown of those 77 punts:
- 42 were returned
- 19 went out of bounds
- 10 were downed
- 1 went into the end zone for a touchback
- 4 were blocked
- 1 was fair caught
Of the ones returned, 14 were fumbled, and six of those were lost. But even when the tactic worked, neither team could close the deal.
There were two field-goal attempts in the game, but the conditions made kicking near-impossible. Centenary’s attempt from the 11-yard line missed. On the last play of the game, Texas Tech lined up for the game-winner from the 18-yard line. The kick traveled just 12 yards, rolling to a stop on the six-yard line.
The game ended with 30 yards of total offense (31 for Centenary, -1 for Texas Tech) and a 0-0 score. With that, the age of the punt-first offense was over before it could even begin
Centenary would finish the season 2-9-1, while Texas Tech would go 5-5-1. But both teams will live in on infamy in the FBS record book.
Here are all of the records from that game:
- Most punts, game — 36, Charlie Calhoun (Texas Tech)
- Most punting yards, game — 1,318, Charlie Calhoun (Texas Tech)
- Most punt returns, game — 20, Milton Hill (Texas Tech)
- Most combined punt and kickoff returns, game — 20, Milton Hill (Texas Tech)
- Most punts, both teams — 77, Texas Tech and Centenary
- Most punts, game — 39, Texas Tech
- Most punt returns, game — 22, Texas Tech
- Most punt returns, both teams — 42, Texas Tech and Centenary
- Fewest plays, game — 12, Texas Tech
- Fewest plays allowed, game — 12, Centenary
- Fewest plays, both teams — 33, Texas Tech and Centenary
- Fewest yards gained, both teams — 30, Texas Tech and Centenary
- Fewest rushes, both teams — 28, Texas Tech and Centenary