The football season passed from October into November, and the list of logical candidates for the national title dwindled to five. Undefeated Iowa, looking better each week, gained in stature with a 21-7 victory over Kansas. But two other Big Ten teams, Minnesota and Ohio State, also advanced. The three begin an abbreviated round-robin elimination this Saturday in Minneapolis when Iowa meets Minnesota. Any one of them may emerge as the national champion. Only the Big Eight leader, Missouri, which continued undefeated with an impressive win over Nebraska, and Navy, a scared victor over Notre Dame, can challenge them.
Cut from the list of eligibles last Saturday were two of 1959's top-ranked teams, Syracuse and Mississippi. A strong and—it is becoming increasingly clear—badly underrated Pittsburgh exposed Syracuse as just a poor imitation of last year's championship team as it beat the Orange 10-0. Mississippi, which has grown fat on a marshmallow schedule, was fortunate to tie LSU, a team that had lost four straight games. A third pretender to the title, Baylor, previously undefeated and ranked seventh, was defeated easily by twice-beaten TCU. And ninth-ranking Washington, though it did manage to nip Oregon in the last three minutes 7-6, lost all chance for consideration by the tameness of its victory.
The death of Syracuse's 16-game winning streak, and with it its hope of repeating as national champion, was not entirely unexpected. Narrow escapes against Kansas, Holy Cross and Penn State hinted at a future failure. Some of last year's heroes looked lazy. Complacency became an unpopular but often-heard word on the campus. Still it was thought that the Syracuse team was very good, good enough to beat Pittsburgh. It was startling to see how timidly the Orange accepted defeat when it came.
Syracuse made only five first downs all afternoon and never two in a row. Only once did it get past midfield. Its All-America halfback, Ernie Davis, made only 37 yards in 13 carries. Pitt recovered three Syracuse fumbles and intercepted as many passes. Throughout the game the Pitt line blocked and tackled viciously, completely outplaying the Syracuse line.
Pitt scored a touchdown in the first period after an interception by junior Linebacker Joe Kuzneski gave it the ball on the Syracuse 15. On second down Quarterback Jim Traficant faked a handoff to Fullback Jim Cunningham, then followed him through a wide hole over right tackle and straight into the end zone. In the third period Halfback Fred Cox kicked a 38-yard field goal, and Syracuse was a beaten team.
Mississippi, for the second straight week, salvaged a degree of dignity with a last-second field goal. Two weeks ago Mississippi beat Arkansas on a 39-yarder by Allen Green with three seconds remaining. Last week Green kicked two more, the second from 42 yards out with six seconds left to tie LSU 6-6, but Mississippi Coach Johnny Vaught had no illusions about its meaning. In the dressing room after the game he said quietly, "We shouldn't have lost. I consider a tie a loss." And well he might, for he knew that the tie had ruined Mississippi's chances for top ranking.
Of the five teams fighting for the national championship, Iowa probably is the favorite, if only because of its phenomenal luck, which has curtsied to the Hawkeyes three times this season. But one Big Ten coach, Purdue's Jack Mollenkopf, is not so sure that Iowa's breaks are all luck. Iowa has earned them, he says, because it plays open, daring football. The Hawkeyes never punt on third down and often gamble with one or two yards to go on fourth down, even when in their own territory. So it follows that a team with such adventurous spirit should be blessed with good fortune.
Minnesota and Ohio State are on the cautious side. Coach Murray Warmath of Minnesota believes there is nothing so effective as a solid running offense, a point Minnesota demonstrated with a vengeance in its 48-7 win over Kansas State. Minnesota scored four touchdowns on one-yard runs and two touchdowns on two-yard runs.
The Minnesota defense is one of the best in the country. In six games its opponents have scored only 31 points. Thus Minnesota can afford to be patient, punt on third down if necessary and wait for the breaks.
Woody Hayes of Ohio State makes Warmath look like a radical. Hayes is undoubtedly the most conservative coach in the land. "When you get fancy, you get beat," he likes to say, and evidently even a simple handoff to a halfback is fancy in Woody's quarterback book. In some 300 plays the Buckeyes ran off in their first five games, halfbacks handled the ball only 38 times.