Two days after the 1920 Big Game, California was honored with an invitation to play Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. It was true that in 1916, Washington State had defeated Brown 14-0, and the following year, Oregon defeated Pennsylvania by the same score. In 1920, Harvard had barely nosed out Oregon 7-6. Nevertheless, for reasons known best to themselves the Easterners had not developed a respect for the Pacific Coast athlete.
Thus it was, that when New Year’s day of 1921 came to Pasadena, a highly respected Ohio State team, champions of the Western Conference, came to be a ten-to-eight favorite, or even money to win by six points. There were few who realized that California was several touchdowns better than the Midwesterners.
Winning the flip of the coin, the Ohio Staters kicked off to Dan McMillan, who brought the ball out to the twenty-five-yard line. California unable to gain, was forced to kick early. The Nisbet punt sailed high and far, and when it came down to Stinchcomb of the Buckeyes he found Muller and Stephens, hands on hips, waiting for him to take it. Stinchcomb hadn’t heard about these boys, and instead of signaling for a fair catch, dared to try to run with the ball. There wasn’t too much noise when this formidable pair hit him. Just a dull thud as Muller, tackling high, and Stephens, tackling low, brought a very startled and badly shaken-up Ohio State safety man to the ground. Using their oft-repeated tactics of backing a team deep into its own territory and then taking the ball away from it, California, thanks to George (Fat) Latham, recovered Stinchcomb’s fumble and had the ball on the Ohio twenty-eight-yard line.
On first down, Sprott passed to Muller for thirteen yards to the Buckeye fifteen. Three plays later, Pesky carried the ball over and Toomey converted. Ohio State, however, came right back and marched down to the California eight-yard line. But once again, the Bears stiffened, causing Workman of the Midwesterners to fumble, and Muller pounced on the ball on the six to stave off the only serious Ohio State threat of the day. Archie Nisbet, standing in his own end-zone, booted the ball a full seventy yards (sixy-two yards from scrimmage) back to the Ohio State thirty-two-yard line.
The second period opened with California starting a drive from near midfield. A first down was gained on the Buckeye thirty-nine-yard line and then, two plays later, came one of the most famous plays in Rose Bowl history. The play in question was part of a two-play sequence. On first down, Archie Nisbet plunged into the center of the Ohio State line and gained two yards up to the thirty-seven-yard line. Feigning injury, Nisbet lay on the ground for a few moments while the rest of the Golden Bear squad appeared to be milling around. Actually they were lining up. Latham, the center, took Muller’s position at end. Sprott stood about six yards behind the line of scrimmage and directly behind the right guard. Ten yards behind Sprott and slightly to his right was the immortal Brick Muller. Brodie Stephens lined up at his usual spot at left end. Suddenly Archie came to life, snapped the ball back to Sprott, who ran to his own right and then lateraled back to Muller. Meanwhile, Stephens was streaking down-field, with the Ohio State secondary paying little attention to him, figuring that if a pass were coming up no one could throw the ball that far. But Ohio State did not realize the caliber of the man who opposed them. Muller took about two steps to his left, cocked his arm and let the ball fly a full fifty-three yards down-field, directly into the hands of Stephens running along the Ohio State goal line. The audience of 42,000 was stunned, and it took a full five seconds before they were able to break out in a thunderous ovation.
The newspapers the day following the game gave credit for the pass quite properly, most of the reports varying between a length of fifty to fifty-five yards. However, about two years later, a football record book suddenly blossomed out with a report that the ball had traveled seventy yards! No one bothered to check the newspapers of two short years before, or ask the players themselves about it and so the record stood at seventy yards. The play had been practiced by the gang many times, and every man on the squad knew that Muller would be exactly sixteen yards behind the line of scrimmage when the pass was thrown.
In 1924 when Brick Morse published his California Football History he stated that the ball went fifty-three yards, but his comment was passed unnoticed. In 1946 intensive research by Maxwell Stiles (author of The Rose Bowl) and Ray Byrne II, one of America’s leading football authorities, finally straightened out the length of the pass out once and for all. The strange thing, however, about the pass is that even at fifty-three yards, it still stands as the longest completed pass in California football history. Its length has been equalled once, but never exceeded.
A few moments after this history-making play, Sprott handed the ball to Muller on a neatly executed “Statue of Liberty,” and on the play following, Toomey handed the ball off to the very same Muller, who was finally downed on the nine-yard line. A four-yard gain by Nisbet and a five-yard plunge by Sprott brought the total score to 21-0 by half-time.
Ohio State came fighting back in the third period, but was unable to score. In the final stanza, Karl Deeds scored from the five-yard line and the game was history. It was on that date that the Midwest and East gained their proper respect for the western athlete.
– from 66 Years on the California Gridiron by S. Dan Brodie