A showdown between two undefeated NFL Western Conference teams, the San Francisco 49ers (3-0-1) and Detroit Lions (3-0), occurred in San Francisco on October 24, 1954. The 49ers, coached by Buck Shaw, had an outstanding backfield with HB Hugh McElhenny (pictured at right) providing breakaway speed and FB Joe Perry and HB John Henry Johnson formidable power. End Billy Wilson was a fine receiver although QB Y.A. Tittle was playing with a broken left hand.
Detroit had won the last two NFL Championships and was still a powerful club that won its last two games by a combined score of 56-3. Head Coach Buddy Parker’s offense was directed by fiery QB Bobby Layne and contained a good group of runners operating behind an excellent line as well as capable receivers. The defense was solid, particularly with big middle guard Les Bingaman, LB Joe Schmidt, and a defensive backfield led by safety Jack Christiansen and thus dubbed “Chris’ Crew”.
An overthrow crowd of 61,000 fans was in attendance at Kezar Stadium. The 49ers had the game’s first possession and struck quickly. Joe Perry ran for 10 yards and then Hugh McElhenny broke away for a 60-yard touchdown run. Gordie Soltau added the extra point to give San Francisco the early 7-0 advantage.
The Lions turned the ball over on the third play of their ensuing series when Bobby Layne fumbled the snap and DE Jack Brumfield recovered at the Detroit 33. Y.A. Tittle missed on two passes but a defensive holding call on third down kept the 49ers alive. Tittle threw to Billy Wilson for 11 yards and Perry rumbled for five before the drive stalled and Soltau kicked a 20-yard field goal.
Down by 10 points, the Lions couldn’t move on offense and had to punt. McElhenny ran for nine yards and Tittle then threw a play option pass to John Henry Johnson that picked up 34 yards to the Detroit 24. The six-play, 67-yard advance ended with Johnson running 12 yards for a TD and Soltau’s point after had the home team leading by 17-0.
Detroit put together an 80-yard drive that took 19 plays and stretched into the second quarter. HB Bob Hoernschemeyer converted a third-and-four situation with an eight-yard run and FB Lew Carpenter gained four yards on a fourth-and-two play at the San Francisco 20 and five yards when facing third-and-four at the ten. Layne completed six passes, the last to end Jim Doran for a seven-yard touchdown. Doak Walker converted and the score was narrowed to 17-7.
On the first play following the kickoff, the Lions got the ball back when McElhenny fumbled and DE Jim Cain recovered at the San Francisco 36. However, the visitors lost ground and came up empty when Jim Martin’s long field goal attempt fell short. The 49ers had to punt after a short series and Detroit again turned the ball over when Hoernschemeyer fumbled after catching a short pass and safety Johnny Williams recovered at the Detroit 28. Tittle immediately threw to end Bill Jessup for 17 yards and the four-play series concluded with a Tittle pass to Wilson (pictured below) for an eight-yard TD. Soltau converted and once again the 49ers had a 17-point lead at 24-7.
Carpenter took off on a 20-yard run to spark the next drive for the Lions and Layne threw to end Dorne Dibble for 23 yards to the San Francisco 41. A pass to Walker and a run by Hoernschemeyer picked up 11 yards in all but Brumfield and DT Leo Nomellini dumped Layne for a 10-yard loss and, after two long passes fell incomplete, Martin again missed a long try for a field goal.
The Niners immediately advanced into Detroit territory on first down when Johnson took a pitchout and ran for 31 yards to get just past midfield. Perry blasted up the middle for 14 yards, but penalties blunted the promising drive and it was Soltau’s turn to miss a long try for three points.
With time running short in the first half, Layne took to the air and completed successive passes to end Jug Girard for 15 yards, FB Bill Bowman for 11, and Girard again for 26 to the San Francisco 28. Walker kicked a 36-yard field goal and the score was 24-10 at halftime.
The teams traded punts to start the third quarter before the Lions drove 76 yards in 10 plays. The big play came after a penalty and sack put the visitors in a second-and-33 hole at the Detroit 13 as Layne tossed a pass over the middle to Walker that gained 55 yards to the San Francisco 32. Layne was sacked by DT Bob Toneff, which not only resulted in a loss of eight yards but knocked the quarterback out of the game. Backup QB Tom Dublinski came in and threw a screen pass to Hoernschemeyer for 15 yards and the halfback followed up with a 12-yard carry on third-and-three. Two more passes by Dublinski were incomplete and a third down toss to Carpenter came up a foot short of a first down. Going for it on fourth down, Dublinski connected with Doran in the end zone for a three-yard touchdown and, with Walker’s conversion, the Lions were only seven points behind at 24-17.
McElhenny gave the 49ers good starting field position at the 50 thanks to a 41-yard kickoff return and Johnson followed up with runs of 13 and 9 yards as San Francisco moved methodically down the field. Tittle completed successive nine-yard passes to McElhenny and Perry and Johnson concluded the 13-play series with a one-yard TD. Soltau again added the extra point to extend the Niners’ lead to 31-17.
The Lions were driving as the period came to an end thanks to a Dublinski screen pass to Bowman for 28 yards and a run by Carpenter for 10. However, the series stalled at the San Francisco 25 and Dublinski’s fourth-and-six pass was incomplete. The 49ers took just three plays to move 75 yards to another score. McElhenny ran for 34 yards on first down, Perry gained six more up the middle, and then Tittle fired long to Wilson, who raced past Jack Christiansen on the way to a 37-yard touchdown. Soltau’s extra point kick hit the crossbar and was no good, but the home team held a 20-point lead at 37-17.
Detroit responded quickly following Girard’s 34-yard kickoff return. Dublinski threw to Walker for 24 yards and then to Dibble for 27 down to the San Francisco two. From there, Hoernschemeyer ran the remaining distance for a TD and Walker’s PAT narrowed the margin to 37-24 with over twelve minutes still to play.
A three-and-out series forced the 49ers to punt and the Lions put together a 77-yard drive in 12 plays. Dublinski completed seven passes, the longest to Dibble for 19 yards. Another throw to Carpenter was good for seven yard in a fourth-and-inches situation at the San Francisco 19 and it was Walker gathering in a pass from Dublinski for a 12-yard touchdown. Walker converted to make it a six-point game.
The 49ers advanced to midfield before having to punt. Christiansen returned the kick 47 yards to the San Francisco 47, but an incomplete pass was followed by Dublinski being sacked by Brumfield for a loss of 14 yards. Another pass was knocked down and the visitors punted. They never got the ball back as Johnson ran for five yards on a third-and-three play and McElhenny gained 16 yards for another first down. San Francisco held on to win by a final score of 37-31.
Detroit had the edge in total yards (443 to 424) and first downs (27 to 23). The 49ers were especially effective at running the ball, gaining 270 yards. They also recorded four sacks to none by the Lions. Detroit turned the ball over twice and San Francisco once.
Hugh McElhenny gained 126 yards on just seven carries and had the one long touchdown. John Henry Johnson contributed 83 yards on 11 attempts, along with three pass receptions for 45 yards, and Joe Perry gained 51 yards on 15 rushes. Y.A. Tittle completed 13 of 25 passes for 157 yards with two touchdowns and none intercepted. Billy Wilson had four catches for 74 yards and both of the aerial TDs.
For the Lions, Bobby Layne was successful on 17 of 29 throws for 212 yards and a TD with none picked off before having to leave the game. In his place, Tom Dublinski was 14 of 24 for 177 yards and tossed two touchdowns while also giving up no interceptions. Lew Carpenter rushed for 56 yards on 11 carries. Doak Walker (pictured at right) was most effective as a receiver out of the backfield, gaining 129 yards on seven receptions that also included a score. Dorne Dibble gained 91 yards on his three catches.
While the win pulled the 49ers ahead of the Lions, they lost their next three games to fall back into the pack in the Western Conference and ended up in third place with a 7-4-1 record. Meanwhile, Detroit bounced back to reel off five consecutive wins, including a 48-7 thrashing of San Francisco at home, and topped the conference for the third straight year at 9-2-1. There was no third straight NFL title, however, as the Lions were overwhelmed by the Cleveland Browns in the championship game.
Part of San Francisco’s slump came due to the loss of Hugh McElhenny the next week to a shoulder separation, depriving the offense of his speed in the open field. He ended up rushing for 515 yards on just 64 carries for a staggering 8.0 average gain in six games. Joe Perry had a MVP season as he led the league with 1049 yards on 173 attempts (6.1 avg.) and scored eight touchdowns, and John Henry Johnson was runner-up with 681 yards on 129 carries (5.3 avg.) and nine TDs. Perry was a consensus first-team All-NFL selection, and both he and Johnson were chosen to the Pro Bowl.
Bobby Layne came back to pass for 1818 yards and 14 touchdowns while Tom Dublinski started four contests and was successful on 77 of 138 passes (55.8 %) for 1073 yards and eight TDs, giving up seven interceptions. Doak Walker was a consensus first-team All-NFL and Pro Bowl choice, accumulating 1093 all-purpose yards. Pass receiving accounted for 564 yards of that total, on 32 catches (17.6 avg.). He was also the league’s second-ranked scorer with 106 points.