December 1, 2016

1957: 49ers Take Advantage of Fumbles to Defeat Giants

The San Francisco 49ers were trying to remain in the NFL Western Conference title hunt as they traveled to New York to face the Giants on December 1, 1957. Coached by Frankie Albert, the 49ers had a productive offense that featured the passing of QB Y.A. Tittle (pictured at right) and a formidable ground attack led by HB Hugh McElhenny and FB Joe Perry. But after getting off to a 5-1 start, the club had lost three straight games to come into New York with a 5-4 record that had them a game behind the Colts and Lions.

The Giants, under Head Coach Jim Lee Howell, were at 7-2 and trying to keep up with the resurgent Cleveland Browns in the Eastern Conference. QB Charlie Conerly was a savvy clutch passer at age 36, HB Frank Gifford an outstanding all-purpose back, and the defense was tough.

There was a big crowd of 54,121 fans at Yankee Stadium. Late in the first quarter, the 49ers took advantage of a Frank Gifford fumble recovered by LB Matt Hazeltine and drove 59 yards in nine plays. FB Gene Babb finished it off with an eight-yard touchdown run and Gordie Soltau added the extra point.

As the contest headed into the second quarter, the Giants responded with a nine-play, 80-yard possession that concluded with HB Alex Webster blasting over the middle from a yard out for a TD. Ben Agajanian kicked the game-tying point after. Following another New York fumble, this time by Conerly when hit by Hazeltine (pictured below) and recovered by DT Bill Herchman, San Francisco went 25 yards in seven plays that resulted in Joe Perry plunging three yards for a TD. Soltau’s conversion put the visitors back in front by 14-7.

The Giants continued to hurt themselves as Gifford fumbled again when hit by LB Ed Henke on a reverse and it was recovered at the New York 11. The Niners weren’t able to reach the end zone, but Soltau kicked a 42-yard field goal to stretch their advantage to ten points. On the final play of the first half, New York’s Agajanian kicked a 35-yard field goal and the San Francisco lead was trimmed to 17-10 at halftime.

The 49ers started off the third quarter by advancing 78 yards in nine plays that featured Y.A. Tittle passing to Hugh McElhenny for a 38-yard gain and to end Billy Wilson for an 11-yard touchdown. Soltau’s extra point extended the lead to 24-10. The Giants, now in a fourteen-point hole, responded with a 75-yard advance that took 11 plays. Conerly passed to Gifford for a six-yard TD and Agajanian added the point after.

As the game headed into the fourth quarter, the Giants had opportunities but were consistently thwarted by the spirited San Francisco defense. Finally, another turnover, this time an interception, set up another score for the visitors as Soltau connected on a 37-yard field goal to make it a ten-point lead. That was more than enough as the 49ers held on to win by a final score of 27-17.

San Francisco led in total yards (316 to 265), with 193 yards on the ground alone, while the Giants had more first downs (21 to 19). New York turned the ball over seven times, five of them fumbles in the first half, to four suffered by the 49ers.

Y.A. Tittle completed 11 of 16 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown, although also giving up three interceptions, and ran the ball five times for 49 yards. Joe Perry rushed for 84 yards on 19 carries that included a TD and Gene Babb contributed 59 yards on 14 attempts. Billy Wilson topped the receivers with four catches for 64 yards and a TD and Hugh McElhenny contributed three pass receptions for 42 yards.

For the Giants, Charlie Conerly was successful on 17 of 25 throws for 215 yards and a TD along with an interception, but also coughed up four of the team’s fumbles. Frank Gifford (pictured at right), who was limited to 16 yards on 7 carries, caught 11 passes for 105 yards and a TD and accounted for two costly fumbles in the first half. Alex Webster topped the ground gainers with 33 yards on 9 attempts that included a score and added 38 more yards on two receptions.

“You don’t deserve to win when you lose the ball six times on fumbles,” summed up New York’s Coach Howell. “The 49ers gambled on shooting their linebackers through to get at Conerly and it paid off.”

The game proved to be a turning point heading into the final stretch for both teams.  San Francisco won its remaining two games, including a showdown with the Colts, to finish at 8-4 and tied with Detroit atop the Western Conference. In the resulting playoff game, the 49ers blew a big halftime lead to lose to the Lions. The Giants, on the other hand, lost their next two contests and placed second in the Eastern Conference at 7-5.