WHITTIER, Calif. — After practice on Thursday, the Occidental College football team celebrated the "Battle of the Shoes" tradition with a few rituals so exclusive to those in the know, that when asked what they were, quarterback Luke Collis said, "If I told you, I'd have to kill you."
On Saturday, there was less superstition and more football, with the Tigers beating Whittier College 31-17 in the 68th "Battle of the Shoes" and earning a victory in their first Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game of the season. The Tigers now lead the coveted trophy game series 35-33.
As the legend has it, a handful of Occidental College football players stole Poets star running back Myron Claxton's cleats on the Thursday before the 1939 game. Claxton got his payback though by leading Whittier to a 36-0 victory that day and reclaiming his shoes. Seven years later, some Whittier students had Claxton's cleats bronzed and the two teams have played for bragging rights ever since.
Fast forward to 2011, where the game once again featured an impressive running back, but this time he was wearing Oxy black.
Wes McDaniel did his best imitation of Claxton, rushing for 167 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, making up almost half of the Tigers overall offense.
"It's a deep rooted tradition here. All week long there's a whole process where we establish with the young guys what the tradition is," McDaniel said. "We've had the shoes now for so long that no one wants to be the team that loses them."
McDaniel having such a successful game on the ground is particularly ironic this year. With both teams notoriously passing offenses and Whittier quarterback Chris Lopez fresh off of a 456-yard passing performance in a win over Puget Sound last weekend, the expectation was that the final result could more closely resemble a basketball score.
But McDaniel and the ground game stole the show.
"It doesn't matter how good your running back is if guys up front aren't providing the holes for you to run through," McDaniel said. It starts with them and they played a great game. If they continue to do that, we're going to have success."
Oxy (2-1, 1-0) has gotten the better of the Poets (1-2, 0-1) in the annual matchup, winning nine of the last ten, but this was a better Whittier team going up against a battered Oxy squad.
"I'm very proud of the way our guys adapted in the week leading up to this game, with some guys playing out of position, and during the game when they faced adversity," Occidental coach Dale Widolff said. "We beat a good Whittier team tonight in a fun atmosphere to play in."
The Tigers had kept Whittier at a distance for most of the game, but appeared to be in trouble late in the third quarter. Kimble Tillman returned an Oxy kickoff for a 90-yard score, then the Tigers failed to recover the Whittier kick on the ensuing play, giving the Poets possession on the Oxy 30. But Occidental's Carter Norfleet made a spectacular interception on the next play in perhaps the biggest momentum swing of the game.
"The way Carter went up and over the wide receiver was the type of play you might see an NFL defensive back make," Widolff said. "And the time when it happened, with us vulnerable after the score and fumble, made it a major turning point for us."
History aside, the game was a must-win for the Tigers to open the SCIAC season on a positive note and to rebound from a tough 41-17 home loss to Menlo College on Sept. 17.
"It always feels good to beat a rival all four years," Oxy linebacker Greg Holsworth said. "It feels extra special though because we have a goal to win a conference championship and that stays alive."
Oxy allowed 17 Whittier points, but if you take out a two-minue drill before halftime and the long kick off return for a touchdown, the Tigers held a high-octane Poets offense to just three.
"Honestly I thought it was a great team effort. Some guys had to step up and they executed and did everything anybody could ask of them," Holsworth said. "It was just all around great team defense and that's why we came out with a win."