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The 1959 Eastern Oregon University football team poses for a team photo. The team of 59 was the last EOU team to beat Portland State. (Courtesy photo)
Forty-eight years after the last meeting, Eastern Oregon University and Portland State will square off again at JELD-WEN Field Thursday.
The series dates back to 1950, when Portland State was known as Vanport College. Eastern Oregon was 2-3 during this era, and the the institution changed to Portland State University in 1955, with the Vikings leading the series 9-5-1.
“(People are) making a fuss about playing Portland State,” John Willmarth said. “I didn’t think it would be a big deal, but it is interesting to see.”
Willmarth, an all-conference linebacker in 1959, played for the last EOU team to defeat Portland State, 7-0, that same season. Willmarth, who was also a fullback, was a junior.
Both teams played in the Oregon Collegiate Conference, along with Southern Oregon, Oregon Tech and Oregon College.
“Back then it was a rivalry,” said Willmarth, whose son, Paul Willmarth, is the athletic director at Elgin High School. “It was the big city boys against the farmers from the east side of the state. We didn’t get recruits from all around the Northwest. There weren’t ringers on our team. Most of our team was local to Eastern Oregon. We’d get some kids from the borders of Idaho and Washington, but it didn’t extend much further than that.”
The date was Oct. 24 in La Grande, and it was homecoming.
The Mountaineers had three starters out of the lineup and head coach Archie Dunsmore patch-worked the team together to take on the passing attack of the Vikings.
Portland State entered the game with the third best passing offense in the conference. Ward Sayless had completed 25-of-37 passes for 286 yards entering the sixth game of the season.
By comparison, Eastern attempted 36 passes the whole season, completing just nine for 67 yards.
“We didn’t really have anyone that could throw the ball,” Willmarth said. “Our quarterbacks were small and weren’t fast. We tried to keep things simple on offense. Basically, running right at the defense.”
Headed into the homecoming game, the Mountaineers were second in the conference in rushing, averaging 155.4 yards per game.
It wasn’t the most entertaining game in the history of the series, but better than the 2-0 win by Portland State in 1962. Sam “Clickty” Clack provided the offense with an interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter. Willmarth provided the extra point for the final margin of victory — 7-0.
“We weren’t the biggest bunch, but we weren’t afraid to get our hands on people,” Willmarth said. “That’s how we won our games. It wasn’t because we scored a lot.”
Willmarth led the Mountaineers in points scored during the season with 34. He was also part of the team that tied the Vikings the following season, 6-6. Willmarth, who lives in Washington, still follows his alma mater, coming back for homecoming weekends and to Hall of Fame ceremonies when he can.
“I don’t get back as much as I used to,” Willmarth said. “But it helps to have family still in the area. We do whatever we can to help.”
EOU finished the season 3-6 overall and 2-2 in the OCC that season.