75 for 75: Shotgun Billy

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"75 for 75" is an article series from the 49ers Museum highlighting legendary moments in 49ers history as part of the team's 75th Anniversary celebrations in 2021.

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October 15, 1961

Rookie quarterback Billy Kilmer rushed for 115 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-24 win over the Minnesota Vikings capping the greatest three-game running stint in 49ers history.

His four scores established a club single-game touchdown record not broken until Jerry Rice recorded five in 1990.

Operating out of the shotgun formation, Kilmer became the first 49ers back to run for over 100 yards in three-straight games. He also posted eight rushing touchdowns during that period, another 49ers first, as the team annihilated Detroit 49-0, the Los Angeles Rams 35-0 and the Vikings. 

San Francisco selected Kilmer out of UCLA (11th overall) in the first round of the 1961 NFL Draft. In his senior season, he threw for over 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns while rushing for 803 yards and eight scores. Head coach Red Hickey felt Kilmer's running and passing skills made him the ideal man to run his new shotgun offense.

"All it takes is blocking and you can't stop this offense," Kilmer said in the aftermath of the victory over the Vikings. "And we really had terrific blocking out there today."

San Francisco posted 549 total yards, including 31 first downs and 324 yards rushing, both single-game team records at the time. 

"We couldn't stop it," Vikings defensive back Rich Mostardi said. "I don't know how anybody can stop it. Maybe it's not the offense so much as the guys who run it. All I know is we couldn't do anything with them."

Hickey actually had three men running the 49ers offense. He rotated his quarterback trio, John Brodie, Bobby Waters and Kilmer, on nearly every play. Against Minnesota, Waters picked up 60 yards on the ground while Brodie did most of the passing. He connected on 11-of-14 throws for 209 yards.

Still, Kilmer's running skill was clearly showcased. In the third week of the 1961 season, San Francisco walloped the Lions 49-0 as Kilmer rushed for 103 yards and two touchdowns and completed three passes for 43 yards. 

"This was just his third game in this league," Hickey said of Kilmer after his Detroit showing. "He's still got a lot to learn but he's clearly got the talent. The Lions have a tough defense but I figured Waters and Brodie could open them up with some running."

The 49ers offensive dominance continued in a Week 4 win over the Rams as they accumulated 521 yards of total offense. Hickey's rotating quarterbacks combined for 201 rushing yards and 261 passing yards. Kilmer sprinted through the Rams defense for 131 of those yards and two more touchdowns.

Five weeks into the season, the 49ers were the class of the NFL with a 4-1 record. They led the league in passing yardage, rushing yardage and points scored. Hickey's shotgun offense looked invincible. Then they traveled to Wrigley Field to face the Chicago Bears.

Former Stanford head coach Clark Shaughnessy, a scout for the Bears, detected a weakness in the shotgun. Prior to the snap, San Francisco's center, Frank Morze, looked between his legs to locate the quarterback and was slow to get his head up. The Bears exploited this shortcoming by blitzing their middle linebacker, eight-time Pro Bowl selection and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill George. The Bears stopped the 49ers 31-0, prompting Hickey to can the shotgun and revert to the T-formation. 

Yet, for a brief moment in time the shotgun formation bewildered opponents and put Kilmer at the top of the NFL rushing list.

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