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November 25, 1971
Undefeated and top-ranked Nebraska, who had entered the '71 season as the defending AP poll national champions and were favored to repeat, visited Norman to battle second-ranked Oklahoma on Thanksgiving Day. It was a rivalry that had started back in 1912, and had been played continuously every year since '28. In the previous 50 games that had been played, the Sooners owned a slim edge, coming out on top in 25 games, including a 16-game winning streak from '43-'58, to the Huskers' 22 wins, with three ties. But Nebraska also came in having won the last two.
Tenth-year head coach Bob Devaney, with a career record of 89-18-1, brought the Huskers (10-0) into the game riding a 20-game winning streak and unbeaten in their last 29 games. It was the second longest streak in the nation behind #14 Toledo (11-0) of the Mid-American Athletic Conference, who was riding a 34-game winning streak. The Huskers' offense was averaging 38.9 points and 441 yards per game, with 257 coming on the ground. Senior quarterback Jerry Tagge, senior I-back Jeff Kinney, and a magnificent triple threat wingback, junior Johnny Rodgers, led it.
If those numbers weren't impressive enough, the defense was even more imposing, and was the real key to Nebraska's dominance. They were ranked #1 in total defense, permitting only 171.7 yards per game, and were second behind Michigan in rushing defense and scoring defense. In fact, the defense had allowed rivals to penetrate their 20-yard line only 12 times in ten games.
The Huskers' physical defensive line was the best in Big Eight history, with a trio of consensus All-Americans. Senior tackle Larry Jacobson was easily on his way to winning the Outland Trophy. Junior middle guard Rich Glover was often double-teamed, but still was a menacing and dominating presence inside, and junior end Willie Harper contained the outside and rounded out the three. Supporting them was a strong pair of tackles, as sophomore John Dutton and Bill Jansen alternated on the line.
The defense had posted three shutouts and allowed an average of only 6.4 points per game, and the first defensive unit had only allowed five touchdowns all year. Only Kansas State and Oklahoma State had managed to score twice in a game against Nebraska. All together, Nebraska had outscored their previous ten opponents by 32 ½ points per game, and their closest game had been a 31-7 victory over #9 Colorado a month earlier.
By early October it was obvious that sixth-year coach Chuck Fairbanks' Oklahoma team (9-0) was also extraordinary, who had accumulated a 39-13-1 record in Norman, having returned among college football's elite. Returning a young nucleus of 16 starters, 11 of them juniors, they had crushed a succession of national powerhouses in once-beaten and #17 Southern California (33-20), two-time defending UPI national champion and undefeated #3 Texas (48-27), only the Sooners' second win in the last 14 games over their Red River rivals and vaulting them from #8 all the way to #2 in the polls, and finally, undefeated #6 Colorado (45-17). Those victories allowed Fairbanks to even his record against top 20 ranked teams at an even 8-8. Only Missouri had held them under 30 points, but they had lost 20-3.
And with each passing week, it gradually became clearer that nobody had ever seen anything like Oklahoma's version of the wishbone, a triple-option running offense. In midstream a year earlier, assistant head coach and offensive coordinator, Barry Switzer, had copied Texas' successful formation, and in their second season with the wishbone, but first full year, the Sooners had perfected it beyond belief, and were now the most feared offensive team in the land. They ranked first averaging 45 points, 563 total yards per game, and 481 rushing yards per game, the latter number on pace to set the NCAA record. However, it was a high-risk offense that relied on lightning-quick decisions, and unfortunately was prone to fumbles, as Oklahoma had lost an average of almost three per game.
Up front, junior center Tom Brahaney anchored a powerful offensive line that opened huge holes and cleared the way. Engineering the offense with perfect precision was a quick and talented athlete, senior Jack Mildren, three years earlier one of the most sought after high school quarterbacks in the country, having rushed for 1,069 yards on the '71 season. Among his many choices included running the ball himself, handing off up the middle to junior fullback Leon Crosswhite, or pitching down the line to junior Joe Wylie or junior Heisman Trophy hopeful Greg Pruitt, a probable All-American who had gained 1,435 yards on the season and led the nation by averaging 9.5 yards per carry. When not grinding away on the ground, Mildren could choose to fire a pass to junior tight end Al Chandler, or hit fleet senior split end Jon Harrison deep. Mildren had completed only 22 passes all season among his 45 attempts, but seven were for touchdowns. With the many weapons in their arsenal, it was easy to see why the Sooners were such an explosive team.
Excitement had mounted each of the last seven weeks as #1 Nebraska and #2 Oklahoma mauled their opponents and marched towards a showdown in Norman. Not only were they the two best teams in the country, but also the Sooners clearly appeared more than capable of knocking off Nebraska, and it became one of the most anticipated college football games ever. It would be the 14th meeting between the Associated Press' top two teams, and aside from two ties, only once had a #2 team knocked off a #1; when Texas did it to Oklahoma in '63.
It was billed as the "Game of the Decade" and "The Game of the Century", and would be covered as such by the media. The hype for this game was unlike any other, and Sports Illustrated magazine termed it "Irresistible Oklahoma Meets Immovable Nebraska" on the cover of their issue leading up to the game.
Given the magnitude of the game, Devaney had even had his players' food flown in from Lincoln, in case gamblers attempted to induce a hotel chef to give the Huskers food poisoning. More than twice the normal amount of press passes were issued for the hundreds of writers, broadcasters, and photographers that converged on Owen Field from all parts of the nation.
ABC-TV would broadcast nationally to the largest audience ever, an estimated 55 million viewers and they had Chris Schenkel doing the play-by-play. Joining him in the booth for expert analysis was Oklahoma's legendary former coach, Bud Wilkinson, with Bill Fleming roaming around down on the sidelines. Before the game, Schenkel and Wilkinson emerged from the tunnel leading to the field, and when the Oklahoma crowd spotted Wilkinson, they erupted into applause. They came to their feet with admiration for the coach who had guided the Sooners to prominence with three national championships and an NCAA record 47-game winning streak in the decade of the fifties.
A raucous crowd of 61,826 filled the stadium for the game, with a little more than 5,000 of them wearing Nebraska's red. Under a cloudy sky on a cool, 47 autumn day, Fleming personally introduced each of the starting offenses to both the crowd and viewers, first the visitors, then the Sooners to applause. After Fairbanks was named, the crowd roared, the bands played, the tension mounted, and Oklahoma met in a group to collectively get their final encouragement.
Not only at stake was the Big Eight title, but also the #1 ranking in the polls. However, the bowl trips had already been determined before the game, with Nebraska going to the Orange in Miami and Oklahoma headed for the Sugar in New Orleans. Two days after Thanksgiving, #5 Auburn (9-0) would host #3 Alabama (10-0) for the Southeastern Conference title, the two opponents that Oklahoma and Nebraska would probably play.
The captains headed across the artificial turf to meet prior to the game. For the visitors in white shirts with scarlet pants, it was Tagge and defensive back Jim Anderson. For Oklahoma, wearing crimson shirts with white pants, it was Mildren, linebacker Steve Aycock, and injured defensive back Glen King in street clothes. The Sooners won the toss, and chose to kick off and defend first. No more analysis, predictions, hype, or anticipation, as the two teams now fastened their chinstraps, and were ready to play.
Rodgers and Kinney were back deep to receive, and John Carroll booted the ball six yards into the end zone, where Rodgers settled under it and ran it out to the left. Nebraska took over on their 26-yard line, and was held to just three plays, being forced to punt. Oklahoma took over at their own 33, and the Huskers played their trademark stellar defense, also forcing a punt on fourth down. Halfback Wylie also handled punting duties, and Rodgers was back to receive for the Huskers.
Wylie punted the ball high and deep enough with the help of the gushing wind, and the Sooner coverage was down field fast, so fast that most of the fans, not to mention the TV audience, must have felt Rodgers would have wisely considered a fair catch, but it never entered his mind. He caught the ball at his own 28-yard line, and was almost immediately hit by Pruitt, but fought it off. Strangely, Pruitt's lick only turned Rodgers away from the grasp of another lunging tackler, Ken Jones, and Johnny put his hand down to keep his balance, and then quickly shot through a hole on the right. But just as quickly, he then darted back to the left, through a whole cluster of crimson-colored Sooner jerseys and into the open. About midfield, he reversed his field and cut back to head to his left, then took off down the sideline. Ahead, Huskers' cornerback Joe Blahak was faced with the chore of screening off or blocking the last man with a chance to make a tackle, the punter. Wylie never had a good enough angle on Rodgers, as Blahak bumped Wylie as he was falling down, and from there on, Rodgers reached the end zone to complete the dazzling 72-yard play, and his 16th touchdown of the season. He was so tired after his dash that afterwards, back on the Nebraska bench, he did what most everybody in Norman probably felt like doing, he threw up. But it was a scintillating display of athleticism that both electrified and stunned the huge crowd, igniting the Huskers. Rich Sanger added the extra point, and Nebraska was up 7-0 with 11:28 left.
On Oklahoma's ensuing drive, they came right back. With Mildren running four times, and hitting Harrison for 31 yards on a key third down-and-eight, the Sooners marched downfield in 11 plays. The 72-yard drive stalled around the Nebraska 12, and resulted in a 30-yard field goal by Carroll. With 5:57 still remaining in the quarter, notice had just been served about the potent Sooners' offense. However, Nebraska's Black Shirt defense was taking away some key components of the wishbone, as Harper blanketed Pruitt on the option sweeps, and Glover smothered everything run up the middle.
Nebraska started their next possession at the 24, but went three plays and out, a trend the Sooners matched when they had their chance. Unfortunately, the Huskers were unable to once again move the ball effectively, and punted back to Oklahoma, as Mildren and troops took possession at their own 31-yard line. This time, they bulled up the middle on three plays to earn a new set of downs, but on a second-and-two play, Pruitt went up the middle, and Glover's right arm knocked the ball loose, leaving it on the turf for teammate Anderson to scoop up at the Nebraska 46.
Fullback Bill Olds burst up the middle for six, and the buzzer sounded for the end of the quarter. After Tagge's option came just inches short of the first down, he kept it again on a sneak, and it was good enough to moves the chains. Nebraska ripped off a Kinney seven-yard gain and an Olds six-yard burst, before Tagge lofted a pass under heavy pressure towards Rodgers, who caught the ball and fell to the 20. From there, Tagge and Kinney alternated carrying the next four plays, before Kinney ended the 54-yard drive by leaping over the pile and into the end zone from a yard out, putting Nebraska ahead, 14-3, with 11:08 left in the half.
But the Sooners bounced back up off the canvass. The wishbone started at their own 20, and after Pruitt was held to no gain, Crosswhite burst through a hole up the middle and rambled 24 yards before being dragged down by Blahak. It was a steady diet of Mildren and Crosswhite that moved the Sooners, as the Nebraska ends were doing a great job of shadowing Pruitt, thus taking away the outside option pitch. But by doing such, the Huskers were left with Glover alone inside, and Mildren repeatedly probed. Calling his own number six times, Mildren had runs of seven, 12 and ten yards, and gained 43 yards in the 80-yard drive. He also capped the advance with a burst from three yards out, and after Carroll again was good, Oklahoma had cut the lead to 14-10 with 5:10 left in the half.
The Sooners' defense held court on the Huskers next possession, and Sanger's 56-yard field goal attempt with the wind at his back fell short. Oklahoma took over, and after four running plays, Mildren pulled back and lofted a pass just over Blahak for Chandler, good for a 22-yard gain to the Husker 35. But on the next play, fullback Tim Welch burst up the middle for eight and also coughed up the ball, as Glover fell on it, ending the threat.
The Sooners defense held, and Nebraska was forced to punt with less than two minutes to go in the half. With the ball now resting on the Oklahoma 22, it seemed logical that the Sooners would sit on the ball and go to the locker room satisfied with a four-point deficit. Their assistant coaches had even left the booth and were en route to the locker room. Mildren optioned to the left and gained five, then immediately called time out, but the clock continued to run for at least another ten seconds before the officials stopped it. Aware of the situation, Wilkinson commented to the television audience that with the wishbone, "It was tough to break a long gainer."
Mildren jogged in after conferring with Fairbanks, and handed off to Wylie for a gain of six. The clock stopped at 29 seconds as the chains moved for a new set of downs. With Nebraska concentrating so much of their defense to stop the run, they practically forgot about Harrison. They left one man to cover him, assigning safety Bill Kosch the task of playing man-to-man coverage, something he was not accustomed to. In the Oklahoma huddle, Harrison conveyed to Mildren, his former high school teammate at Abilene (TX) Christian, his belief that he could beat Kosch deep. With less than half a minute remaining, they did not have much to lose.
The team broke the huddle, and Harrison lined up outside. When play resumed, the Sooners stunned everyone. Mildren faked a handoff up the middle to Welch, and dropped back to pass, lofting a pass in the right flat towards Harrison, who was wide open because Kosch had over run the coverage. Harrison jumped up and caught the ball amid enormous cheers, and the play covered 43 yards, bringing the Sooners down to the Huskers' 24-yard line with 15 seconds left on the clock.
On the next play, Mildren faked up the middle and dropped back. Harrison gave his man an inside fake and again beat Kosch on a fade down the left side, and Mildren hit him in the end zone with five seconds left, causing roars from the crowd. Carroll's extra point gave Oklahoma a 17-14 lead. It had taken the Sooners just four plays to stun Nebraska, who suddenly trailed for the first time all year heading into the locker room.
Oklahoma was dominating the offensive statistics halfway through the game, as the top-ranked Husker defense was no match for their high-powered offense. The Sooners had gained 190 yards on the ground and another 122 through the air, for a total of 312 yards, including 14 first downs. Meanwhile, the Nebraska offense, which had been averaging 441 yards per game, had gained only 91 and scored just once in the first half. Devaney concluded that the way to attack the quick Oklahoma defense was to hammer them with the running game.
In their first possession of the third quarter, after Carroll's kick went out of the end zone, Kinney broke Al Quall's attempted tackle up the middle and powered for a gain of 22. Tagge was dropped for no gain by linebacker Mark Driscoll, and then Kinney romped for eight. Faced with a third down-and-two, a false start cost the Huskers five yards, before five defensive backs caused problems and Selmon sacked Tagge, forcing a punt.
Oklahoma took possession at its 29, and three running plays picked up a first down at the 42. On the fourth play, Nebraska's John Adkins knocked the ball loose from Mildren and teammate Dave Mason recovered at the Nebraska 47.
First Kinney spun his way for a gain of six, and then swept around the left for a pickup of five and a first down. Tagge then kept for three, and Olds went up the middle for four, to move the ball to the Sooners' 35-yard line. On the next play, Tagge optioned to the right, faked a pitch, turned up field, broke a tackle at the 22, and was finally brought down at the three for a huge 32-yard gain. One play later, Kinney scored from the three to put Nebraska back in front, 21-17, with 8:54 showing on the stadium clock.
After the kickoff, Crosswhite and Pruitt each gained three before Mildren was dropped for a 12-yard loss trying to pass. Wylie's punt to Rodgers gave Nebraska the ball back at their own 39. A couple of five-yard runs, one by fullback Maury Damkroger and another by Kinney, were followed by a couple of big gains. Kinney went off left tackle for a gain of 15, and then Tagge rolled to his right and hit Rodgers in stride for a gain of 20, moving the ball to the Oklahoma 16. Three plays later, Tagge again hit Rodgers, but he was knocked out at the one. From there, Kinney burrowed in to finish off a 61-yard drive, and Nebraska now had their second 11-point lead of the game, 28-17, with 3:38 left in the third.
But in typical lightning-quick Oklahoma fashion, the Sooners answered. Faced with a third-and-five from their own 33, Harrison took a reverse handoff from Mildren, pulled up, and threw a pass to his tight end, Chandler, who hauled it in, pulled away from Kosch at the 40, and rambled down the field before being hauled down by Anderson at the Nebraska 16, a big 51-yard gain. From there Mildren carried four straight times until he crossed the goal line with 28 seconds left in the third, and the Sooners only trailed by four heading to the final quarter, 28-24.
Nebraska continued their plan of using Kinney and Tagge, and the pair, including a 16-yard pass to Rodgers, led the Huskers down to the Oklahoma 24 in seven plays. Nebraska tried a little trick play, faking a reverse to Rodgers, and then Tagge tried to wrap the ball around Rodgers and hand off. But Tagge was unable to hold onto the pigskin when linebacker Danny Mullen hit him, and Lucious Selmon recovered at the Oklahoma 31. It was Nebraska's first turnover of the afternoon.
With Mildren directing the assault, Oklahoma went to work. Two of his runs and a Welch five-yard burst moved the ball to midfield. Pruitt then broke his longest run, a 17-yarder, which moved the ball to the Nebraska 33. Mildren followed with a pair of huge plays. First, on fourth-and-two at the 21, he ran left for four yards and a first down. Moments later, faced with another fourth down from the 16, he found Harrison open behind Kosch again in the right flat, and fired a strike for the go-ahead touchdown. The Sooners' 69-yard march in a dozen plays had stunned the Huskers, taking the lead for the second time. Carroll added the extra point, and the Sooners owned a 31-28 lead with only 7:10 left in the game.
After the kickoff, the ball rested on Nebraska's 26-yard line. Tagge led the experienced offense onto the field. They needed to avoid dumb mistakes, erode as much of the clock as possible, and march 74 yards down the field against the Sooners' defense.
The Huskers were quickly faced with third down-and-one, and Devaney used wonderful deception to get the first down. Instead of pounding the ball up the middle and into the heart of the Oklahoma defense, Tagge pitched out wide to Kinney. He broke three tackles en route to a 17-yard gain, across midfield to the Sooners' 48.
The Sooners' defense tightened up again and two plays later, Nebraska was now confronted with third-and-eight at the 46. On the play, Oklahoma rushed only three men and dropped back four linebackers, as Tagge was back to pass. Defensive end Ray Hamilton broke through, flushing him out of the pocket. The big end had Tagge in his grasp, but couldn't hold on, and the Husker signal caller scrambled away from the pressure and was looking to run when he saw Rodgers cutting across the middle just beyond the first-down marker. Tagge flipped a pass to Rodgers, who made a great diving catch for an 11-yard gain, keeping the drive alive. If Hamilton had sacked Tagge, Nebraska would probably have been forced to punt.
Thirty-five yards from the end zone, Nebraska went back to grinding out yardage. Kinney ran off-tackle for a gain of 13, before Rodgers slipped inside for a pick up of seven. Then it was all Kinney, as he gained seven, and then two more to the Oklahoma six, where Tagge called for a timeout with 2:20 showing on the clock.
After discussing the situation with a calm Devaney on the sidelines, Kinney again went off-tackle for four, moving the ball to the Oklahoma two. The same play was next, and Kinney, with his jersey in shambles, bulled behind left tackle Daryl White and All-American guard Larry Rupert, surging across the goal line with only 1:38 left. The Huskers had accomplished their goal, methodically marching 74 yards in five and a half minutes, with Kinney carrying the last four times, and gaining 50 yards on the 12-play drive. Sanger's important extra point attempt was good to put the Huskers up, 35-31, meaning that the Sooners needed a touchdown.
With the ball lying on the turf's 19-yard line, Oklahoma had one last chance when the offense ran onto the field. First, Mildren overthrew Harrison with a long pass, and then he kept for four yards to bring up third down and six. Mildren dropped back to pass, but Jacobsen broke through and sacked the Sooners' quarterback for an eight-yard loss. Forced with a desperate fourth down from the 15, Glover deflected a pass intended for Harrison, sending the Nebraska sideline into frenzy.
There had been scads of games in the past with equal pressure and buildup, so-called "Games of the Decade". But it would be practically impossible to stir the pages of history and find one in which both teams performed so reputably for so long throughout the day. It was a game that had lived up to all of the hype, but Nebraska had won the "Game of the Century" and in the process of winning their 21st consecutive game, they defended their #1 ranking.
Everything else balanced out, more or less, even the precious few mistakes, Oklahoma's three fumbles against Nebraska's one, plus a costly Husker offside, the only penalty in the game. There was an unending fury of offense from both teams that simply overwhelmed the defenses, maniacal though they were. But that is the way it is with college football, and you can't take away every weapon. Both Nebraska and Oklahoma stopped the things they feared the most, but in so doing, they gave up practically everything else.
From Oklahoma's record-cracking wishbone, the Huskers removed the wide pitch to the halfback, mainly Pruitt, but they relinquished the quarterback keeper, the fullback plunge into the middle, and most of all, the pass. To stop Pruitt, who was used mainly as a decoy, Nebraska was forced to cover wide receiver Harrison man for man, which they did ineffectively, thus allowing Harrison to catch four passes in critical situations, two for touchdowns. Oklahoma's wishbone attack had compiled 467 total yards against the best defense in the country, and Mildren ran the option brilliantly for 130 yards and two touchdowns. But that was not as much a surprise as his passing on them for 188 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Meanwhile, the Huskers' vaunted Black Shirt defense had been severely tested, but it did not break, and Glover's 22-tackle performance was impressive. From Nebraska's imposing I-spread and I-slot, Oklahoma took away the passing game, but gave up the power running attack. Husker highlights, of course, were plentiful, but the most impressive were Rodgers' dazzling punt return, Kinney's 174 yards and four touchdowns, who increased his career rushing total to 2,265, breaking the school record of 2,196 set by All-American Bob Reynolds in 1950-52 and increasing his record for Nebraska career touchdowns to 33, and Tagge authoritatively guiding the Huskers on a clutch and signature drive. For his 188-yard passing effort, Tagge became the first Husker player ever to crack the 2,000-yard total offense mark in a single season with 2,040.
So the two teams swapped touchdowns evenly from scrimmage, four for four, and the Sooners added a field goal. But the one thing they had not traded lingered, Rodgers' punt return, and unfortunately, it proved to be the deciding factor, albeit early in the game.
Source: Jeff Linkowski