November 23, 1972
One year after the Game of the Century, fourth-ranked Oklahoma (8-1) came into Lincoln to face fifth-ranked Nebraska (8-1-1). Entering their final regular season game of the year, the Huskers sat atop the Big Eight standings with a 5-0-1 record, and a win meant the conference crown. For the Sooners, right behind with a 4-1 mark but with a game remaining against Oklahoma State, a win would put them in the driver's seat.
Regardless of the outcome of the game against Oklahoma, Nebraska had already accepted an invitation to play in the Orange Bowl in Miami. The Sooners, whose lone setback was a loss at Colorado, had a second straight trip to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans locked up, this time against sixth-ranked Penn State (9-1). The match up was possible since coach Bear Bryant's #2 Alabama (10-0), the Southeastern Conference champion, was bypassing both the Orange and the Sugar and opting for a trip to the Cotton Bowl opposite #7 Texas (8-1), for reasons ranging from Bryant not wanting to play another Big Eight conference team in a bowl, having played the last four without a win, to his pairing with the Longhorns' Darrell Royal, who had personally taught him the wishbone offense a few years earlier. But there was still a title on the line in Lincoln.
The Huskers began the season as the two-time defending national champions and as the top-ranked team in the country for the first time ever, but in their opener, a 20-17 loss at UCLA ended their 32-game unbeaten streak and knocked them all the way down to #10, for all intent and purposes ending their quest for a third straight national title. Nebraska responded by pounding three non-conference foes, allowing just 14 points in the process, and then continued to dominate as they began the Big Eight portion of their schedule. The Huskers ran their shutout string to four straight games, and remained unscored upon for 17 straight quarters, beating then #7 Colorado in the process, a fairly easy 33-10 game, but they suffered a letdown and Iowa State had tied them, 23-23.
Huskers' coach Bob Devaney would walk the sidelines of a Nebraska-Oklahoma game for the last time, in addition to making his final appearance in front of the hometown fans at Memorial Stadium. In his 11 years at the helm, the longest coaching tenure at the school, he had built the program into one of the best in the country, and won 100 games, lost only 19, and tied two. Under his leadership, Nebraska had won six conference titles outright and had shared another, and the two national championships. In addition, in the previous ten contests against Oklahoma, Devaney had split those decisions, but he came in having won the last three straight and with an opportunity to tie Nebraska's longest winning streak in the series in 30 years. He had already announced early in the '72 campaign that he would retire at the end of the season to become the school's Athletic Director, and he had also announced that his young assistant coach, Tom Osborne, would take over the program.
The Huskers were riding a 23-game home winning streak, in addition to a 26-game conference unbeaten streak. They were led by a talented group of seniors, whose record over their three years in Lincoln was 31-1-2. Leading the way was a trio of returning All-American's from '71, middle guard Rich Glover, defensive end Willie Harper, and the Heisman Trophy favorite, wide receiver Johnny Rodgers, the greatest kick returner in college football history, who had returned eight punts for touchdowns and nine kickoffs for touchdowns, an NCAA record.
Guiding the Nebraska offense, which was averaging 44.7 points per game, was sophomore quarterback David Humm, a southpaw who was making his own mark in Husker lore in his first year at the helm. He had already passed for 1,970 yards and needed just 49 for the school mark, and he had thrown 17 touchdowns, equaling the Nebraska record, both set by Jerry Tagge a year earlier. Helping the defense, which permitted an average of 7.4 points per game, was tackle John Dutton and linebacker Jim Branch.
Oklahoma, behind sixth-year coach Chuck Fairbanks and his 49-15-1 record, also came in with a few All-American's from a year ago, senior center Tom Brahaney and Heisman hopeful senior halfback Greg Pruitt. The experienced offense, which was averaging 36.7 points per game, also featured senior tackle Dean Unruh and senior fullback Leon Crosswhite, and was under the capable direction of senior quarterback Dave Robertson, in just his first year as a starter. The defense, which had posted three shutouts, had allowed only one opponent more than seven points, and had permitted just four touchdowns all year, averaged permitting just five points per game, and was led by senior tackles Raymond Hamilton and Derland Moore, junior middle guard Lucious Selmon, and sophomore linebacker Rod Shoate.
An important factor in the game would be Pruitt, who was hobbling from an injury to his left ankle suffered a week earlier. It was the first year that freshman were eligible to play varsity football, and in his place would be little Joe Washington, from Port Arthur, TX. He became a starter at left halfback opposite Pruitt on the right in the team's sixth game of the year against Kansas State, and Joe came in having gained 480 yards on 78 carries, a healthy 6.15 per carry, and had scored four touchdowns, all coming in the first three games. Also helping ease the burden would be Crosswhite, who had rushed for 413 yards.
With a record crowd of 76,587 Thanksgiving Day celebrants on hand, and millions of fans across America tuned into ABC's national telecast, Nebraska and Oklahoma set about their game. Nothing much happened early, but in the middle of the opening period, Oklahoma's Kenith Pope signaled for a fair catch on a punt, but he fumbled and Nebraska's Jeff Moran recovered on the Sooner 49.
Humm directed the offense down the field, highlighted by a third down-and-ten completion of 12 yards to Dave Goeller that put the ball at the Oklahoma 16. Moments later, fullback Bill Olds took a draw and tore through a hole for the final 14 yards, which capped the nine-play drive. Rich Sanger kicked the extra point, and Nebraska was on top 7-0, with 7:32 left in the quarter. In a defensive struggle, that was the only scoring of the first half.
Midway through the third quarter, there was another Oklahoma miscue. This time, the ball was lifted from Joe Wylie's hands as he was returning a punt, the guilty party being Jerry List at the Sooner 24. Six plays later, with the ball at the one-yard line, Goeller took a handoff and leaped over the pile and into the end zone for a touchdown. Sanger's extra point made it 14-0 with 6:45 left in the third period.
The home crowd was ecstatic, and they could taste it. They envisioned witnessing Devaney's victorious finale, extending the winning streak, and another conference title. But Oklahoma refused to buckle, and they set about to retaliate.
The Sooners took over at the 24 on the ensuing kickoff, and it was Robertson who did the directing. It was his 38-yard pass to freshman end Tinker Owens, in because regular John Carroll was out of the game with an injury, which moved the ball to the Nebraska 38. The senior quarterback guided the team down the field, including a key pass to tight end Al Chandler. When Washington scampered around the right end on fourth down from a yard out and high-stepped past a few defenders and into the end zone to cap the 11-play, 76-yard drive, the Sooners were on the board. Senior Rick Fulcher kicked the extra point, and Oklahoma trailed by 14-7 at the 2:15 mark of the third quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Sooners got possession at the Nebraska 36 after a punt, and they appeared well within striking range. Robertson fired a 22-yard pass completion to Owens that moved the ball to the ten, and then a pass interference penalty call in the end zone put the ball on the one. From there, sophomore Grant Burget punched it across, and Fulcher's important and successful extra point tied the game, 14-14, with 11:45 left.
Memories of Nebraska's long drive a year earlier still lingered, but this was a stronger Sooners' defense. On their next series, Humm went back to pass, and Moore busted all over him, forcing a fumble, and Selmon pounced on the loose ball at the Nebraska 27 with 10:07 showing on the clock. Three Oklahoma tries netted only two yards, but on fourth down, Fulcher walked out. He had missed on field goal attempts from 41 and 45 yards in the first half, but he calmly kicked a 41-yarder to put the Sooners ahead for the first time in the game, 17-14, with 8:44 left on the clock.
The Oklahoma defense held suit the rest of the game, and as the seconds ticked away, Nebraska's defeat was assured. It was their first loss at home since 1969, their second loss anywhere in three years, and their first loss ever on artificial turf, and shot the Sooners into the conference leadership. And they did it by playing the last three quarters without two key players, Pruitt and Carroll. Pruitt's was a note of sadness, as certain Heisman voters were watching the game, but a lame ankle held him to just seven yards on a pair of carries. His Trophy rival didn't fare much better, as Rodgers caught three passes for 41 yards, ran four times for five, returned only one punt for seven, and a few kickoffs for not much worth talking about.
Oklahoma gained 327 yards to Nebraska's 181. The Sooners' offense was led by Crosswhite, who gained 95 punishing yards on 29 carries, Robertson, who completed ten of 22 passes for 186 yards, breaking the previous best performance against the Huskers set 31 years earlier, and Owens, who caught five for 108 yards. And then there was Wylie, who repeatedly punted the ball where Rodgers could not do much damage, while the Sooners were not penalized once.
Afterwards, Fairbanks offered, "This has got to be one of the greatest victories in my coaching career. The way the team was holding together when it was 14-0 and having pride and character to come back and win was just sensational."
Devaney also offered some comments. "There wasn't much we could have done differently. We couldn't have come up with any pattern to stick to. We were kind of grab bagging on offense. Oklahoma put some things together and moved down the field three times in a row. This Oklahoma football team is a fine football team. They deserved to win the game. They outplayed us. We just got beat by a better football team today."
Source: Jeff Linkowski