Oklahoma 24, Alabama 24

December 31, 1970 | at Houston | Attendance 53,829

Indoors at the Houston Astrodome, the 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl matched two big name schools that in years past would have been a marquee game, but unfortunately in this season, was not.

Under head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, Alabama was the best team of the Sixties. They had won three AP national championships, '61, '64 and '65, and had finished with an 11-0 record in '66 but denied another, the centerpiece of a 17-game winning streak and 25-game unbeaten streak. However, a loss to Tennessee in '67 not only cost them the streaks and the Southeastern Conference title, but it also began a downward spiral, as two eight-win seasons were followed by a 6-5 record in '69, and all three seasons ended without a conference crown and with bowl losses. Regardless, the Crimson Tide was able to hold on and post a 90-16-4 mark during the decade, a .836 winning percentage, topping Texas for the best in the nation.

On a larger scale, major college football in the South was as segregated as the lunchrooms and restrooms, and the region's talented black players had two college choices, play at a small, predominantly black school in the South or head north or west. For years, Bryant had defended charges of racism by saying the existing social climate did not permit him to go after black players, but he decided to change the playing field a little following the '69 season and recruit some black athletes, something that no SEC school had done. With that, Ozark (AL) high school running back Wilbur Jackson became Bryant's first African-American scholarship player, but as an incoming freshman was ineligible for play varsity the first year.

To open the new decade, Alabama began '70 ranked #16 in the preseason AP poll, but the recent trend continued, helped along by a tough schedule that included seven opponents ranked at the time, which resulted in just two wins. They opened with an embarrassing 42-21 loss against #3 USC, and followed that with conference losses to #7 Mississippi (48-23) and #14 Tennessee (24-0), both convincingly, and to #11 LSU (14-9) and rival #11 Auburn (33-28), both close games. Fortunately, the Tide had blown out the other four unranked opponents on their schedule by an average score of 38-11 en route to posting yet another uncharacteristic 6-5 record.

Alabama had an offense that was averaging 28.2 points per game, and it was under the direction of three-year starting senior quarterback Scott Hunter, who despite missing some action with a shoulder separation, threw for 1,240 yards and eight touchdowns in '70, and featured All-American junior halfback Johnny Musso, a two-year starter who had rushed for 1,137 yards and eight touchdowns while also grabbing 30 passes for 160 yards during the campaign. Meanwhile, most of their problems were on the other side of the ball, and opponents had scored an average of 21.8 points per game against an uncommonly weak Crimson Tide defense. And now, they faced their eighth ranked opponent.

Oklahoma, after a phenomenal decade of the Fifties in which they captured three national championships and posted a nation's best 93-10-2 record, including claiming all ten conference titles while losing just one game and tying another, had suffered through a rough decade in the Sixties, enduring two losing seasons, winning only three conference titles and posting a 62-40-2 overall record, good at some schools, but not in the spoiled area of Norman. Coming off a 6-4 season in '69, and suffering a big loss with the graduation of Heisman Trophy winner and the Big Eight's career rushing leader, Steve Owens, Sooners' fourth-year head coach Chuck Fairbanks, 10-1 in his rookie year of '67, began '70 hoping to patch up a porous defense and run out of a double-wing veer pro-style receiver offense, which would give junior quarterback Jack Mildren more options to run and pass and also better utilize his smaller and quicker running backs. However, as the old saying goes, "the best laid plans…"

In the Sooners' opener, it was the revamped defense that grabbed most of the accolades while the offense rolled up 415 total yards during a 28-11 win over SMU. Next, against Wisconsin, again it was the defense that kept Oklahoma within striking distance, as the offense finally hit its stride to erase a 7-0 halftime deficit, accumulated 401 yards, and grabbed a 21-7 victory. Then in a 23-14 loss to Oregon State, the Sooners were bad and showed so little offense, 191 yards, and an admittedly embarrassed Fairbanks promised to quickly find offensive answers, for they had only two weeks to prepare for their toughest challenge of the season, defending national champion and Red River rival Texas.

Oklahoma was running a passing offense, but the problem was they weren't doing it effectively and their personnel were really not suited for it. At the suggestion of young offensive coordinator Barry Switzer, they decided to copy the most successful offense in the country, none other than Texas' triple option wishbone formation, introduced in '68 and once perfected, the potent attack that the Longhorns used to punish opponents into submission en route to a 23-game winning streak, along with leading the nation in rushing and scoring, and crowned with the '69 national title. So in midstream, the Sooners changed and installed their new offense, practiced privately behind locked gates, and then unveiled their version of the wishbone against their rivals, but the Longhorns personally showed them how to use it, and also how to defend it, during a 41-9 pasting, the most points Texas had ever scored in the 65-year series and one point shy of their largest margin of victory.

However, sometimes a few steps backwards are needed to move forward, and the offense was there to stay, and behind Mildren, it went through some growing pains over the next few games, which the Sooners split, before winning three straight to head into Lincoln for a game with #3 Nebraska. A hard fought contest against the tough Huskers, tied 14-14 at halftime before the Sooners fell, 28-21, was a performance that earned them the Bluebonnet bid. And then Oklahoma closed their regular season slate by pounding Bedlam rival Oklahoma State, 66-6, as their wishbone racked up 519 yards rushing and their defense limited the Cowboys to just two yards rushing.

Oklahoma (7-4) came into the bowl game averaging a modest 25.5 points per game. At the controls, Mildren had passed for 818 yards and seven touchdowns and rushed for 318 yards and five touchdowns. But the big weapon out of the backfield was All-Big Eight sophomore halfback Joe Wylie, who rushed for 984 yards on 159 carries, averaging 6.2 yards per carry, and had scored 13 touchdowns, 12 on the ground. Another stellar sophomore was fullback Leon Crosswhite, who did not even become a starter until the seventh game, but bulled his way for 568 yards and a pair of touchdowns. And yet another threat was sophomore Greg Pruitt, a versatile speedster who had been moved from his split end position in midseason to help in the backfield, gaining 241 yards on the ground and 240 more via 19 receptions, and scoring seven touchdowns. Meanwhile, junior middle linebacker Steve Aycock led the defense with 103 tackles, part of a unit that had permitted an average of 19.5 points per game.

Both school's colors were crimson and white, so with Oklahoma designated as the home team, they wore their dark jerseys with crimson helmets. Meanwhile, Alabama wore white jerseys and since their crimson helmet so closely resembled the Sooners', the Tide opted for a white helmet with a crimson stripe and number, something they had often done during the Sixties to help distinguish their players.

In front of 53,822, Alabama got things started when they took over at its 46. Musso began the drive, but it was Hunter who did most of the damage. He connected with tight end Randy Moore for a 16-yard gain, and then the pair capped the eight-play drive by hooking up for a touchdown from five yards out. After Richard Ciemny's extra point, the Crimson Tide led 7-0 at the 8:19 mark of the opening period.

Oklahoma started the ensuing possession on its 26, and their march was replete with key plays. Faced with a third down-and-11, Mildren hit junior flanker Jon Harrison, his teammate back at Abilene (TX) Christian high school, for 12 yards to move the chains. On a third-and-seven, Pruitt sprinted left for a gain of eight. And then came another third-and-11 at the Tide 36, and Mildren let go with the key pass of the drive, but was nailed to the Astroturf, so he did not see his floater caught by a diving Harrison at the two for a gain of 34. On the next play, Wylie rammed over the goal line to cap the drive, and senior Bruce Derr kicked the tying extra point with 2:42 left in the first.

Early in the second quarter, Alabama drove 58 yards down the field to set up a first-and-goal at the Oklahoma nine-yard line. After two plays gained a yard, Hunter tried to pass to split end David Bailey toward the corner of the end zone, but junior cornerback Steve O'Shaughnessy intercepted the ball to end the threat.

Oklahoma took over at its 20 following the touchback, and four plays moved the ball to the 42. Next, Pruitt, a Houston native, took a crisp pitch from Mildren, cut around the left end and turned on the afterburners down the sideline, picked up a key block from Harrison on junior cornerback Steve Higginbotham, and cut back inside. It was a foot race from there, and Pruitt eluded a diving David Knapp at the ten to complete his 58-yard touchdown dash. Derr's kick made it 14-7 in favor of Oklahoma at the 8:11 mark.

On the Sooners' next possession, which also started at its 20, Mildren needed seven plays to move the offense across midfield and down to the Alabama 25. From there, Oklahoma went back to the well with virtually the same earlier scoring play to Pruitt. He swept left on a pitchout, got a key block from Wylie, pulled a neat shuffle to avoid a couple of tacklers, and followed a convoy comprised of senior tackle John Watson and a pair of sophomores, center Tom Brahaney and guard Dean Unruh, down the sideline and into the end zone. Derr's kick increased the Sooners' lead to 21-7 with 3:22 left in the half.

Alabama started their ensuing possession on the 25, and Hunter used the time left on the clock effectively. He passed for five to Moore, 13 to Bailey, and 21 to George Ranager as the Tide moved onto Sooners' territory and down the field. Going to the air again, Hunter's pass to Ranager at the seven was too high, but Oklahoma sophomore defensive back Larry Roach was flagged for interference. Two plays later, Hunter found Bailey for a five-yard scoring toss, capping the 11-play 75-yard drive. Ciemny's kick made it a seven-point game with just 14 seconds left in the first half, 21-14, and the teams went into the locker room.

To open the second half, misfortune struck the Sooners as Pruitt fumbled at the 27, and defensive end Robin Parkhouse recovered. Alabama moved in to tie the game, but Oklahoma held firm in the shadow of their own goal when senior tackle Kevin Grady made a fine stop on third down, and Ciemny came on to boot a 20-yard field goal. It cut the Sooners' lead to 21-17 with 12:21 left in the third.

The third period continued to be a defensive battle played on the Oklahoma end of the field, but the Sooners appeared to be out of a hole when sophomore linebacker Gary Baccus recovered a Musso fumble at the 50 late in the stanza. Unfortunately, the offense that had been so devastating in the first half was unable to move, and even in their next possession, stymied by a 15-yard penalty, they encountered the same fate, as the four-point lead was now into the final quarter.

With Hunter at the controls, and taking over at the Tide 25, they marched across midfield and into Oklahoma territory. It seemed to have stalled when they reached a fourth down-and-ten at the 25, an area that was a bit too far for a field goal attempt and in too close to punt the ball away. Bryant reached into his bag of trickery and Musso took a handoff and started to his right, but he stopped and fired a left-handed pass back across the field for Hunter, who barely scraped it off the turf, and with the Sooners caught napping, made a mad dash untouched into the end zone. Ciemny's extra point gave Alabama a 24-21 lead with 7:36 left in the game.

Oklahoma got the ball back at its 20 for their next possession, and calmly, Mildren directed the offense on a ground attack. Except for Crosswhite's 19-yard run, the yardage came in small doses, successfully moving all the way to a first down at the Alabama 24. But with time fading fast and faced with a third-and-five at the 19, the Tide's Parkhouse nailed Mildren for a loss of six yards, and Fairbanks was forced to send Derr out for a 42-yard field goal attempt. As the kicker trotted out, thoughts had to drift back to another incident on this field in the same game two years earlier, when as a sophomore, he missed a 19-yarder which allowed SMU to preserve their 28-27 victory. Now, his kick was true, and with 59 seconds left, the game was tied, 24-24.

Fairbanks did not want to settle for a tie, so an onside kick was ordered, but Derr's boot did not travel ten yards and it took a reverse hop, rolling dead back where he had kicked off, at the 40, and Alabama had one last shot. On the first play, a draw, Musso broke through and rambled 21 yards to give the Tide the ball on the 19. Rather than go for the end zone, Bryant turned conservative to run the clock down, and he ordered running plays, as David Brungard gained two yards and then Hunter was stopped for loss on the next play, and Alabama called time out with five seconds left in the game. Ciemny lined up for the potential game-winning 34-yard field goal, but Oklahoma junior safety John Shelley blocked the kick, and it sailed wide left, ending the game in a 24-24 tie.

While the defense was not always sharp, there were some key stops made along the way, but the two teams combined for 843 total yards, and it was amazingly close. Alabama had the ball for 29 minutes and 43 seconds, ran 69 offensive plays and gained 428 yards in total offense, while Oklahoma had the ball for 30:17, ran 67 plays, and totaled 415 yards in total offense. Alabama's Musso led all ball carriers with 138 yards on 27 carries, while Oklahoma's Crosswhite had carried 20 times for 111 yards, and it was his inside slashes that opened up the eight-man Tide front for Pruitt's wide carries, gaining 97 yards on just eight carries, and voted the outstanding back of the game.

Source: Jeff Linkowski

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