This one really was “The Game of the Century.”
On November 25, 1971, a Thanksgiving Day never to be forgotten by Nebraska faithful, the undefeated, top-ranked Cornhuskers traveled to Norman to meet undefeated, second-ranked Oklahoma.
With television finally becoming omnipresent in the ‘60s, so, too, came unprecedented hype. College football proved no exception. 1966 featured a “Game of the Century” between a pair of undefeated, top-ranked teams.
Michigan State and Notre Dame battled to a yawn-inducing 10-10 tie, with the Irish actually running out the clock instead of trying to win. Dan Jenkins wrote mockingly in Sports Illustrated, “Tie, tie for old Notre Dame.”
1969 witnessed yet another “Game of the Century.” This one pitted Texas against Arkansas. Another defense-dominated, desultory affair — for 55 minutes. Then Texas quarterback James Street completed a 44-yard pass to Randy Peschel on fourth-and-4, the play ending on the Arkansas 13. Texas ran it in from there for a 15-14 win.
President Nixon took it upon himself to bypass the polls and present a championship plaque to Texas coach Darrell Royal after the game. Penn State fans never forgave him.
So when 1971 rolled around and the latest “Game of the Century” became hyped, much eye-rolling ensued. SI even got into the act, with a cover featuring Husker linebacker Bob Terrio and Sooner running back Greg Pruitt beneath the headline “Irresistible Oklahoma Meets Immovable Nebraska.”
Nebraska, the defending national champions, had won 20 straight, and had a 29-game unbeaten streak. They had the top-ranked defense in the nation, featuring two Outland Trophy winners, Larry Jacobson and Rich Glover.
Oklahoma ran the wishbone under offensive coordinator Barry Switzer, and ran it well. Quarterback Jack Mildren ran for over 1,000 yards. Pruitt averaged, yes, averaged, 9.5 yards per carry. The team ran for 472 yards per game.
Combined, the two teams produced 17 of the 22 first team All-Big Eight conference players!
This compelled Jenkins to observe, “Quality is what the game had more of than anything else. There had been scads of games in the past with equal pressure and buildup. Games of the Decade or Poll Bowls or whatever you want to call them. Something played in a brimming-over stadium for limb, life, and a national championship. But it is impossible to find one in which both teams performed so reputably for so long throughout the day.”
The difference in the game came fewer than four minutes in. Oklahoma’s Joe Wylie lifted a high, deep punt with a backing wind. Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers settled under it at his own 28, with 68,385 fans in Owen Stadium and 55 million television viewers looking for the fair-catch signal that never came.
Rodgers caught the punt and was hit quickly by Pruitt, the first man down the field on punt coverage. Rodgers took the hit, spun away from lunging Sooner Ken Jones, balanced himself with his left hand on the turf, and headed right.
He then darted left and sifted through most of the Oklahoma coverage team. The last man with a chance was Wylie, and he was screened as Rodgers crossed the goal.
“I don’t know what I did or what I was thinking about,” Rodgers told SI. “The return was set up to the right, but I saw a hole to my left and cut back. I do remember seeing Joe Blahak up ahead and thinking he would get a block for me.”
Rodgers’ electrifying punt return, one of college football’s most famous plays, was only the beginning. Oklahoma drove for a field goal, then the two teams traded touchdown drives. With only five seconds left in the half, Mildren hit Jon Harrison with a 24-yard touchdown pass, and the Sooners led, 17-14.
Nebraska drove for two touchdowns in the third quarter to lead, 28-17. But Oklahoma came back with a touchdown at the end of the third quarter, and added another midway through the fourth to lead, 31-28.
That set the stage for Nebraska’s final drive, a 12-play, 74-yard masterpiece that included three third-down conversions, one on a great catch by Rodgers. “Nobody said a word in the huddle but me,” quarterback Jerry Tagge told SI. “We all just knew what had to be done.”
With 1:38 remaining, tailback Jeff Kenney rolled in from the two for his fourth touchdown of the day. Nebraska led, 35-31. That would be the final score, as Mildren was sacked twice on Oklahoma’s final possession.
How good was this game? Nebraska jumped offside once, and that was the only penalty of the game.
Nebraska took away the wide pitch to Pruitt, but that left the secondary vulnerable. Mildren threw 11 times for 188 yards, and Harrison caught a pair of touchdown passes. Oklahoma took away Nebraska’s passing attack — Tagge threw for only 65 yards — but gave up the power running game. Kinney ran for 171 yards on 31 carries.
Nebraska would beat undefeated Alabama, 38-6, in the Orange Bowl to clinch the National Championship. Oklahoma would beat Auburn, 42-22, in the Sugar Bowl to finish number two. Number three was Colorado, which lost twice: to Nebraska and Oklahoma. That’s right; three schools from the same conference finished one, two, three. Unprecedented.
I’ve seen many marvelous college football teams through the years, but I’ve never seen a better one than the ’71 Cornhuskers. And I’ve never seen a better “Game of the Century.”