Thanksgiving Day; 1971
It is Thanksgiving Day, 1971, Norman, Oklahoma, before a crowd of 61,826 at Owens Field on the campus of the University of Oklahoma. The #1 ranked and undefeated (10-0) Nebraska Cornhuskers were facing the #2 ranked and equally undefeated (9-0) Oklahoma Sooners. The game would be viewed by a national television audience of 55 million people, the most people to ever watch a college football game up to that time. Nebraska had the stingiest defense in the country, led by future Outland Trophy winners Larry Jacobson and Rich Glover. Oklahoma had the most prolific offense in the country. Perfecting the innovative wishbone formation, led by quarterback Jack Mildren and running back Greg Pruitt, the Sooners were held to less than 30 points in only one game, a 20-3 victory over University of Missouri.The irresistible force ( The Oklahoma Offense) met the immovable object (The Nebraska Defense) on that Thanksgiving Day.
Nebraska coach Bob Devaney’s offense was led by Quarterback Jerry Tagge, running back Jeff Kinney, and future Heisman Trophy winner, all-purpose back Johnny Rogers. Nebraska received the opening kickoff and quickly went three and out. They punted the ball to Oklahoma who couldn’t move on the Cornhuskers defense and were forced to punt it back to Nebraska. The punt was high and long, the Sooners coverage was there. Most people in the stands felt like Nebraska’s Johnny Rogers would be wise to call a fair catch at Nebraska’s own 28 yard line. But Rogers didn’t call for a fair catch and was immediately hit by a Sooner tackler. Unfortunately for Oklahoma the hit actually knocked Rogers away from two other Sooners, Rogers then cut left and broke into the open field. Another left cut towards the sidelines and Rogers was behind the Sooner coverage. Bob Terrio blocked the last man with a shot at Rogers, and he finished his spectacular 72 yard return, Nebraska led 7-0.
Oklahoma answered with a field goal, but then, led by a dominant offensive line, Jerry Tagge marched the Huskers down the field on a long drive. Early in the 2nd quarter Jeff Kinney finished the drive with a one yard touchdown run and a 14-3 Nebraska lead.
Jack Mildren and the Oklahoma wishbone offense finally got on track, marching down the field, culminating with a 3-yard Mildren touchdown run. Oklahoma’s defense then forced another Nebraska punt and Oklahoma took over deep in their own territory late in the 2nd quarter. Mildren then crossed up the Huskers by making two long throws to Jon Harrison, the second a 24 yard touchdown strike and Oklahoma led 17-14 at the half.
Nebraska took over in the 3rd quarter. Behind the running of Tagge and Kinney and the pass catching ability of Rogers they had two long scoring drives to lead 28-17. Oklahoma responded on another touchdown run by Mildren to close to 28-24 entering the 4th quarter.
The Cornhuskers opened the 4th period with another long, time consuming drive. On a first down and ten yards to go from the Oklahoma 23 Tagge fumbled the ball and the Sooner’s Lucious Selman recovered. Mildren marched Oklahoma down the field, converting on one 4th down, eventually finding Jon Harrison again in the end zone, and the Sooners retook the lead 31-28 with less than eight minutes to go in the game.
Nebraska started their last drive from deep in their own territory, and moved to the Oklahoma 46. On a 3rd down and eight, Tagge eluded the Oklahoma rush, scrambled to the right and then found Johnny Rogers for 10 yards and a first down. Nebraska continued to methodically march down the field. Jeff Kinney went off tackle on a second and goal from the six yard line, and as he went down on the two the ball came loose and Oklahoma recovered. The referees correctly ruled that his knee was down before the ball came loose, and when Kinney scored on the next play there was less than two minutes to go, and Nebraska led 35-31.
After the ensuing kickoff, Oklahoma took over on their own 19 yard line. After an incomplete pass and a short run by Mildren, Larry Jacobson sacked Mildren on third down, and when Jacobson and Rich Glover pressured Mildren into an incomplete pass on 4th down the Cornhuskers clinched it.
Many college football games through the years have been called the “Game of the Century”. This one lived up to it’s billing. Total yards favored Oklahoma, 467-362, but this doesn’t take into account Roger’s fantastic punt return. There was only one penalty in the game, a 5-yard infraction against Nebraska. Oklahoma had three turnovers to Nebraska’s one, which probably was the difference in the game. Simply put, it was a great game between two great teams.
The aftermath of the contest just shows how far ahead of the rest of the country these two teams were. During the same Thanksgiving weekend two other undefeated teams met in Alabama. Undefeated Alabama defeated undefeated Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The results left Alabama ranked #2, and Auburn #5 in the final regular season polls (Oklahoma fell to #3). As things worked out, Auburn would play Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and Nebraska faced Alabama in the Orange Bowl.
The results on New Year’s Day were conclusive. First Oklahoma destroyed Auburn, jumping out to a 40-7 lead before allowing two late scores in their 40-22 route. That evening Nebraska did similar to Alabama, racing out to a 28-0 lead at halftime, before cruising to a 38-6 triumph. These blow-outs were consistent with both teams regular season. Besides the Oklahoma game, the closest any other team would get to the Cornhuskers was Colorado; who lost 31-7. Oklahoma’s next tightest game was a 33-20 victory over USC. No season has seen two teams separate themselves so clearly from the rest of the country.
They were not dominating weak schedules either. Nebraska beat teams that ended the season ranked #2 (Oklahoma, 35-31), #3 (Colorado, 31-7), and #4 (Alabama 38-6); while Oklahoma routed #3 (Colorado, 45-17), #12 (Auburn, 40-22), #18 (Texas, 48-27), and #20 (USC, 33-20).
1971 would be the only year that teams out of the same conference would end the year ranked #1, #2, and #3. With three of the Big-8s eight teams in the top three. It is also clear that Nebraska and Oklahoma were miles ahead of #3 ranked Colorado, since both teams crushed the Buffs, indicating that their Thanksgiving game has the best argument for being called “The Game of the Century”.