1971 Nebraska vs. Oklahoma football game
|Nebraska vs. Oklahoma, 1971
The "Game of the Century"
|Date||November 25, 1971|
|National anthem||The Pride of Oklahoma Marching Band|
|United States TV coverage|
|Announcers||Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson|
This page lists the events of the 1971 Nebraska vs. Oklahoma football game, the 51st game in the Nebraska–Oklahoma football rivalry.
On Thursday, November 25, 1971, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, defending national champions, ranked #1 with a 20-game winning streak (and 29 games without a loss) played the Oklahoma Sooners, ranked #2. The Cornhuskers defeated the Sooners 35–31.
The teams combined for 17 of 22 first-team All-Big Eight players. Nebraska had the nation’s top-ranked defense. Oklahoma had the nation's most productive offense with their wishbone averaging over 472 rushing yards per game, a NCAA record.
The cover of Sports Illustrated (1971-11-22) published the week of the game included photographs of Nebraska linebacker Bob Terrio and Oklahoma running back Greg Pruitt, nose-to-nose, beneath the headline: "Irresistible Oklahoma Meets Immovable Nebraska.’’
The Husker "Blackshirts" defense included seven first-team All-Big Eight selections, four players who would earn consensus All-America recognition during their careers and two Outland Trophy winners: tackle Larry Jacobson and middle guard Rich Glover. Glover would win both the Outland and Lombardi awards in 1972 and eventually be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. They were joined in the starting lineup by end Willie Harper, like Glover, a two-time All-American. John Dutton, an All-American in 1973, was a sophomore backup.
The Sooners' record-setting wishbone attack was led by All-American QB Jack Mildren who rushed for over 1,000 yards, but was also a very good passer. His weapons were Heisman candidate HB Greg Pruitt, who averaged a stunning 9.5 yards per carry and speedy split end Jon Harrison. Future College Football Hall of Famer Tom Brahaney was the anchor at center.
The Husker offense was led by flanker Johnny Rodgers, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy the next season and bullish tailback Jeff Kinney, a future NFL first round draft pick. The Sooner defense was anchored by all-Big 8 defensive tackle Derland Moore, a future All-American and NFL Pro Bowler.
ABC-TV broadcast the game nationally to an estimated 55 million viewers (at the time the largest television audience ever for a college football game) with Chris Schenkel doing the play-by-play. Joining him in the booth for color analysis was Oklahoma's legendary former coach, Bud Wilkinson, with Bill Flemming reporting from 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 Minnesota-born coach who had guided the Sooners to prominence with three national championships and an NCAA record 47-game winning streak in the 1950s.
The game was played at Owen Field in Norman on Thanksgiving Day. Not only at stake was the Big Eight title, but also the #1 national 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) with Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan at quarterback, hosted #3 Alabama (10-0) for the SEC title, the two opponents that Oklahoma and Nebraska would play. 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.
The NU-OU game went back and forth. The Cornhuskers struck first, with Rodgers shocking the Sooners with a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown after the Sooners' first possession was stopped. The punt return remains one of college football's signature moments.
The first half was atypical for both teams, as the Cornhuskers' potent offense was stymied by the underrated Sooner defense; meanwhile, the Sooners devastating wishbone offense was blunted by the brutal Cornhusker defense, as the Sooners had several turnovers and were continually frustrated by Husker middle guard Rich Glover, who would end up with twenty-two tackles on the day despite lining up across from Sooner all-American center Tom Brahaney.
Nebraska held a 14–3 lead, but Oklahoma came back, relying almost entirely on Jack Mildren's arm and legs, and the Sooners grabbed the lead at halftime, 17–14, on two long passes from Mildren to Harrison with just seconds left in the first half. For the first time all season, the Cornhuskers were trailing in a game.
Relying on a power running game, the Huskers retook the lead and led 28–17 going into the fourth quarter. Quarterback Jack Mildren led the Sooners back, and Oklahoma led 31–28 with 7:05 to play. The Huskers got the ball back on their own 26-yard line. Getting to the Oklahoma 48, Husker quarterback Jerry Tagge threw to Rodgers, who broke tackles and ran all the way to the 15. Tailback Jeff Kinney then carried four times, the last resulting in his fourth touchdown of the game, and Nebraska led 35–31 with two minutes to go. Sacks of Mildren on third and fourth down in Sooner territory finished the game off as a Nebraska win. Kinney finished with 171 yards on 31 carries (5.5 avg.).
This game, much more than the previous year's national championship, made Nebraska a program with a national following. Already having sold every seat available at their Memorial Stadium since coach Bob Devaney arrived in 1962, they would be a perennial National Championship contender and a frequent presence on national TV.
The Cornhuskers went on to the 1972 Orange Bowl and soundly defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide, then ranked #2, 38–6. This completed the Huskers' back-to-back national championships. Devaney returned in 1972 hoping to win three consecutive national championships, but was derailed by a season-opening road loss to UCLA. He retired right after defeating Notre Dame in the 1973 Orange Bowl. Continuing as Nebraska's athletic director, he handed the reins of the football program over to assistant Tom Osborne, then age 36.
Greg Pruitt did not win the 1971 Heisman, which went to Auburn University quarterback Pat Sullivan. By a coincidence, Auburn was the team Oklahoma would end up playing, in the Sugar Bowl, and the Sooners won, 40–22. (By another coincidence, these two arch-rivals, Nebraska and Oklahoma, would end up playing each half of another rivalry, Alabama and Auburn, and beat them both.)
Despite the defeat, Oklahoma's program was also relaunched by this game, and they would be a perennial national contender throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s. Oklahoma coach Chuck Fairbanks left the Sooners following the 1972 season for the New England Patriots of the NFL. Offensive coordinator Barry Switzer succeeded Fairbanks and compiled a 157–29–4 record from 1973–88 and guided the Sooners to national championships in 1974, 1975, and 1985.
The top three teams in the final AP poll for the 1971 season were from the Big Eight: Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Colorado.
Nebraska vs. Oklahoma, considered a minor rivalry before the Game of the Century (of 1971), became one of the biggest in the country, usually played on the day after Thanksgiving. A scandal caught up with Oklahoma in the late 1980s, sending it into a decline, which coincided with the rise of the football program at Colorado, which eventually replaced Oklahoma as Nebraska's biggest rival, with the game reserved for year-end.
Oklahoma would rise again in the late 1990s, as the Big Eight added the four most prominent Southwest Conference schools to become the Big 12 Conference in 1996. But since one of those four schools was Texas, already a major rival with Oklahoma, the UT-OU rivalry grew in importance. Since Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were put in the Big 12 Southern Division, while Nebraska and the other Big Eight teams went into the Big 12 North, NU and OU only played each other twice every four seasons, which significantly diminished the rivalry.
Nebraska left the Big 12 at the end of the 2010-11 academic year to join the Big Ten Conference. The Sooners and Huskers met in the final Big 12 championship game on December 4, 2010, with OU winning 23-20. Both schools reached an agreement on November 29, 2012 to play a home and home series scheduled for 2021 and 2022. The 2021 game would be played in Norman to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1971 classic, with the 2022 contest to be played in Lincoln. The Sporting News named the 1971 Cornhusker team as the greatest team of the Twentieth Century in 1988.
- Oklahoma Sooners Official Athletic Site - Football
- "Hype was exceeded by performance". ESPN Classic. Retrieved 2010-04-24.
- 1971 Oklahoma vs. Nebraska Game Recap - SoonerStats.com - Oklahoma Sooners Football, Basketball, and Baseball Scores, Records, and Stats
- "Nebraska's 1971 National Championship Team". The Official Web Site of Nebraska Athletics. Retrieved 2010-04-24.
- "OU Football Tradition : All-Conference Players". SoonerSports.com. Archived from the original on 23 May 2010. Retrieved 2010-04-24.
- "Oklahoma 31, Nebraska 35". SoonerSports.com. Retrieved 2010-04-24.