Oklahoma vs Nebraska 1971 Game of the Century
On a Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a 15-year-old boy would travel with his family to his grandmother’s home to get his heart crushed. He watched as his Sooners were defeated by the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The game ended 35-31 in the greatest college football game ever played. Furthermore, that same 65-year-old man still remembers that game like it was yesterday. The game of the century was played on Thursday, November 25, 1971. With this, we begin to take a journey to 50 years ago and look at the original game of the century.
The hype for this game was like no other, Sports Illustrated magazine termed it “Irresistible Oklahoma Meets Immovable Nebraska” on the cover of their issue leading up to the game. In reality, this couldn’t be more accurate.
The Nebraska defense had posted three shutouts and allowed an average of only 6.4 points per game, and the first defensive unit had only allowed five touchdowns all year.
As the season progressed it became clear that no one had ever seen anything like Oklahoma’s version of the wishbone. In early 1970, offensive coordinator Barry Switzer had copied Texas successful wishbone formation. The Sooners were now the most feared offensive team in the country. Oklahoma ranked first nationally averaging 45 points, 563 total yards per game, and 481 rushing yards per game.
With this in mind, the stage was set for the game of the century.
The teams combined to have 17 of 22 first-team All-Big Eight players. Nebraska had seven defensive players named to the Big 8 all-conference first team. For one thing, the Cornhusker defense had four players who would earn consensus All-America honors during their careers. Not to mention two Outland Trophy winners in tackle Larry Jacobson and middle guard Rich Glover. In like manner, Nebraska was led by quarterback Jerry Tagge and flanker Johnny Rodgers. Rodgers would eventually win the Heisman Trophy.
Be that as it may, Oklahoma was loaded on the offensive side of the ball. The Sooners’ record-setting offense was led by All-American quarterback Jack Mildren. Mildren rushed for over 1,000 yards but was also an underrated passer. His weapons were Heisman candidate halfback Greg Pruitt who averaged a stunning 9.5 yards per carry, as well as the sure-handed wide receiver Jon Harrison. All-America and future college football Hall of Famer Tom Brahaney was the anchor at center.
The first half was somewhat out of character for both teams. The Cornhuskers power offense was held in check by an undermanned Sooner defense. At the same time, the Sooners explosive wishbone offense was thwarted by the Nebraska defense. Another key point, the Sooners lost the ball on fumbles two times. The Sooner offense was continually frustrated by Husker middle guard Glover, who ended up with twenty-two tackles on the day.
The Cornhuskers struck first, with Rodgers shocking the Sooners with a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown. The punt return remains one of college football’s signature moments, due to the fact that at least two illegal clipping fouls were missed by the officials.
Oklahoma answered with a field goal. This was followed by a long Nebraska drive culminated by tailback Jeff Kinney diving into the endzone from the Sooner one-yard line. To be noted, this gave Nebraska a 14–3 lead which was the largest of the day. In addition, it should be remembered that Kinney would figure prominently in the decisive game-winning drive.
Oklahoma retaliated with a Mildren three-yard run to make the score 14–10 Nebraska with 5:40 to play in the first half.
Relying almost entirely on Mildren’s arm and legs, the Sooners grabbed a 17–14 lead on two long passes from Mildren to Harrison with five seconds left before halftime. For the first time all season, the Cornhuskers trailed.
To begin the second half, the Cornhuskers relied heavily on a power running game. Nebraska scored two touchdowns, the first of which following another Sooner lost fumble. At this point, Nebraska had forged ahead 28–17 with 3:38 to play in the third quarter.
Mildren then led the Sooners back with a pair of touchdowns. First Mildren got into the Nebraska end zone with a three-yard run followed by a 16-yard pass to Harrison. Oklahoma had forged ahead 31–28 with 7:10 to play.
The Huskers got the ball back on their own 26-yard line. Nebraska methodically marched down the field on a Sooner defense that was getting exhausted. Cornhusker tailback Kinney, carried four consecutive times, the last resulting in his fourth touchdown of the game. Although this may be true, it should be noted that Kinney fumbled the ball inside the Sooner three-yard line on the third carry. But once again the officiating crew missed a second crucial call. The ball would stay with Nebraska. Regardless, Kinney would finish the game with 171 yards on 31 carries. Nebraska regained the lead at 35–31 with only 98 seconds remaining.
On the Sooners final drive, sacks of Mildren on third and fourth down in Sooner territory finished the game off as a Nebraska victory in the greatest college football game ever played.
The Final Thought
In conclusion, this was undoubtedly the greatest college football game ever played. Despite the fact that the officials were responsible for two game-changing missed calls, this was the most memorable game in the life of that 15-year-old boy. With that being said, the now 65-year-old man still remembers with a bit of sadness how the Sooners lost that epic battle of college football bluebloods in the greatest college football game ever played.