Game of the Century

#1 Nebraska 35
#2 Oklahoma 31

Nov. 25, 1971 • Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, Norman, Oklahoma

1 2 3 4 T
Nebraska 7 7 14 7 35
Oklahoma 3 14 7 7 31

Dramatic comeback hoists No. 1 banner to dizzying heights


Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers returns a punt for a touchdown against Oklahoma. THE WORLD-HERALD


NORMAN, Okla. — In what surely must stand as one of the most stirring dramas in the 102 years of college football, Nebraska’s magnificent Cornhuskers asserted their right to the national championship by driving 74 yards in the final minutes to defeat top challenger Oklahoma, 35-31, here Thursday at Owen Field.

The teams were 1-2, the pollsters said, and there was nothing in the conduct of the game or in the final accounting to refute that estimate.

Perhaps most symbolic of the Husker effort was the picture of senior halfback Jeff Kinney, his jersey in tatters, bulling across the goal line for the winning touchdown — and his fourth of the game — on his 29th carry.

Oklahoma partisans in the record crowd of 63,385 came hoping to see swift Greg Pruitt run away from the Cornhuskers. Pruitt was effective, but mainly as a decoy.

But the show-stealer was Kinney, the old reliable from McCook. He does not have sprint speed nor is he blessed with the moves of a darting rabbit.

Kinney does have outstanding talent, but most of all he had old-fashioned Husker dedication. He was the game’s leading ground-gainer — accounting for 174 yards as Nebraska wrapped up the Big Eight championship.

Pruitt netted 53 yards in 10 carries while quarterback Jack Mildren was heading the Oklahoma list with 130 yards rushing and 137 passing.

Surprisingly, Nebraska outrushed Oklahoma by 297 yards to 279, with the Blackshirts holding the nation’s ground-gaining leaders to their smallest sum of the year.

Only slightly less surprising was the fact Oklahoma gathered the most yards passing, 188-65.

Johnny R. Rides

Oklahoma totaled 467 yards, compared with Nebraska’s 362, but the Blackshirts put a severe limitation on the "big play" for which the host team has been known and feared.

At the finish on a dark, windy Thanksgiving afternoon, Nebraska sported an 11-0 record and Oklahoma was 9-1. Rival players embraced or shook hands, fans rushed onto the field, the Nebraska band blared, banners waved and streamers flew through the air.

Husker Johnny Rodgers rode to the dressing room on the shoulders of admirers.

Rodgers remained a "big play" guy, racing 72 yards to a touchdown on a punt return for the opening points of the game. That was the junior’s 16th touchdown of the season.

Rodgers also caught five passes, replacing Kinney as the N.U. career record-holder with a total of 89.

Kinney, meanwhile, hiked his career rushing total to 2,265, breaking the school record (2,196) set by All-American Bob Reynolds in 1950-52. And the four touchdowns increased to 33 the N.U. career record already in Kinney’s possession.

Milestone for Tagge

Quarterback Jerry Tagge, ever the well-poised master of the situation, collected 114 yards running and passing to become the first Nebraska player ever to crack the 2,000-yard total offense mark in a single season. With the Hawaii game remaining, he has 2,040 yards this fall.

Tagge went the route in this nationally televised Game of Games, and piloted his crew on touchdown drives of 54, 53, 61 and 74 yards as Nebraska twice had to come from behind to keep the record straight on which "Big Red" deserves No. 1 status.

Mildren, an undisputed marvel at running the wishbone-T, directed one drive of 85 yards that was climaxed by Oklahoma’s initial points, a 30-yard field goal by tall John Carroll.

Mildren also was in charge on touchdown-producers that covered 80, 78, 73 and 69 yards. Make no mistake on this point: No previous opponent this year had come close to treating the Blackshirts in such a cavalier manner.

In fact, the defense had allowed rivals to penetrate the N.U. 20 only 12 times in 10 games.

But in the final analysis of the Oklahoma scrap, the Blackshirts were tough enough and the Husker offense was at its best when the pressure was greatest.

Horrific Pressure

The pressure was horrific, when, with 7:05 to play, Oklahoma held a 31-28 advantage and Nebraska held the ball on its own 26.

The darkness was increasing and a light rain was falling.

These were the first-down plays as Nebraska began its history-making trek of 74 yards: Skirting the N.U. left end, Kinney ran inside a block by Maury Damkroger for 17 yards to the Sooner 48; a Tagge-Rodgers pass covered 11 yards to the 35; Kinney swept his left flank for 13; Kinney charged through Dick Rupert’s left guard spot for seven to the eight-yard line.

Kinney then made two at the right side. The clock showed 2:20 remaining. Nebraska called time, and Tagge went to the sideline for a strategy meeting with Devaney, Mike Corgan and Carl Selmer, the latter being in phone contact with coaches in the press box.

On second down, Kinney dragged a pair of tacklers three yards.

Kinney got the touchdown through the N.U. left side, churning past a Damkroger block to score with 1:36 remaining. Quickly on his feet, Damkroger ran to give Kinney a victory hug.

Sophomore Rich Sanger, whose only miss had been a 56-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter, then kicked his fifth extra point.

72-Yard Stunner

Only three minutes and 32 seconds had elapsed when Rodgers’ punt return put Nebraska on top, 6-0. Johnny started up the middle, broke a tackle, engaged in some patented weaving, took advantage of a vital block by Joe Blahak and sped along the sideline to complete the 72-yard stunner.

The play gave Rodgers 520 punt-return yards for the season, a bulge of five yards over the conference record set by Oklahoma’s Jack Mitchell in 1948.

Oklahoma’s best distance weapon against N.U. was Mildren passing to split end Jon Harrison, his former Abilene, Tex., schoolmate. Following the Rodgers run, Mildren tagged Harrison on a 32-yard play that gave Oklahoma a first down on the Husker 21. This time the Blackshirts held, and O.U. settled for Carroll’s 30-yard field goal after reaching the 13.

Just before the end of the first period, Blahak hit Pruitt, forcing a fumble which Jim Anderson recovered on the N.U. 46. Twelve plays later, Kinney used blocks by Bill Olds and Keith Wortman to score from the one.

Sooners Rebound

Oklahoma fought back with two demonstrations of ball control that had Husker enthusiasts gulping.

Mildren took the Sooners 80 yards for this initial touchdown, which he scored from the two. It looked embarrassingly easy as he faked to fullback Leon Crosswhite going through left guard, then ran high, wide and untouched.

Shortly before the half, when it appeared Nebraska could tote a 14-10 lead to the intermission chalk talks, Oklahoma struck again. This time it was a genuine blitz; 78 yards in four plays.

The king-size bolts were Mildren’s 43-yard toss to Harrison, who eluded the hard-working Bill Kosch, and a 24-yarder for the touchdown by the same tandem.

Harrison is a Rodgers type: 5-9, 157 pounds, sprint-fast and elusive.

He scored with five seconds to go in the half — and for the first time this season, Nebraska was on the short end of the score.

Although Oklahoma’s margin was a modest 17-14, the halftime statistics had an ominous look. Oklahoma was out front in total yardage, 311 to 91, and in first downs, 14 to 5. It had controlled the ball for 18:51 of the first 30 minutes.

But Nebraska spurted in the third quarter, scoring twice in a span of five minutes and 16 seconds.

Fumble Ignites Rally

The first rallying effort came after end John Adkins, who turned in his finest day as a Husker, forced a Mildren fumble. Dave Mason recovered on the N.U. 47.

Six plays later, Kinney used blocks by Wortman and tackle Al Austin to score from the three.

When end Willie Harper nailed Mildren 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage a couple of minutes later, the Sooners were obliged to punt.

This time Nebraska notched 61 yards in nine plays. The only third-down situation was solved when Tagge passed to Rodgers for 10. That put the ball on the one, and brother Kinney this time followed blocks by tight end Jerry List and Austin for the touchdown.

Nebraska led by 28-17 late in the third quarter.

Oklahoma promptly retaliated, zooming 73 yards in seven plays, including a 51-yard pass from Mildren to burly tight end Al Chandler. With the ball on the 16, Mildren carried four straight times, the final thrust coming from the three with Mason and Bob Terrio trying to hang on.

With the fourth quarter barely more than two minutes old and Nebraska leading only by 28-24, Danny Mullen separated Tagge and the ball and Lucious Selmon recovered on the Sooner 31.

The Blackshirts made a bitter fight of it, but O.U. moved 6 yards and on fourth down with six to make at the Husker 17, Mildren passed to the devilish little Harrison for a touchdown.

Nebraska then took the kickoff and embarked on a championship drive that should be accorded space in football anthologies for many decades to come.

* * *

Related

» Never-before seen photos of the Game of the Century (2014)

Attendance
61,826


More coverage

World-Herald post-game coverage (PDF)

Box score (PDF)


Game stats

Opp NU
Penalties-Yards 1-5
Rush yards 279 297
Rush attempts 64 59
Yards per carry 4.4 5.0
Pass yards 188 65
Comp.-Att.-Int. 6-11-0 6-13-0
Yards/Att. 17.1 5.0
Yards/Comp. 31.3 10.8
Fumbles 3 1

Series history

Nebraska is 38-45 all-time against Oklahoma.

See all games »


1971 season (13-0)

Oregon Sept. 11
Minnesota Sept. 18
Texas A&M Sept. 25
Utah State Oct. 2
Missouri Oct. 9
Kansas Oct. 16
Oklahoma State Oct. 23
Colorado Oct. 30
Iowa State Nov. 6
Kansas State Nov. 13
Oklahoma Nov. 25
Hawaii Dec. 4
Alabama Jan. 1

This day in history

Nebraska has played 21 games on Nov. 25. See them all »

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