“Anticipation” was a song released by Carly Simon on Thanksgiving Day in 1971. How ironic that the anticipation was keeping me (and other Sooner fans) waiting for the biggest game to hit Norman, Oklahoma, and on the same day Carly’s song was released.
Oklahoma vs. Nebraska. A battle of unbeatens. No. 2 hosting No. 1.
For Oklahoma, it was the sequel to the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 produced 82 years later in Norman, Oklahoma. But, instead of cowboys and horses rumbling across the prairie, it was athletes and cleats racing along the gridiron. The Oklahoma Sooners pounded the turf for 5,635 yards, the most ever in OU football history. The Big Red averaged 469.6 yards per game or 7.1 yards each time they carried the pigskin.
This second land rush would famously be known as the Wishbone. The Sooners installed the offensive weapon in 1970, and in their first full season a year later, they destroyed the first nine opponents on their schedule by an average score of 42-16. Oklahoma climbed from 10th in the AP preseason poll to No. 2 with the 9-0 record.
The Cornhuskers, OU’s 10th opponent, stood tall atop the ranking when they rolled into Norman on Thanksgiving Day.
The two undefeated teams would square off for supremacy in the Big Eight Conference and the nation. To the winner: a bid to play the Orange Bowl and for the national championship. The 10-0 Huskers were the defending National Champions in the AP poll and coached by Bob Devaney.
Chuck Fairbanks was in his fifth season as Oklahoma’s skipper.
The build-up to this game was tagged as the “Game of the Century.” ABC televised the rivalry, and during numerous promotions of ABC’s Monday Night Football, one could hear Howard Cosell promote the game in his eastern drawl and pronouncing both teams in syllables: “Thanksgiving Day. A matchup of the two best college football teams—number one Ne-bras-ka at Ok-la-homa on ABC.”
Sports Illustrated wrote a feature on the game with OU halfback Greg Pruitt and NU’s wingback Johnny Rodgers on the cover. The cover headline read: “Irresistible Oklahoma versus immovable Nebraska.”
The Husker defense indeed was immovable as it led the nation in total defense, yielding 178.4 yards per game. Oklahoma’s defense allowed 288 total yards per game. The Huskers overpowered their opponents by an average score of 39-6.
Oklahoma’s fire-powered offense included Pruitt, quarterback Jack Mildren, fullback Leon Crosswhite, and halfback Joe Wylie. Nebraska countered with an I-formation featuring Rodgers, quarterback Jerry Tagge, tailback Jeff Kinney, and fullback Bill Olds.
Two Oklahoma players went on two earn first-team All-American honors—Pruitt, and center Tom Brahaney. Rodgers was the lone All-American on Nebraska’s offense, but the defense boasted three All-Americans, all on the front line—noseguard Rich Glover, end Willie Harper, and tackle Larry Jacobson.
Rodgers won the Heisman Trophy that year, and Glover captured the Outland and Lombardi Awards.
Brahaney and Glover going head-to-head in the trenches was one of the marquee matchups in the game—Brahaney (6-2, 220 pounds) and Rich Glover, the Cornhuskers’ 6-1, 233-pound middle guard.
OU held a 25-22-3 edge in the series.
The contest was such a huge draw that more than 1,500 press passes were distributed in addition to a sold-out (61,826) Memorial Stadium crowd. More than 5,000 Husker fans attended the game. I was fortunate to be there to cheer on the crimson and cream with one of my good friends, Jim Roberts.
Overcast skies loomed over Owen Field for this Thanksgiving Day clash with temps in the high 40s. A southerly breeze made it feel like 40 degrees. The day ended gloomy for the Sooners as they dropped a 35-31 decision to the Cornhuskers.
Nebraska struck first when Rodgers took Wylie’s punt early in the first quarter and weaved 72 yards for a touchdown. Fairbanks wanted a clipping call as Wylie was cut off from behind, but the officials didn’t see the infraction.
“This isn’t sour grapes, but there was a clip on the play,” Fairbanks said after the game. “There was a clip; I saw it.”
Pruitt also played on the punt coverage unit and returned punts for the Sooners. In my book, Legends of Oklahoma Sooners Football, Pruitt explained his missed opportunity to get to Rodgers.
“When you’re covering dangerous return guys, the best thing to do is stay in your lane. That way, you don’t give gaps by guys being ahead or behind; you try to stay even.”
John Carroll’s 30-yard field goal cut the Husker lead to 7-3 late in the opening period. Kinney’s one-yard plunge gave Nebraska a 14-3 advantage early in the second stanza.
The Sooners answered with an 80-yard, 13-play drive. Mildren’s three-yard TD run and Carroll’s extra point conversion put the Sooners back in the game trailing, 14-10, with 5:10 until intermission.
NU’s Rich Sanger missed a field goal, and OU took over at its 22 with 51 seconds left in the second quarter. Two plays later, Mildren fired a 43-yard pass to split end Jon Harrison to the NU 24. Mildren again sailed a pass to Harrison, who caught it in the left corner of the end zone with five seconds until halftime. Carroll’s kick gave the Sooners a 17-14 lead at the half.
Oklahoma had 311 total yards in the first 30 minutes, and Nebraska only had 91.
Kinney added two more TDs in the third period to give Nebraska a 28-17 lead. The Huskers capitalized on an Oklahoma fumble at the NU 47, then marched 61 yards to the second score.
The Sooners retaliated with a 73-yard drive in seven plays. Harrison, on a reverse, took a pitch from Mildren, pulled up, and heaved a 51-yard pass to tight end Al Chandler to the NU 16. Mildren carried on four straight plays and scored from the three with 28 seconds left in the third stanza. Carroll’s foot pulled OU within four, 28-24.
Nebraska drove into Sooner territory but fumbled, and noseguard Lucious Selmon recovered at the OU 31. From there, the Sooners marched 69 yards to regain the lead 31-28 with 7:10 to go. Mildren sailed a 17-yard scoring strike to Harrison for the lead.
Crimson hearts sunk when Nebraska answered with a 74-yard drive. Kinney scored his fourth touchdown from three yards out. Sanger’s foot gave the Huskers a 35-31 lead with 1:38 to go. The Sooners could not answer. Mildren’s fourth-down desperation pass from the OU 15 was batted away by Glover.
Kinney rushed for 174 yards to lead the Huskers’ power attack. Mildren led the Sooners with 130 yards rushing and completed five of 10 passes for 137 yards. Nebraska outrushed the Sooners 297-279. OU had more total yards (467-362) and first downs (22-19), but statistics do not win games.
Glover had 22 tackles in the game, but Brahaney remembered that the Sooners racked up a bunch of yards up the middle. The Sooners’ 279 yards on the ground were the best against the Huskers’ defense that had yielded an average of 63.3 rushing yards per game.
“He was in on a lot of tackles,” Brahaney said about Glover in my Legends book. “But we ran up the middle well against them. They were stunting pretty much one side or the other every play.”
Thanksgiving dinner later in the evening didn’t have the taste of victory as my family and relatives gathered for the feast with long faces.
The Sooners dropped to 9-1 and No.3 in the AP poll and headed to the Sugar Bowl to meet Auburn. OU smashed Oklahoma State, 58-14, the next week in Stillwater. Four weeks later, Oklahoma walloped No. 5 Auburn, 48-22, to finish the season 11-1 and second in the AP poll. Nebraska went on to beat Hawaii and Alabama in the Orange Bowl to claim the national championship. Colorado’s football team lost only to OU and Nebraska that season and finished third in the AP poll–the first and only time three teams from one conference finished in the top three nationally.
On September 18, Nebraska comes to Norman again, and Mr. Roberts will accompany me to the game again. The 87th meeting between the Sooners and Huskers was scheduled a few years ago to commemorate 50 years since the big game. Great expectations are forecasted for the Sooners this year, but Nebraska has struggled in recent years and isn’t expected to give OU much of a contest.