On This Date in Sports November 25, 1971: Game of the Century
In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
The top two teams in the country meet in Oklahoma on Thanksgiving, with the Big 8 conference and a trip to the Orange Bowl on the line. Nebraska, coached by Bob Devaney, was ranked number one, while Oklahoma, led by Chuck Fairbanks, was ranked second. The Thanksgiving game set a record with 55 million television viewers as the Cornhuskers beat the Sooners 35-31 in a back-and-forth battle that was decided on a two-yard touchdown run by Jeff Kinney with 98 seconds left. The win extended Nebraska's unbeaten streak to 30 games as they won a second consecutive National Championship.
The rivalry between Oklahoma and Nebraska was once the biggest game of the year in the plain states as the two schools were the undisputed powerhouses of the Big 8 Conference. In 1971, Nebraska and Oklahoma were the two top teams in the NCAA, rising to the top of both the AP and Coach's polls. Nebraska, led by Bob Devaney, shared the 1970 National Championship with Texas and was ranked number one. The Cornhuskers had the best defense in the nation as they were 10-0, allowing seven points or less in eight games, including three shutouts.
Oklahoma, coached by Chuck Fairbanks, was the top-scoring team in the nation, as offensive coordinator Barry Switzer helped create the wishbone offense, which had even the best defenses confused. Running back Greg Pruitt was the Sooners' big star and a Heisman candidate. Pruitt averaged nearly nine yards per carry, as he collected 2,066 All-Purpose yards to help Oklahoma build a 9-0 record entering their showdown in Norman against their rivals from Nebraska.
The game did not need any hype, as fans planned their Thanksgiving dinners around the game. Nebraska struck first as Johnny Rogers scored the game's first touchdown on a 72-yard punt return. Nebraska's blackshirt defense did an excellent job at shutting down the Sooners' wishbone offense, as Oklahoma managed only a 30-yard field goal by John Carroll in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Nebraska extended the lead to 14-3 on a one-yard plunge by Jeff Kinney. With Greg Pruitt being boxed up by the Huskers, Oklahoma turned to quarterback Jack Mildren who ran into the end one on a three-yard bootleg and connected with Jon Harrison on a 24-yard touchdown pass. Mildren had made several critical passes to Harrison to get the ball down the field as Oklahoma took a 17-14 lead at the half, equaling the most points that Nebraska had allowed during their previous ten games.
In the third quarter, Nebraska regained control of the game, capitalizing on a pair of Oklahoma fumbles while using a power run game to take a 28-17 lead, as Jeff Kinney scored from the three and the one. Oklahoma answered late in the third quarter as Jack Mildren scored on a bootleg from the three-yard line. Oklahoma would retake the lead 31-28 in the fourth quarter as Jon Harrison caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Mildren.
The game was as good as advertised, with Oklahoma holding a 31-28 lead with several lead changes. With time running out on Nebraska, quarterback Jerry Tagge completed a pass to Johnny Rogers that took the ball down to the Oklahoma 15-yard line. Rogers broke several tackles on the play and set up the power run game that Nebraska used all day to control the field and the clock. Jeff Kinney would run the ball the next four plays, scoring from the one for his fourth touchdown of the game. Kinney was the star of the game, rushing for 171 yards on 31 carries.
With 98 seconds left, Nebraska's defense sealed the victory with a pair of sacks, as the Huskers' 35-31 win would be their last test on the way to a second straight National Championship. Nebraska would easily beat Hawaii 45-3 to end the regular season while crushing Alabama 38-6 in the Orange Bowl.