NORMAN, Okla. – The Game of the Decade turned out to be the truth in the ad here on Thanksgiving Day.
For a month or more, college football fans nationwide had been anticipating the meeting of Nebraska, the nation’s No.1 team, and Oklahoma, the nation’s No.2 team.
And the stage was set when the Cornhuskers won their first 10 games, increasing their winning streak to 20 and their unbeaten streak to 29 games.
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The Sooners also complied, winning their first nine games of the season. Neither team had experienced a close game.
A record-breaking 63,385 partisan crowd at OU’s famed Owen Field and a nationwide television audience that ultimately turned into an offensive duel and a 35-31 victory in Nebraska.
But the Cornhuskers had to score with just 1:38 to play in the thrilling and hard-hitting competition before they clinched what will likely be their second straight mythical national title.
Another loop title
It seemed incidental that they also won the Big Eight Conference Championship, their seventh to win or share in the past 10 years. Oklahoma won or shared three more.
While the match was apparently won in the dying minutes, perhaps the most important single play came in the opening five minutes of action.
That’s when Cornhusker All-American slotback Johnny Rodgers returned a 72-yard punt for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead in Nebraska with 11:28 left in the first quarter.
Many coaches believe that the really big games are most often decided in the kicking game.
The game was inconsistent with what happened in the rest of the game. Neither team came up with a major play in the kicking game.
But that wasn’t inconsistent with the performance of Rodgers, a 171-pound junior who scares any opposition coach when he has football.
Rodgers has averaged 17.5 yards per punt return this season and his 542 yards per punt return is a Big Eight record for a season.
It looks like Rodgers was stopped when he received the high punt on the Nebraska 28-yard line.
OU’s Greg Pruitt knocked him off balance and two other Sooners had chances against him. But Rodgers got past the first wave of Sooners, cut to his left on the sidelines and ran for the score.
His teammate Joe Blahak blocked Joe Wylie from OU at 15.
Things didn’t get much better for OU quick backs Pruitt and Wylie the rest of the day.
The Nebraska defense, which had allowed just 6.4 points this season, cut off wide play from Oklahoma’s impressive triple option on the triangle offense.
Cornhuskers defensive ends All-American Willie Harper and John Adkins have been credited with transforming the Sooners on the inside.
“We knew they had to do it,” said Nebraska coach Bob Devaney. “They were turning the game over to our other people. The way the defensive ends played the pitchout, we copied from Missouri who defended Oklahoma really well. I spoke to John McKay from Southern Cal and he said that their defensive ends had probably underestimated Oklahoma’s speed. So we played wider. “
Pruitt, who entered the game averaging 158 yards per game, was limited to 53 rushing yards and Wyile to 11.
Even so, the Sooners edged out the Cornhuskers. Oklahoma ran for 279 yards and had 188 for a total of 467. Nebraska won 362.
The earlier must have passed
This meant Oklahoma had to pass if they wanted to win, and the Cornhuskers’ strong and fast linemen could charge regardless of running and the secondary could play in a deep zone.
It worked and Oklahoma was stopped in four games on its own 15 with 1:10 to go.
Each team came from behind to take the lead twice and had their heroes.
It seemed fitting that hooker Jeff Kinney scored the winning touchdown, his fourth of the game. The powerful 210-pound senior ran for 174 yards on 31 carries.
Quarterback Jerry Tagge didn’t have such impressive stats – 49 rushing yards and 65 assists – but he seemed to come up with the big game when Nebraska needed it.
With wide plays eliminated, quarterback Jack Mildren carried the load for the Sooners, going 130 yards on 31 carries, scoring two touchdowns and passing to split winger Jon Harrison for two more.
The other OU points came on a 30-yard field goal from John Carroll.
Devaney called it “the biggest win of my career. It’s a great Oklahoma team to beat.”