clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Big Ten Countdown: 71 - The Game of the Century

I wasn't alive in 1971, but I can remember my dad having a copy of the 1971 "Game of the Century" on BETAMAX. This was the precursor to VHS, which was  precursor to DVD's, the precursor to BlueRays, and finally the precursor to whatever is out now. I remember playing it on the tape deck and seeing the famous run. Even as a 7 year old, I knew how important that was. I didn't really watch much of the rest of the game, though. There were no commercials and they skipped all the in between stuff so it just didn't have the "feel" of a real football game. My dad told me that we had won, so I was happy with that.


Anyone who has every seen anything about the history of college football has seen this clip. It's played every year during the college football season and anytime Nebraska and Oklahoma would meet up. To be fair, it's important to note that there are a lot of events that have been titled "Game of the Century." Not all are college football related either.

I am going to talk about the Nebraska-Oklahoma 1971 game, though. Actually, I'm going to have others do it for me since they have a better perspective of that game than I do. Here are some clips of what they have said:

Quality is what the game had more of than anything else. There had been scads of games in the past with equal pressure and buildup. Games of the Decade or Poll Bowls or whatever you want to call them. Something played in a brimming-over stadium for limb, life and a national championship. But it is impossible to stir the pages of history and find one in which both teams performed so reputably for so long throughout the day.

It was one of those insanely thrilling things in which a single player, seized by the moment, twists, whirls, slips, holds his balance and, sprinting, makes it all the way to the goal line. Rodgers went 72 yards for the touchdown, one which keeps growing larger in the minds of all. And afterward, back on the Nebraska bench, he did what most everybody in Norman, Okla. probably felt like doing: he threw up.

I'll put the 1971 Nebraska/Oklahoma game up against the others I've done -- the 1958 NFL championship game between the Colts and Giants that the Colts won in sudden death overtime, the 10-10 tie between Michigan State and Notre Dame in 1966, the Texas 15-14 win at Arkansas in 1969 -- and still marvel at that day in Norman 30 years ago.  -- Chris Schenkel

As for the success we had on offense, without meaning to brag, we expected it. We were an extremely confident team. You know, another thing about the game was that both teams played to win. There were great plays made by both teams. Johnny Rodgers' punt return, Harrison's catches...I can't imagine watching it as a fan. It was back and forth like a ping pong match. I don't remember the officials throwing many flags or breaking the flow of the game. We must have combined for 700-800 yards of total offense (829). It must have been something to watch.-- Jack Mildren

Wow, the thing that stands out is our last drive when we went down and scored. Everything was riding on it; it was our last shot. The whole series was do or die. I think we faced three or four third downs and converted them all. We were routine and methodical.  -- Jerry Tagge

It was billed as the "Game of the Decade" and "The Game of the Century", and would be covered as such by the media. The hype for this game was unlike any other, and Sports Illustrated magazine termed it "Irresistible Oklahoma Meets Immovable Nebraska" on the cover of their issue leading up to the game.

Given the magnitude of the game, Devaney had even had his players' food flown in from Lincoln, in case gamblers attempted to induce a hotel chef to give the Huskers food poisoning. More than twice the normal amount of press passes were issued for the hundreds of writers, broadcasters, and photographers that converged on Owen Field from all parts of the nation.

When Nebraska beat Oklahoma 35-31 in '71, that was the greatest game in the history of college football. Nebraska went on to face an undefeated Alabama team (11-0) in the Orange Bowl, a game which was supposed to rival the Oklahoma battle for "Game of the Century". It didn't, and Nebraska won 38-6. That game was 28-0 at halftime and didn't live up to its hype.

The best lead written about the '71 showdown came from Dave Kindred, who currently writes for The Sporting News and back then wrote for the Louisville Courier-Journal. He wrote, "They can quit playing now, they have played the perfect game." It was a great game because Nebraska had to make a late drive, down 31-28. They converted a key third down play and scored the winning touchdown with under a minute left on a one-yard run.

It's fun to reminisce, but let's think about the future, the Big Ten. We are also in a "new" century. It will likely be very hard for any matchup to come close to the draw that the 1971 game had. With the lack of games being televised back then and most people realizing by mid-October that NU-OU was going to be the game to see, excitement could build.  However, let's do a little "What If?" If Nebraska was involved in a "Game of the Century" this century, what would it be like? Who would they go up against and under what type of conditions?