EXCERPT: The Game of the Century

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The following is an excerpt from The Game of the Century: Nebraska vs. Oklahoma in College Football’s Ultimate Battle (Bison Books, 2005) by Michael Corcoran. 

On Thanksgiving Day 1971 a record fifty-five million homes tuned in to watch two powerhouse college football teams collide. The defending national champion, the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers, was squaring off against the number one offense in the country and second-ranked team, the Oklahoma Sooners. Nebraska radio play-by-play man Lyell Bremser echoed the nation when he proclaimed, “I never thought I would live this long to see this kind of football game.”

From Chapter 10

The looming game held the potential to be the greatest ever for several reasons, not least of which was the legacy of Oklahoma’s team and its significance to its state contrasted with the emerging excellence of Nebraska’s program and its significance to its state. The pride in Nebraska was something that lived deep within the players. When some of the members of the ’71 varsity squad were freshmen, they fell behind in a game to Missouri while Devaney was in the stands watching, waiting for the game to end so the varsity could practice. After opening an 18-0 lead, the freshmen fell behind 23-18. Devaney quietly fumed in the bleachers until he could stand it no more. He stomped down to the sidelines. “What the hell is going on here!” Devaney roared. “You act like this one’s done and you’re getting ready for next week. You can’t quit when you get behind. You’re playing for Nebraska!” The freshmen learned an important lesson in team pride, rallying and winning, 32-23.

It was a high-water period for college football, and in the preceding decade there had been two number one versus number two face-offs with extraordinary buildup (Notre Dame vs. Michigan State in 1966, Arkansas vs. Texas in 1969) that were fine games but failed to deliver in the “best ever” category. Neither of the teams in those two games had the explosive offensive talent that would take the field in Nebraska vs. Oklahoma.

The essence of the showdown boiled down to the Nebraska defense versus the Oklahoma offense. The Sooners led the nation as a team with 563 yards per game, with slightly more than 481 of those yards gained on the ground. Nebraska’s defense allowed only 171 yards per game, and that, too, was tops in the nation. The Husker defense gave up only 70 yards on the ground in an average game. The most intriguing aspect of the matchup, and the most important element in any game, was scoring. Oklahoma averaged 45 points per game, while Nebraska begrudgingly gave up only 6 points per game.

“I don’t think we could have projected the stuff we did as a defense in 1971,” said Jim Anderson. “We had some good players, some quality athletes, and we played some really good fundamental defense and didn’t make any mistakes. And we had enough good talent to make some big plays. A guy like [defensive end] Willie Harper could make a big play when we needed it. It just developed as we went along. And, as we went into the Big Eight season, we had some shutouts, three in a row, and I think finally it dawned on us that we were pretty good. And we needed every bit of confidence going into that game with Oklahoma, because, man, that was a showdown. They had awesome offensive power. I don’t think we had any big preconceived ideas about our defense going into that season. It just kind of developed into something solid.

“I was just glad we were finally going to get a chance to play the game,” said Anderson. “The hype was building up and everybody else in the country had finished playing and this game was on Thanksgiving. We’d been heading for a showdown for a while, and then the last week, man, you turn on Monday Night Football and there’s Howard Cosell hyping the game. Here we were, kids in our twenties, watching Howard Cosell pumping the game up. That’s all there was everywhere you looked—this game—and ABC only ran one game a week. There’s fifty games on now, but then there was only one game a week. So, the hype was really intense and most of us were really glad we could finally go play the game. We didn’t change anything at practice, it just happened to be a really big game. Just like you see any of the coaches today say on TV before big games: ‘We didn’t change anything.’ They don’t say that because they have nothing else to say. It’s actually true.”