NORMAN, Okla. — The game of the decade turned out to be truth in advertising here on Thanksgiving Day.
For a month or more, the nation’s collegiate football fans had anticipated 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, stretching their winning streak to 20 and their unbeaten streak to 29 games.
The Sooners also complied, winning their first nine games of the season. Neither team had had a close game.
A record, partisan crowd of 63,385 at OU’s famed Owen Field and a nationwide television audience what eventually turned into an offensive duel and a 35-31 Nebraska victory.
But the Cornhuskers had to score with only 1:38 remaining in the hard-hitting, exciting contest before winning what will probably be their second straight mythical national title.
Another Loop Title
It seemed incidental they also won the Big Eight Conference championship, their seventh to win or share in the last 10 years. Oklahoma won or shared three others.
Although the game apparently was won in the closing minutes, the most significant single play may have come in the first five minutes of action.
That’s when Cornhusker All-American slotback Johnny Rodgers returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 Nebraska lead with 11:28 left in the first quarter.
Many coaches believe the really big games are more often than not, decided in the kicking game.
The play was inconsistent with what happened in the rest of the game. Neither team came up with a major play in the kicking game.
But it was not inconsistent with performances by Rodgers, a 171-pound junior who puts fear into the heart of any opposition coach when he has the football.
Rodgers has averaged 17.5 yards a return on punts this season and his 542 yards on punt returns is a Big Eight record for one season.
It appeared that 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 at him. But Rodgers got past the first wave of Sooners, cut to his left to the sideline and raced for the score.
Teammate Joe Blahak blocked OU’s Joe Wylie at the 15.
Things didn’t get much better for OU’s speedy halfbacks, Pruitt and Wylie, the rest of the day.
Nebraska’s defense, which had allowed only 6.4 points this season, cut off the wide plays of Oklahoma’s awesome triple option on the wishbone attack.
The Cornhuskers’ defensive ends, All-American Willie Harper and John Adkins were credited with turning the Sooners inside.
“We knew they had to,” said Nebraska coach Bob Devaney. “They were turning the play back into our other people. The way the defensive ends played the pitchout, we copied from Missouri, which defensed Oklahoma very well. I talked to John McKay of Southern Cal and he said their defensive ends probably underestimated Oklahoma’s speed. So we played wider.”
Pruitt, who entered the game with an average of 158 yards a game, was held to 53 yards rushing and Wyile to 11.
Even so, the Sooners outgained the Cornhuskers. Oklahoma rushed for 279 yards and passed for 188 for a total of 467. Nebraska gained 362.
Sooners Had to Pass
That meant Oklahoma had to pass if it was going to win, and the Cornhuskers strong, quick linemen could charge without regard for the run and the secondary could play a deep zone.
It worked and Oklahoma was stopped in four plays at its own 15 with 1:10 left.
Each team came from behind to gain the lead twice and had its heroes.
It seemed fitting that tailback Jeff Kinney scored the winning touchdown, his fourth of the game. The powerful 210-pound senior rushed for 174 yards on 31 carries.
Quarterback Jerry Tagge didn’t have such impressive statistics — 49 yards rushing and 65 passing — but he seemed to come up with the big play when Nebraska needed it.
With the wide plays eliminated, quarterback Jack Mildren carried the load for the Sooners, running 130 yards on 31 carries, scoring two touch downs and passing to split end Jon Harrison for two more.
OU’s other points came on a 30-yard field goal from John Carroll.
Devaney called it “the greatest victory of my career. This is a great Oklahoma team to beat.”