16 for '16: The Game of the Century
There have been several big games in college football over the years that have attempted to call themselves “The Game of the Century,” but there’s really only one that deserves to carry that title.
The 1971 Nebraska vs. Oklahoma game in Norman was a No. 1 vs. No. 2 match-up that to this day ranks as one of the greatest college football games of all-time. Very rarely does a game with this much hype live up to the billing, but the 1971 Game of the Century did that and more.
A national TV audience of 55 million viewers tuned in to watch the Thanksgiving Day classic on ABC. In comparison 33.4 million viewers watched Ohio State vs. Oregon in the 2015 College Football Playoff championship game, while 35 million viewers watched USC play Texas for the title in 2005.
17 of the 22 players on the field that day were first team All-Big Eight selections.
How it went down
It was a game that defending national champion Nebraska won 35-31, highlighted by future Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodger’s legendary first quarter punt return. Rodgers broke free for a 72-yard return to put the Huskers up 7-0 and set the tone for this classic match-up.
The “Game of the Century” featured five lead changes in all, as Husker running back Jeff Kinney scored the game’s winning touchdown with 1:38 left in the fourth quarter.
Another remarkable number to come out of the game was there was only one penalty the entire a day – a 5 yarder committed by Nebraska. There were no holds, personal foul or face mask penalties. The 55 million viewers that day witnessed two heavyweights play football at its purest form.
"Was it the Game of the Century? Yes, I think so. It certainly was to me," Oklahoma running back Joe Wylie told the Daily Oklahoman years later. "You had to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognize what this game meant. It was for the national championship. It was for everything."
Coming into the game OU was No. 1 nationally in scoring offense, while Nebraska was No. 4. The Sooners led the nation in total offense at 563 yards per game, while the Huskers led the country in total defense allowing just 171 yards per game.
It was strength on strength. NU’s talented defense featured two Outland Trophy winners on the defensive line – Larry Jacobson and Rich Glover. In all the 1971 Blackshirt defense had seven All-Big Eight players and four All-Americans.
OU’s explosive offense was led by All-American running back Greg Pruitt and All-American quarterback Jack Mildren. Glover and Jacobson squared off up front against All-American Oklahoma center Tom Brahaney.
Amazingly though it wasn’t the Huskers top ranked defense that won the game for the Big Red. NU’s ground control offense kept the ball away from Mildren and the Sooners explosive wishbone attack.
"Supposedly, that was the greatest Nebraska defense ever, but it wasn't their defense that held us to fewer points than our average. Their offense did that," Wylie told the Daily Oklahoman. "Nebraska held the ball so long, especially in the second half, that we didn't get as many possessions as we normally did.
What also made the "Game of the Century" entertaining was it's back and forth nature. This wasn't a low-scoring affair. Both teams played their best.
"To me, that game was football the way football was meant to be played," Glover told the Omaha World Herald. "It had everything you could ask for in a game. We'd go up, and they'd come back. They'd go up, and we'd come back. It was like the team that had the ball last was going to be the one that won."
What also stands out about that legendary match-up was the immense amount of respect both programs had for one another.
There have been multiple reunions and events where Oklahoma and Nebraska players have gathered together years after the “Game of the Century” to celebrate this special day in college football’s history.
"We were both great teams,” Glover said. “No one was out there talking. Oklahoma was coming off the football. We were coming off the ball. Both teams took the other's best shot, and they still kept coming back for more."
Each year around Thanksgiving the “Game of the Century” is honored and remembered by college football fans around the Country.
The late Beano Cook of ESPN said the best lead written about the 1971 Game of the Century came from Dave Kindred who wrote for the Louisville Courier-Journal: "They can quit playing now, they have played the perfect game."
Glover said the older he gets the more he realizes how special that game was in college football’s history.
"Still, I don't think any of us at the time knew just how important that game would turn out to be," Glover told the Omaha World Herald. "There was a lot of hype before the game, but all that mattered to us was that we came out with the win.
"Now, whenever Thanksgiving comes around and replays of that game flash back on the TV, it's nice to think back on it. It's like, 'Wow! I took part in that.' But at the time, I don't know if we thought it would ever be such a big deal."
They said it
"Was it the Game of the Century? Yes, I think so. It certainly was to me. You had to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognize what this game meant. It was for the national championship. It was for everything."
--Joe Wylie, Oklahoma running back
"To me, that game was football the way football was meant to be played. It had everything you could ask for in a game. We'd go up, and they'd come back. They'd go up, and we'd come back. It was like the team that had the ball last was going to be the one that won."
--Rich Glover, Nebraska defensive tackle
"They can quit playing now, they have played the perfect game."
--Dave Kindred, Louisville-Courier Journal