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‘They were as good as we were’: Cornhuskers-Sooners ’71

September 16, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Nov. 25, 1971, file photo, Nebraska head coach Bob Devaney is carried off the field by his victorious players after they defeated Oklahoma 35-31 in an NCAA college football game in Norman, Okla., on Thanksgiving Day. The game on Thanksgiving 50 years ago is back in the spotlight as Nebraska and Oklahoma renew their rivalry on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/File)
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FILE - In this Nov. 25, 1971, file photo, Nebraska head coach Bob Devaney is carried off the field by his victorious players after they defeated Oklahoma 35-31 in an NCAA college football game in Norman, Okla., on Thanksgiving Day. The game on Thanksgiving 50 years ago is back in the spotlight as Nebraska and Oklahoma renew their rivalry on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/File)
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FILE - In this Nov. 25, 1971, file photo, Nebraska head coach Bob Devaney is carried off the field by his victorious players after they defeated Oklahoma 35-31 in an NCAA college football game in Norman, Okla., on Thanksgiving Day. The game on Thanksgiving 50 years ago is back in the spotlight as Nebraska and Oklahoma renew their rivalry on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/File)

The 1971 game between No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Oklahoma lived up to the hype, with the Cornhuskers winning 35-31 in Norman, Oklahoma.

The schools will celebrate the 50th anniversary of what’s known as the “Game of the Century” when they meet on the same field Saturday.

Bob Devaney’s ’71 Huskers are still considered one of the greatest teams in college football history, and that’s largely because of their performance on that cloudy, chilly Thanksgiving Day.

Oklahoma quarterback Jack Mildren led a wishbone offense that was the nation’s best statistically. Nebraska had the No. 1 defense, having allowed seven or fewer points in eight of its previous 10 games.

Johnny Rodgers’ electrifying 72-yard punt return stands as one of the signature plays in the college game, Rich Glover went head to head with OU All-America center Tom Brahaney and dominated with 22 tackles, and one of the unforgettable images is Jeff Kinney’s tattered tear-away jersey during the Huskers’ game-winning drive.

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The ABC telecast with Chris Schenkel on play-by-play and former OU coach Bud Wilkinson as the color commentator was the most viewed college game up to that time.

Here are a selection of comments from players, coaches and media who were at the game:

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“They were as good as we were. We just happened to win the game that day. They made more mistakes than we did. If we were No. 1, they had to be No. 1 ½.” — Jeff Kinney, who rushed 31 times for 174 yards and four touchdowns, including the game-winner with 1:38 to play.

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“It’s a compliment to our whole team and to the Oklahoma team for the efforts they made, because it was a thin line between the two teams. And that’s why we had so much respect for each other and in our communities, because it could have went either way for real and no one would have known the difference because it was just two great teams.” — Johnny Rodgers, who went on to win the 1972 Heisman Trophy.

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“Johnny’s big punt return early in the game was critical and that was the margin of victory, really. It was pretty amazing because Greg Pruitt was right down on him and probably coulda, woulda, shoulda made the tackle. I didn’t realize this until he told me many years later, but Johnny never fair caught a ball. That’s one you normally would have fair caught because you had two guys right there and he got rid of both of them because of his lateral movement.” — Former Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne, who was the Huskers’ offensive coordinator in 1971.

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“Well, you had two teams that had a great tradition. We had two teams that had great athletes, and not only did we play fierce against each other, we were all competitive and we respected each other. And even after the game, we respected each other.” — Sooners running back Greg Pruitt, the nation’s No. 2 rusher in 1971 who was held to 53 yards on 10 carries.

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“I really regret not doing something l did later on my career, making sure when you get a great back, get the ball in his hands 20 times, 30 times a game. And we didn’t do that with Greg Pruitt and I should have. We should have had certain plays designed for Greg Pruitt to run the ball against Nebraska that day — stretch plays, get the ball in his hands and make something happen. He was that type of back. But we didn’t utilize him correctly.” — Former Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer, who was the Sooners’ offensive coordinator in 1971.

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“It was a brutal game, it really was. By that, I mean it was hard-hitting. It was a pretty clean game, but there was no give or take. Nebraska just took it. They were just too physical for Oklahoma.” — Retired Omaha World-Herald sports writer Bob Tucker.

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