This is the second in a three-part series devoted to the 1971 Nebraska-Oklahoma classic football game played on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25. Last week we looked at the buildup to the game. In this part we'll look at what changes were made before the game and how that affected the game itself.
Before the game
- Tom Osborne
- Husker offensive coordinator
- Originally from Hastings, NE
Our defense made some changes before the game. Bill Kosch was moved from his safety position to corner and Joe Blahak was moved from his corner position to safety. The reason for that was that the wishbone (Oklahoma's offense) puts a lot of pressure on your safeties. And Joe was the better tackler. I'm not sure if I agreed with all the defensive changes that day, but we did win the game.
- Boyd Epley
- Husker strength and conditioning coach
- Pawnee City, NE
We started our strength and conditioning program in 1969 and by the Oklahoma game of '71, we were still in the infancy of the program. We did have some players like Dick Rupert, Carl Johnson, Bob Terrio who had been lifting weights. That led the way to developing our own strength and conditioning program that by the '90s made Nebraska into a dominant force in college football.
- Mike Beran #62
- Offensive guard
- Ord, NE
Were you and your teammates nervous in the days leading up to the game? I know this is hard to believe, but we approached the Oklahoma game just like we'd done for all our games. We practiced the same for every game. We knew this was a big one, but we thought every game was big. So Oklahoma was just another opponent on our schedule. Our mindset back then was that we would play any team, any time, anywhere. We never cared who we were playing.
- Bill Kosch #24
- Columbus, NE
At our Sunday practice before the game, defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin and defensive backs coach Warren Powers came up with a new defensive scheme that had our DBs playing about 10 yards off the receivers instead of our usual six yards. The coaches thought we could help slow the Sooners' running game that way. The coaches were convinced that Jack Mildren couldn't throw the ball. We pleaded with them to let us play the way we had been doing all season, but they said no.
As a result, I had the worst day of my career. Mildren passed for 137 yards and two TDs. We finally went back to our original defense and they (OU) didn't do much after that.
Later, Joe Blahak and I went back to our original positions (I moved back to safety and Joe to cornerback). And when we took the lead at 35-31 with about a minute and a half to go, Oklahoma got the ball back one last time. That drive almost spelled disaster for Nebraska. On their last pass attempt, their receiver, Jon Harrison, was wide open, but Mildren's pass was overthrown. After that play, Joe came over to the bench, smiled at me and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Had that ball been on the money, we probably would have lost the game. But Oklahoma didn't like to pass and that worked in our favor.
- Johnny Rodgers #20
- Flanker and return man
- 1972 Heisman Trophy winner
- Omaha, NE
We were down 31-28 late in the game. It was third and 8 on about the Sooner 45 yard line. Everything was on the line. If we didn't pick up the first down, we would have been in big trouble. Quarterback Jerry Tagge was forced out of the pocket and scrambled to his right. I ran a 15-yard curl route, but I had to come back to the ball and fortunately Jerry put the ball where no one else could catch it but me. We got a first down and that was a huge play. That drive was the one that put us in the lead for good at 35-31.
- Jeff Kinney #35
- Running back
- McCook, NE
We tried to get fancy in the first half trying to pass the ball. At halftime, we said we were just going to run the ball. We'd come too far to lose this game. We all said let's not leave anything on the field. We wanted to play ball control and keep their offense off the field.
What would the Huskers have done if Nebraska hadn't picked up the first down?
We'd have gone for it.
- Van Brownson #12
- Shenandoah, Iowa
Van was a great QB who was a dual-threat player long before the term was ever used. Unfortunately, injuries plagued his career.
Were you healthy enough to have played in that game?
Yes. I could have played had the circumstances dictated it. Before the season started, the coaches announced that Jerry would be the starter - under the condition that if he didn't perform well or if he got injured, I would be sent into the game. Jerry played well all year and was never injured. He deserved to play. Jerry had developed into a very good runner and at 6' 2" and 215 lbs. was a load to bring down!
- Bud Fuglei
- Omaha, NE
Bud has been a longtime Husker football fan dating back to the '50s when as a young boy he would sit in the Knothole section of Memorial Stadium watching the likes of Pat Fischer and Harry Tolly.
Bud was living in Omaha at the time of the big game. A close buddy of his who used to go with Bud to other Husker football games agreed several days before to drive the 475 miles down to Norman, Oklahoma. They weren't going to miss a chance to see this game in person. And remember, this was Thanksgiving Day!
We got up about 4 a.m., headed down I-29 through Kansas City, then we took I-35 to Wichita and south on down to Norman. It rained off and on during our drive down there.
We got to Norman about 11:45 a.m., but we didn't have tickets or a parking space. Kickoff was set for 1:30. Game time was nearing.
Then we got lucky.
We found a place to park a couple of blocks from the stadium. I think we paid about $30 to park, which was a lot of money back then. And later, we were able to buy a couple of tickets from a family who were big Sooner fans. I think we paid about $60 a ticket. Face value was about six bucks back then.
We ended up sitting with that same family who sold us the tickets. We were surrounded by a lot of Sooner fans. But they were very classy and didn't mind that we were cheering for the Huskers. There were also a lot of other Husker fans around us at the game.
Our seats were on the east side of the stadium at about the Sooner 25 yard line right in front of where Joe Blahak threw his famous block that helped Johnny Rodgers finish his incredible punt return.
And after the game, we knew that we didn't want to stay overnight in Norman, so we got back to the car and in about 15 minutes we were on I-35 headed back to Omaha.
We picked up the game highlights on the radio as we headed out of Norman. We didn't get back to Omaha until about 1:00 a.m.
If you had it to do over, would you still drive to the game?
- Doug Steensma
- Ashland, NE
In November of 1971, my wife and I were managing an apartment complex near 90th and Dodge Street in Omaha. One of the tenants was a bootstrapper (military student) at Omaha University. He and his wife were from Oklahoma and were big Sooner fans.
We had just moved back to Nebraska from El Paso, Texas. So we invited them to watch the game with us, despite the fact that they were big Sooner fans.
We made a bet with them that whichever side lost the game would have to take the winners out to dinner at Mr. C's in North Omaha.
During the game, every time the Huskers scored, I'd light up a big cigar and run around the room yelling. And when the Huskers finally won the game, I ran around the entire apartment building yelling and screaming!
Did the Sooner fans make good on the bet?
They sure did, We had a great time and even better - they paid the entire bill!
- Johnny "The Jet" Rodgers #20
Recently, I spoke with him about his iconic punt return. What were you thinking just as Joe Wylie punted the football?
First of all, at Nebraska, we never fair catch the ball. Greg Pruitt (Sooner running back) and I talked prior to the game about what each of us were going to do in the game. We wanted to outdo each other.
And on the punt return, who was the first Sooner to hit me? It was Greg Pruitt. But he didn't knock me down. I just kept running and dodging everybody so I could to get in the end zone.
And what did you do right after you scored?
When I came to Nebraska, I suffered from bleeding ulcers. It was a problem for me for several years. So what did I do? I went to the bench and threw up.
- Joe Blahak #27
- Columbus, NE
Joe threw the last block that helped Rodgers score on the return. Sadly, Joe died in April 2016. I asked Joe several years ago if he thought his block was a penalty on Nebraska.
Did the refs call it a clip? No. Then it wasn't a clip, was it?
- Larry Jacobson #75
- Defensive tackle
- 1971 Outland Trophy winner
- Sioux Falls, SD
On Johnny's punt return, I was on the return team. I tried to hit my man, but all I did was slow him up. And he ended up being the last guy that had a shot at getting Johnny. That was the Sooner player who Joe Blahak threw that great block on that got Rodgers into the end zone.
- Bill Nelson
- Grand Island, NE
I was home in Grand Island, Nebraska for Thanksgiving break that year. I was in UNL's dental school at the time. A bunch of family members got together at my parents' house for dinner. Of course, we were going to have to wait until the game was over before we ate. The game was early into the first quarter when the phone rang. I'm thinking, who would call anybody in Nebraska during this game? I answered it. It was my sister calling from California to wish us a happy Thanksgiving. The problem was she called just as Johnny Rodgers was right in the middle of his famous punt return. I started to yell, "He's going to score! He's going to score! He's going to score!" And of course my sister wasn't a Husker fan and she had no clue what I was yelling about!
- Lyell Bremser
- Husker play-by-play announcer
- Nebraska Broadcasters Hall of Fame member
- Crawford County, Iowa
Perhaps the most famous radio account of any Husker football play was that of Lyell Bremser, who called Husker football games from 1939 to 1983. Immediately after Rodgers' amazing punt return, his poetic words still live in memory of all Husker fans.
Holy moly! Man, woman and child, did that put 'em in the aisles! Johnny "The Jet" Rodgers just tore 'em loose from their shoes!
- Larry Jacobson #75
What were you thinking when you walked off the field after the Sooners' last possession?
Just before that, Oklahoma got the ball back with less than a minute and a half to go in the game. We knew they probably weren't going to win the game. And we knew they were going to have to pass. Time was running out for them. And passing wasn't what the Sooners were normally very good at. On third down, I sacked their quarterback, Jack Mildren, inside the Sooner 15 yard line. And on fourth down, I missed sacking Mildren, but Rich Glover batted the ball down. And that was the end of the Sooners. When I came off the field, I was so excited that I spiked the ball. But instead of getting called for a penalty, the ball bounced right into the hands of the referee! (See video here.)
And later in the game when it looked like Nebraska was going to win, Bremser added:
I never thought I would live this long to see this kind of a football game!
No truer words were ever spoken.
Next week in Part III, we'll look at what happened after the game. Plus you'll get to read "The Ten Things You May Not Know About the Game" section. Don't miss it!