Here now is an easy game called name the Heisman Trophy candidates. Clue one: This fellow, call him Greg the Limp, played Thanksgiving Day and ran twice for seven yards. No, he did not catch a pass, return a punt or throw a block. For a bonus clue: His team gained only 141 yards on the ground and lost four fumbles. Nothing sounds familiar? Try this one: Call him Johnny the Ignored. In the same game he ran four times for five yards, caught three passes for 41 yards and ran back one punt for, ah, seven yards. And his team lost three fumbles, had three passes intercepted and gained 77 yards rushing. Last clue: Greg's team came from behind to win 17-14 and the stars were Ken Pope and Tinker Owens. Tinker. T-i-n-k-e-r, as in Tinker Bell. What do you mean, sober up?
The way things have gone for Oklahoma and Nebraska this season, lack of success on Thanksgiving by Greg Pruitt and Johnny Rodgers should hardly have been surprising. Before the season began, it was said that this game would be for the national championship. But Nebraska came up three points short in its opener against UCLA and was lucky to escape with a tie against Iowa State. Oklahoma was dumped by Colorado and had to struggle to beat Missouri. Two weeks ago Pruitt, the speedy little Sooner senior, came out of the Kansas game with a badly twisted left ankle, and suddenly his chances for the Heisman Trophy depended not so much on how well he did against Nebraska but on how well Oklahoma did against Johnny Rodgers. "I'm going to try, but it doesn't look too good," Pruitt told his roommate Ken Pope, the 205-pound junior cornerback who would be assigned to cover Rodgers. Pope laughed. "Don't worry, man. If you want the Heisman Trophy, I'll get it for you. I'll play that guy so tough he'll think I'm the number on his back."
"You better," said Pruitt, "because if you don't you won't have any place to sleep. Anyway, I've told you all along that if you room with a superstar, some of it is bound to rub off. Now you can prove it."
Pruitt said he wanted to start, and Oklahoma let him, but it was obvious from the beginning that the Big Eight Conference's second leading scorer (behind Rodgers) would not last long. "I was hurting something awful." Pruitt said. "I knew I could play the whole game if I was lucky and if I could avoid any contact, but I just couldn't figure how to do that." He carried the ball but twice, and in the second quarter he left the game for good. "Relax," Pope told him after he limped to the sideline. "I own Rodgers, and he knows it because I keep telling him."
December 4, 1972
"I hope so," said Pruitt, "because it's up to you now." Pope discovered that he had to work less than he expected. Oddly, Nebraska almost ignored its 172-pound senior ace as it built a 14-0 lead midway through the third quarter. Both scores came after Oklahoma fumbled punts. In the first quarter Rodgers carried twice on reverses for minus one yard, and of two passes thrown to him by sophomore Quarterback Dave Humm, one was incomplete and the other, although complete, fell a yard short of a first down. The second quarter was only slightly more productive. Rodgers caught one pass for 20 yards, but with a 7-0 lead at halftime and Oklahoma playing like it had never seen a football before, it appeared that Nebraska really did not need him.
At halftime Chuck Fairbanks, the soft-spoken Oklahoma coach, tried to rally his troops in the dressing room. "We've made some mistakes, but so have they," he said. "All you can do is forget the first half and go out there and play like the score is tied." Then he asked if anyone had anything to say.
"Yes, sir," said Tinker Owens, a 17-year-old split end and the younger brother of Steve Owens, Oklahoma's 1969 Heisman Trophy winner. Tinker had gone into the game when junior John Carroll was injured in the second quarter. "My man has been going for every fake and I've beaten him on every play." "We'll see," said Fairbanks. But Oklahoma opened the second half the way it had played the first, trying to establish the running attack that was tops in the nation. It didn't work. The Sooners fumbled away a second punt, and Nebraska went in to make it 14-0.
"Put the ball in the air," Fairbanks told Quarterback Dave Robertson. "And don't forget Owens."
After Nebraska kicked off, Oklahoma started from its 24, and right away Robertson went to Owens. The first pass was broken up, but the second came down into the young freshman's hands, and it picked up 38 yards. Then Robertson went to his tight end, Al Chandler, for 16 and came back to Owens for 13 more. "Oh," said Nebraska, and shifted Monster Man Dave Mason over to help cover Owens. No matter. At the seven the Sooners went back to their ground game and on the fourth run, freshman Joe Washington cruised around right end for a yard and a touchdown to make it 14-7.
Early in the fourth quarter the Robertson-to-Owens combination put Oklahoma in gear again. Upstairs in the press box Barry Switzer, Fairbanks' top assistant who calls all the Sooner plays from his lofty perch, phoned down to tell Owens to split out an extra 10 to 15 yards. The move nullified Mason, who could not afford to follow Owens that far from the action. Zip. Owens pulled in a 22-yard pass at the Nebraska 10. Two plays later he was tripped as he went for a pass in the end zone, interference was called and Oklahoma had a first down at the one. Grant Burget, Pruitt's sub, carried in from there to tie the score.
A few minutes later Oklahoma's Lucious Selmon recovered a Nebraska fumble at the Husker 27. Rick Fulcher made the most of the opportunity with a game-winning 41-yard field goal.
And Rodgers? Well, he ran twice more in the second half and he caught one more pass, and that was all. Of Oklahoma's nine punts, he tried to turn on his dazzling magic but once, and Oklahoma turned that off after only seven yards. But still, he had his moment, even if it didn't count. With the score 7-0 and the ball at the Oklahoma 43, Rodgers went streaking down the sideline, took a Humm pass at the 12 and slipped past a defender for an apparent score.
Not so, ruled Referee Vance Carlson. He pointed at a spot near the 39-yard line and said that was where Rodgers had stepped out on his way down the field to catch the pass.
"I stepped out," said Rodgers, "but that guy [and he pointed a finger at the grinning Pope] pushed me. I thought if I was pushed out, I could come back in."
"When you're out," said Carlson, "you're out."
"Too bad, Johnny," said Pope, still grinning. "That was a very nice catch."
Later Pope admitted he had worked on Rodgers almost as much verbally as he had physically. "But nothing mean," he said. "Just things like, 'Nice block, Johnny' or 'Aw, Johnny, I thought you could block better than that.' But I don't know if it worked. He would just grin when I'd say something and go away. But I'll tell what did work. We really stuck it to him out there every chance we got. Stick and stick. Dan Ruster really stuck it to him once. He went up, and when he came down I thought he had broken his back. [Rodgers in fact did play the entire second half with two cracked ribs.] After a while he began hearing footsteps. He dropped one pass that was right into his hands, and I was still five yards away from him. I wonder if Greg will let me hold the Heisman Trophy sometimes?"
Rodgers was not even mildly upset by Pope's observations. "I don't hear footsteps," he said quietly. "The only thing wrong today was that Humm wasn't getting the ball to me on time. I don't think I was given the chance to do anything, so I don't see how that No. 28 could think he did so well against me."
"What about the Heisman now?" he was asked. Rodgers' eyes went blank behind his shades. "I know darn well they aren't going to give it to anybody because he is a better football player than I am. They may not give me the trophy, but Johnny Rodgers will always know he won it."