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As Good As It Gets Nebraska beat Oklahoma in a '71 showdown that had all the stuff of legend BY This story is an SI Classic, reprinted from the issue of Dec. 6, 1971.

Jan. 17, 1995
Jan. 17, 1995

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Jan. 17, 1995

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As Good As It Gets Nebraska beat Oklahoma in a '71 showdown that had all the stuff of legend BY This story is an SI Classic, reprinted from the issue of Dec. 6, 1971.

In the land of the pickup truck and cream gravy for breakfast,
down where the wind can blow through the walls of a diner and into
the grieving lyrics of a country song on a jukebox -- down there in
dirt-kicking Big Eight territory -- they played a football game on
Thanksgiving Day that was mainly for the quarterbacks on the field
and for self-styled gridiron intellectuals everywhere. The spectacle
itself was for everybody, of course, for all of those who had been
waiting weeks for Nebraska to meet Oklahoma, or for all the guys with
their big stomachs and bigger Stetsons, and for all the luscious
coeds who danced through the afternoons drinking daiquiris out of
paper cups. But the game of chess that was played with bodies, that
was strictly for the cerebral types who will keep playing it into the
ages and wondering whether it ! was the greatest collegiate football
battle ever. Under the agonizing conditions that existed, it well may
have been.
Quality is what the game had more of than anything else. There had
been scads of games in the past with equal pressure and buildup.
Games of the Decade or Poll Bowls or whatever you want to call them.
Something played in a brimming-over stadium for limb, life and a
national championship. But it is impossible to stir the pages of
history and find one in which both teams performed so reputably for
so long throughout the day.
In essence, what won it for Nebraska was a pearl of a punt return
in the game's first 3 1/2 minutes. Everything else balances out, more
or less, even the precious few mistakes -- Oklahoma's three fumbles
against Nebraska's one, plus a costly Nebraska offside, the only
penalty in the game. There was an unending fury of offense from both
teams that simply overwhelmed the defenses, maniacal though they
were. But that is the way it is with modern college football. You
can't take away every weapon. Both Nebraska and Oklahoma stopped the
things they feared most, but in so doing they gave up practically
everything else. From Oklahoma's record-cracking wishbone T the
Cornhuskers removed the wide pitch to the halfback, mainly Greg
Pruitt, but in doing so they relinquished the keep, the fullback into
the middle and most of all the pass. To stop Pruitt, the Cornhuskers
were forced to cover wide receiver Jon Harrison man for man, which
they did ineffectually, thus allowing Harrison to catch four passes
in critical situations, two for touchdowns. From Nebraska's imposing
I spread and I slot, Oklahoma took away the passing game but gave up
the power running attack. So the two teams swapped touchdowns evenly
from scrimmage, four for four, and Oklahoma added a field goal. But
always there lingered the one thing they had not traded, that sudden,
shocking punt return by Nebraska's Johnny Rodgers.
It was one of those insanely thrilling things in which a single
player, seized by the moment, twists, whirls, slips, holds his
balance and, sprinting, makes it all the way to the goal line.
Rodgers went 72 yards for the touchdown, one which keeps growing
larger in the minds of all. And afterward, back on the Nebraska
bench, he did what most everybody in Norman probably felt like doing:
He threw up.
''I don't know what I did or what I was thinking about,'' Rodgers
said later. ''The return was set up to the right, but I saw a hole to
the left and cut back. I do remember seeing Joe Blahak up ahead
and thinking he would get a block for me.''
Oklahoma's Joe Wylie had punted the ball high and deep enough with
the help of the gushing wind. The Sooner coverage was down fast, so
fast that all of the 61,826 at Owen Field, not to mention the TV
audience, must have felt Rodgers would have been much wiser to
consider a fair catch. It never entered his mind.
Heavens to Omaha if Rodgers didn't catch it with Greg Pruitt right
on him. He took the blow, spun around on his own 30-yard line and
planted his left hand on the Tartan Turf to keep from falling.
Strangely, Pruitt's lick only turned Rodgers away from the grasp of
another lunging Oklahoma tackler, Ken Jones. With that, however,
Rodgers set sail to the right. But just as quickly he then darted
back to the left, through a whole cluster of wine-colored Sooner
jerseys. There the minuet ended. Rodgers was open and away from the
flow of the coverage that had developed, heading for the left
sideline. Ahead, his friend Joe Blahak, a cornerback, inherited the
chore of screening off or blocking the last man with a chance to make
a tackle, the punter, Joe Wylie.
Wylie never had a good enough angle on Rodgers, although Johnny
finally began to tire and Wylie is fast. It was academic; Blahak
bumped Wylie, and from there on, Rodgers, who has been doing this
sort of thing for two years -- scoring on punts and making other big
plays -- could have crawled, retching every inch, and still scored.
What the punt return accomplished was monumental to the Nebraska
cause. It ultimately allowed the Cornhuskers the luxury of an
11-point lead twice during the game, at 14-3 in the second quarter
and at 28-17 late in the third quarter. It forced Oklahoma to go
uphill all the way. And even when the Sooners' marvelous quarterback,
Jack Mildren, overcame it twice, that bit of instinctive genius by
Rodgers always had Nebraska's own brilliant quarterback, Jerry Tagge,
in a position to retake the lead (or the game) with a single drive.
Which Tagge coolly did when the scoreboard clock dictated that it was
time, finally, and again, for the game to be won or lost by the
Nebraska offense.
With 7:10 remaining in the fourth quarter, after Mildren had run
for two touchdowns and passed for two more to Harrison, his high
school buddy from Abilene, Texas; after Mildren -- always uphill --
had wishboned 467 yards in total offense for Oklahoma against the
best defense in the country; indeed, after Jack Mildren had given
the Sooners a 31-28 lead in a game that had every right, by now,
certainly, to be running out of heroics, there was still Jerry Tagge,
Johnny Rodgers, a refrigerator truck named Jeff Kinney and the
Nebraska offense, which kept on coming like the disciplined Prussians
they have become under Bob Devaney.
Devaney is normally a calm and likable man, resembling in that
respect Oklahoma's Chuck Fairbanks. He had lost his cool only once
during the game, he later admitted, when he turned to his defense on
the sidelines and said facetiously, ''Why don't you guys give Rich
Glover some help once in a while?'' This was in reference to the fact
that Glover, the noseguard, sometimes seemed to be stopping Oklahoma
single-handedly. But when that last offensive drive of 74 yards had
to be accomplished, Devaney was back in character. He was willing to
let Tagge handle it. Devaney stayed calm. So did Tagge. So did they
all.
The steady pounding had begun to wear down the Oklahoma defense,
which had proved better than expected, and Tagge knew it. The ground
game had worked throughout the second half, with Kinney banging his
way to the 174 yards (and four touchdowns) he would eventually wind
up with. The frenzied Oklahoma fans could sing Boomer Sooner and
scream, ''Defense, defense,'' all they wanted, but Jerry Tagge knew
it had come down to his game to win.
''Nobody said a word in the huddle but me,'' Tagge said. ''We all
just knew what had to be done.''
The drive required 12 plays and more than five minutes. Tagge
would break out of the huddle and up to the line and frequently call
an audible. He would key on the Oklahoma safety, who had to worry
about a pass, and then run to the opposite side. He ran Kinney for a
brutal 17 yards in which the big senior plainly broke three tackles.
Tagge ran Kinney for 13 more yards on a play which saw the bruising
I-back cut grindingly outside and hammer down a wall of weary
Sooners.
However, in between these two efforts by Kinney, whose white
jersey was beginning to look like confetti, Tagge had to improvise a
play that probably had more instant horror in it for both coaching
staffs than any movie Vincent Price ever made. It was a pure
shrieker.
Nebraska had come to third down and eight at the Oklahoma 46,
trailing by three, the clock running, 4 1/2 minutes left and the
Sooners' wishbone just waiting to get the ball one more time.
Now then, Jerry Tagge is not a fast man or very much of a
scrambler, and while he is a splendid pro prospect because of his
size and savvy, he does not have a quick release and he sometimes has
trouble seeing any receiver other than the primary one -- most often
Johnny Rodgers.
Tagge called a pass right there, and the Oklahoma rush got him in
quick trouble. He had no alternative but to run for his life, if not
the ball game. He went out to the right, looking, looking, with
Oklahoma's best defensive end, Raymond Hamilton, closing in on him.
At the last second before being trapped for no more than a minimum
gain, Tagge saw the squirming Rodgers between two Oklahoma
linebackers. He drilled the ball low, but Rodgers sank to his knees
and somehow caught it at the Sooner 35, just as he had somehow made
that punt return. Enough for the first down. The Prussians were still
coming.
Four plays and two minutes later it was second down at the
Oklahoma six, and Tagge, who had been constantly glancing at the
clock, called timeout. He knew that only a busted play could ruin
Nebraska. So now Tagge wanted to chat with Devaney.
As Tagge remembers it, their conversation went something like this:
Tagge: ''I know we can score, Coach, but I've been worried about
eating up the time.''
Devaney: ''We're going for the touchdown. There won't be any
ties.''
Tagge: ''We'll get it.''
Devaney: ''What's your best play?''
Tagge: ''I think it's the off-tackle with Jeff.''
Devaney: ''O.K. Let's run it without any mistakes.''
Jerry Tagge and his friends did exactly that. Kinney slammed into
the left side behind tackle Daryl White, knocked down somebody again
and picked up four yards in the process. So Tagge called the same
play and Kinney rammed into the end zone. That, plus the extra point,
made it 35-31 and sent an estimated 30,000 ecstatic residents of
Lincoln scurrying out to the airport to welcome the football team
that would keep all of the town's cocktail waitresses in their red
sweatshirts with the white No. 1's on them until New Year's Day at
least. And probably longer.

This is an article from the Jan. 17, 1995 issue