In college football there is this thing called the Game of the Decade and it always seems to be lurking in the doorway, like a Nebraska Cornhusker in a funny red hat or an Oklahoma Sooner in a funny red vest. A Game of the Decade is a rather special kind of contest, something on the order of a Crucial Showdown or a Battle of Giants or maybe even a Game of the Century. And no matter how often they play one, a Game of the Decade is a combination of all that is wonderful and insane about college football.
It develops slowly. It starts out with a couple of teams like Nebraska and Oklahoma beating everybody in sight by six or seven touchdowns early in the season. As a result—and this is an essential ingredient—the two teams are ranked high in the national polls, preferably first and second. Then around mid-October everybody realizes that Nebraska and Oklahoma are not going to lose a game until late in the year when they meet each other (see cover). In, of course, a Game of the Decade.
As far as the 1971 supergame is concerned, it took a vastly surprising Oklahoma team to create the excitement. In early September it was obvious that Nebraska would hardly be exercised until Thanksgiving Day in Norman, when there would be this minor irritation, this remote possibility of an upset should the Sooners get high enough. That was fine, and Nebraska started off as expected—by burying everybody. Even Bob Devaney was moved to admit that his Cornhuskers might win a few.
While this was going on, though, Oklahoma was turning out to be more of a sprint relay team than a football team, and when the Sooners ran circles around three excellent foes—USC, Texas and Colorado—on successive Saturdays, it suddenly occurred to a lot of people that on Nov. 25 there was going to be another Game of the Decade.
Now the two teams are there, as last week Nebraska bruised its way over Kansas State 44-17 and Oklahoma sprinted past Kansas 56-10. So, next week, get set for No. 1 Nebraska (10-0) against No. 2 Oklahoma (9-0) in still another of college football's gigantic, colossal, breathtaking, polldown Battle of Giants. Maybe even Game of the Century.
One of the most important things to understand about these Games is that they are sometimes more nerve-tingling before they get played than after they are over—when all of the players, coaches and fans, plus town, region and state of the winning school are stopping downtown traffic and when the losers are looking for a high ledge. Any old football-wise observer knows there is no more miserable creature in the world than a man whose team has lost a Game of the Decade, even on a fluke play, and at the same time there is nothing in the world more insufferable than a man whose team has won a Game of the Decade, even by pure theft.
As Darrell Royal of Texas once observed, "It's the fans who make it bigger than it is. For the players and coaches, it's just a big game. For some fans, it's something they might have to live with forever."
To be rather sticky about it, there are two different kinds of Games of the Decade. There is the mini-Game and there is the real Game. In the first a contest develops between a couple of teams that simply appear to be the best of the year, regardless of their records, teams that may have lost one or tied one along the way—as, for instance, the USC-UCLA happening of 1967.
The second kind is larger, and less frequent, but it has happened before. The teams involved should be undefeated and ranked No. 1 and 2, and they should meet late in the season. Which is to say that Nebraska and Oklahoma haven't invented anything. There have been many such classics, well remembered by historians, the most famous of which are listed on the next page.
The Nebraska-Oklahoma Game of the Decade seems to fall most comfortably into a category including these gems: Texas-Arkansas '69, Notre Dame-Michigan State '66, Notre Dame-Army '46 (which in some ways is in a class all by itself), Michigan-Minnesota '40 and TCU-SMU '35, games that were colorfully known, in order, as The Big Shoot-out, The Game of the Year, The Game of the Century, The Battle of Giants and The Aerial Circus.
History tells us a few things we might expect from Nebraska and Oklahoma. For instance, it is a good bet that the game will be exciting, full of suspense. The home field seems to mean little, since visitors have won as many Games of the Decade as they have lost. Nor does being a favorite mean much, since the underdog has won half the time. The most revealing fact of all is that the team most reliant on the forward pass tends to lose. This could be taken as a bad omen for Nebraska. But it is also true that the team that wins the biggie usually does it with the aid of a pass—somewhere, somehow.
It emerges that the average number of Games of the Decade in, alas, a decade is four. Roughly every other season one comes along, one with the necessary ingredients of a long and proper buildup, unbeaten opponents, a national honor at stake and, when possible, some glamorous stars, if not an O.J. Simpson or a Bubba Smith or a Tom Harmon or a Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard, at least a Jerry Tagge, a Jack Mildren, a Greg Pruitt and a Johnny Rodgers.
The decade which produced the most big games between No. 1 and No. 2 teams was the 1960s. Virtually every season, in a bowl if nowhere else, a No. 1 met a No. 2, or at least a No. 3. But the best single season for Games of the Decade was 1935 when there were three that captured the fancy of everyone. First, at midseason, Notre Dame and Ohio State, undefeated and untied, met at Columbus, and the Irish won in the last minute 18-13. A few weeks later Princeton and Dartmouth, undefeated and untied, met in a blizzard at Palmer Stadium, and the Tigers romped 26-6.
With these two Games of the Decade out of the way, the nation turned to a new area which was struggling for attention, the Southwest. Thus, on Nov. 30, a week after Princeton-Dartmouth, 40,000 converged on a 24,000-seat stadium in Fort Worth for a TCU-SMU encounter that would decide the Rose Bowl invitation and the winner of the Knute Rockne trophy for the national championship.
All of the world's leading football authorities, including Grantland Rice, were present that day in a bewildered Texas city to get bewildered themselves by a fellow named Sam Baugh, who threw 43 passes, an unheard-of number in those days. SMU won, despite Baugh, in a 20-14 classic decided on a sensational pass play, while people drove their automobiles through wire fences in order to get near the field.
These days, happily, no such measures are necessary in order for even 40 million people to watch a Game of the Decade. Most of the games have been turning up on television, and so will Nebraska-Oklahoma, at 2:30 E.S.T., check your local listings.
This particular Game of the Decade will match two teams as different as sprinters and weight lifters. Nebraska is a complete team, coupling a well-balanced attack with an iron defense. Oklahoma is all offense, most of it rushing out of the fashionable Wishbone T. Nebraska likes to probe and hammer, run and pass, work toward field position, and hold that line. Oklahoma only wants the football, and it will almost collapse that line in order to get it, the theory being that the Sooners will simply out-score you.
The statistics are telling on both sides. Devaney's Cornhuskers have allowed only 172 yards per game—best in the U.S.—and a mere 6.4 points per game, while offensing for 441 yards per game.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma has rushed for 481 yards per game, has a total offense of 563 yards per game and has scored 45 points per game—all tops in the country.
Nebraska thinks of itself as a team without stars, but stars have emerged. Jerry Tagge, the quarterback, is a star. He is big, strong, can pass to perfection, read defenses and lead. Johnny Rodgers is a game-breaker at running, catching and returning.
When Tagge passes and Rodgers catches, Nebraska can strike as quickly as Oklahoma does when Jack Mildren keeps the football or pitches it out to Greg Pruitt, Joe Wylie or Roy Bell on the triple option.
Both Tagge and Mildren are way up in there in total offense for the year, but they got there by different routes. Tagge has passed his way, Mildren has run, but each can do the other better than one might suspect. Interestingly, the touchdown ratio for each player is nearly equal. By throwing and running, Tagge and Mildren have accounted for 20 and 21 scores, respectively. And that's what counts. For all the fame of Auburn's Pat Sullivan and Washington's Sonny Sixkiller, Tagge and Mildren might be the two best college quarterbacks in the land. Certainly the most complete.
As for blazing Greg Pruitt's impressive rushing statistics (1,423 yards in nine games), Nebraska can counter with those of Jeff Kinney and Gary Dixon, who share the same position, Nebraska's I back. Together they've gained 1,257 yards, most of it the hard way, but always churning forward. This means Nebraska runs, too.
In a sense, the game will match two different attitudes and systems, Nebraska representing the old, Oklahoma the new. In an era when the triple option and Wishbone are dominating the style of play, Nebraska has stuck with an I formation and all the variations Devaney can devise.
Oklahoma's Wishbone is more than the name, however. Coach Chuck Fairbanks, who installed it after last season began, has more speed than any team that has ever tried to play it. Pruitt is a streak, and so are Wylie and Bell. And Mildren is a player for whom the attack is perfect. He is a strong, fast, savvy operator who understands the offense. He reads the options and has the knack of being able to pitch the ball a greater distance—sometimes 20 yards, out to Pruitt—with more accuracy than any quarterback who has run it.
As both teams believe in their abilities to move the football, the question then is which team seems more capable of slowing down the other. Statistics would indicate that this edge belongs to Nebraska. But Oklahoma has played stronger teams outside the conference, like USC and Texas. So maybe the statistics are misleading.
Bringing it down to their five common opponents in the Big Eight, one can find edges for both. Oklahoma scored the more points, Nebraska showed the stiffer defense. They both won easily every week.
The one alarming figure in Oklahoma's disfavor—and one which surely gives hope to every Nebraskan—is the outrageous number of times Oklahoma has fumbled. The Sooners have managed to lose almost three fumbles per game. But without slowing down.
Can Oklahoma lose three fumbles and beat Nebraska? Probably not. But can Nebraska outscore an Oklahoma Wishbone that does not lose three fumbles? Probably not.
The answer to the enigma then lies in faster, more deceptive Oklahoma's ability to operate the most devastating attack in football today. Nobody really stops the triple option, because it has the enemy outnumbered. It stops itself. If the Sooners do not stop themselves, then they will win something that might be called—hey, gang, why not call it the Game of the Decade?
1925, NOTRE DAME-STANFORD: Knute Rockne took his Four Horsemen to the Rose Bowl where they galloped—Don Miller is doing it here—to a 27-10 win.
1967, USC-UCLA: It was O. J. Simpson against Gary Beban, O.J. providing two dramatic runs in the Trojans' 21-20 victory.
1969, TEXAS-ARKANSAS: After the Longhorns rallied to make the score 14-14, the winning extra point sent them skyward.
1966, MICHIGAN STATE-NOTRE DAME: Barefooted Dick Kenney's field goal put State ahead 10-0, but the Irish came back to—you remember—tie it.
1946, ARMY-NOTRE DAME: Glenn Davis (41) and Doc Blanchard (35) challenged Johnny Lujack in their 0-0 classic.