NORMAN, Okla. - It's one of the signature moments in college football history. Johnny Rodgers catching a punt on the fly, getting hit almost as soon as he caught the ball, dodging a few more tackles, then taking off, not stopping until he was dancing in the end zone.
It was the most exciting play of the 1971 college football season, indeed one of the most exciting plays of the entire decade. Rodgers' punt return did more than just give Nebraska a 7-0 lead, though. It helped kick off a rivalry that lasted throughout the rest of the decade and into the 80s, one that often helped determine the number 1 team in the country.
The Nebraska-Oklahoma rivarly wasn't always the biggest one on each school's schedule. Before the 1970s, neither school seemed to be good at the same time, so the game wasn't circled on the calendar too often. That changed in 1971. Nebraska, the defending national champions, entered their game against Oklahoma undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the nation. Oklahoma was ranked No. 2, the start of a climb back into national prominence. Both teams were undefeated on November 25, 1971, when they met for what was billed as the latest version of the Game of the Century.
Going into the game, the biggest intrigue was thought to come when Oklahoma had the ball, as the Sooners' dominant wishbone offense was going against Nebraska's devestating "blackshirts" defense. It was billed as the irresistable force battling the immoveable object. That matchup was thought to be the highlight of the game that would likely decide the national championship.
But it was Rodgers' punt return that got the game going. After stopping Oklahoma on the opening drive, Rodgers explosive run put Nebraska in the drivers' seat in the game of the year. The Cornhuskers had a 14-3 lead late in the second quarter, but they gave it back, as Oklahoma scored twice in the second, including once with just seconds left in the quarter. Nebraska's 17-14 halftime deficit marked the first time all season they had trailed in a game.
Nebraska's power running took over, and the Cornhuskers scored two straight touchdowns to take a 28-17 lead. Back again came Oklahoma, reclaiming the lead at 31-28. Nebraska got the ball back with seven minutes left with a chance to take the lead again. After driving to near midfield, Rodgers struck again, turning a short pass into a 33-yard gain to bring Nebraska to the 15. Runningback Jeff Kinney ran the ball on the next four plays, the last resulting in his fourth touchdown of the game, as Nebraska went back in front. They stopped Oklahoma's last drive, securing the victory.
Even more than the national championship the previous year, the Cornhuskers' victory in front of an estimate 55 million television viewers helped thrust Nebraska into the national spotlight, where it remains to this day. As the Cornhuskers wrapped up their second straight national championship in January, people from around the the country started following and cheering for the 'Huskers.
Oklahoma benefited from the game too, even in defeat. Their 1971 season was the beginning of their return to glory. Despite the loss to Nebraska, the Sooners finished the season ranked No. 2, defeating Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. Three years later, it was the Sooners' turn to win back-to-back national championships.
Rodgers' punt return: