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Monday, October 22
Updated: October 24, 4:42 PM ET
The greatest game ever played
By Beano Cook
Special to ESPN.com
This is the 30th anniversary of what I consider to be the greatest college football game ever played. Held on Thanksgiving Day, 1971, Nebraska beat Oklahoma, 35-31.
It has been referred to as the "Game of the Century." I agree. For a game to be considered great, it has to have special meaning (these were the top two ranked teams in America) and something has to happen in the last few minutes.
That happened. After Oklahoma had moved in front, 31-28, on a Jack Mildren touchdown pass, Nebraska mounted a long drive (12 plays, 74 yards), capped by a Jeff Kinney two-yard plunge with 1:38 left.
Jerry Tagge marched the Cornhuskers down the field in what many Nebraska observers consider to be one of the greatest drives in school history.
The Johnny Rodgers punt return is a play which has been seen more times over the years than any other in college football. Every time you see a highlight of Oklahoma-Nebraska, you see that play promoted. It was the first touchdown of the contest.
These schools used to meet every year. It was one of the storied rivalries in the sport. While there were many advantages to merging the SWC and the Big Eight into the Big 12, one disadvantage was seeing this series go from an annual event to twice every four years. When you talk about tradition, think about the great coaches who have been involved in this rivalry. Bud Wilkinson, Bob Devaney, Barry Switzer, Tom Osborne, Chuck Fairbanks, Biff Jones, Dana Bible. There have been great players, many of them going on to play professionally.
Remember, last year's game was a big one. Both teams came in undefeated, and Nebraska jumped out to a 14-0 lead. Oklahoma was a 10-point underdog and there were many doubters of Bob Stoops. The Sooners rallied and prevailed, 31-14.
One reason this rivalry is so big in both states is simple -- there are no major league professional basketball, football or baseball teams in those states.
Wilkinson made the Sooners a national power after WWII by winning the national championship in 1950, '55 and '56. Every Oklahoma native knows the score-by-score run of the 47-game win streak. They learn it right after learning the national anthem.
What's amazing about the Cornhuskers' program is they rarely get a highly-ranked recruiting crop. In 1991, the freshman class was rated 28th in the country. That was the nucleus of a team that went on to win two national championships.
Even the marching bands get involved in the rivalry. Nebraska's band was in Washington, D.C. at the Kennedy Center when Johnny Carson was honored during the Bill Clinton era. Then again, Oklahoma is the only state I know of that has a Broadway show named after it. What a rivalry!
Beano Cook is a college football historian for ESPN.