Bob Devaney is a legend at the University of Nebraska, both as the head football coach and later as the athletic director. But for the first eight years of a coaching tenure that started in 1962, he was simply a good, but not legendary figure, making four major bowl games in that stretch. It was 1970 when his status took a big leap forward with a national championship. It was the 1971 Nebraska football season that cemented Devaney’s legend—a repeat title that included winning one of college football’s historic regular season games.
The running game is what defined Nebraska for decades, and it certainly defined college football as a whole in this era. But by the era’s standards, the quarterback Jerry Tagge had exceptional numbers—a 60 percent completion rate was rarefied air in those days, and his 8.4 yards-per-attempt was solid by any historical benchmark. He threw 17 touchdown passes against just four interceptions.
Tagge was a second-team All-American and was certainly helped by having an emerging superstar at wide receiver. Johnny Rodgers, who doubled as a return man, caught 53 passes for 872 yards and made 1st-team All-American.
The All-American parade continued up front with offensive tackle Carl Johnson, who cleared the way for 1,000-yard rusher Jeff Kinney. On defense, Nebraska’s All-American talent included defensive tackle Larry Jacobson, and Rich Glover at middle guard (a position that was sort of a cross between a middle linebacker and nose tackle). Willie Harper was a top pass rusher at defensive end, and All-Big Eight defensive back Bill Kosch patrolled the secondary.
Translation: Nebraska was loaded. They had the third-best offense in the nation for total scoring and the defense also ranked third for points allowed.
The Cornhuskers were ranked #2 to start the season. They beat mediocre Oregon 34-7. When top-ranked Notre Dame was less than impressive, Nebraska was vaulted to the #1 spot. They held it through consecutive 35-7 blastings of two more mediocre non-conference opponents, Minnesota and Texas A&M. Utah State had a decent midmajor team, but the Cornhuskers handed them a 42-6 loss.
Big Eight play was set to begin, and Nebraska played their first road game at lowly Missouri on October 9. They won 36-0. That was followed up by hammering subpar Kansas at home, 55-zip. Another soft opponent awaited in Stillwater, and Nebraska cruised past Colorado State 41-13. The Cornhuskers were looking good and still ranked #1. And the meat of the schedule had arrived.
Colorado came to town ranked #6 nationally and hoping to shake up the race for both the national title and the Big Eight’s Orange Bowl bid. The Nebraska defense forced an early turnover, which set up an 11-yard touchdown run by Kinney. The Cornhuskers then stopped a Buffalo drive with an interception, and promptly marched 65 yards back the other way. Tagge capped it off with a touchdown pass.
A touchdown by Colorado’s Cliff Branch, a future NFL star with the Oakland Raiders, cut the lead to 14-7. But the Nebraska defense was dominating. They would shut down Charlie Davis, one of the country’s most productive running backs. Tagge was efficient, going 10/17 for 144 yards. He responded to the Branch touchdown by leading a 75-yard drive to extend the lead to 21-7. It was 24-7 by half, and ended 31-7.
An Iowa State team headed for an eight-win season came to Lincoln and left with a 37-0 pasting. On November 13, Nebraska went to Kansas State and cruised to a 44-17 win. The last game of the conference schedule was here, and it was the one the entire college football had waited for—a battle on the road with #2 Oklahoma on Thanksgiving Day.
On a day that included four legitimate NFL contenders playing games—the Lions, Chiefs, Cowboys, and Rams–it was Nebraska-Oklahoma that was talk of the sports world. The Sooners and Cornhuskers were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated—an iconic honor in the pre-digital age—the week before the game. While the phrase “Game of the Century” would become abused, this is the first time it was widely used in the pregame hype.
The winner would go to to the Orange Bowl and play the winner of the Alabama-Auburn game the following afternoon for the national championship. But it’s this Thanksgiving Day battle that ultimately defined the 1971 college football season, because it lived up to all the hype.
Rodgers electrified the national TV audience with a 72-yard punt return that produced the game’s first score. Rodgers’ performance set the stage for a 1972 run to the Heisman Trophy. For now, it gave Nebraska a 7-0 lead. The Cornhuskers stretched the lead to 14-3 in the second quarter, but the Sooners bounced back with two touchdown drives and Nebraska trailed 17-14 at halftime.
The third quarter belonged to the Cornhuskers. Kinney, on his way to 171 yards rushing, scored a pair of TDs and Nebraska looked in command at 28-17. But Oklahoma showed their own grit, scoring consecutive touchdowns and again rallying from 11 points down to take the lead. Nebraska got the ball with just over seven minutes left, trailing 31-28.
A 12-play drive took them 74 yards and ended when Kinney scored one more time. There was only 1:38 left, and Oklahoma’s wishbone offense wasn’t built to drive the field that quickly. Nebraska had prevailed 35-31.
There was still one more regular season game to take care of, and Nebraska went to Hawaii and beat up a seven-win Rainbows squad 45-3. They were set to play Alabama for the national championship.
If there was any doubt that the real national title game had been on Turkey Day, they were dispelled quickly. Kinney scored an early TD. Rodgers again showcased his return skills, with a 77-yard punt return. Kinney would rush for 99 yards on 20 carries. Tagge played with his usual efficiency, going 11/19 for 159 yards. The score was 28-0 by halftime and Nebraska fans could spend the second half in early celebration mode. The final was 38-6.
The Orange Bowl thumping concluded a bowl season where Oklahoma had smoked Auburn in the Sugar Bowl, and Colorado concluded a season where their only losses were the Cornhuskers and Sooners. These Big Eight teams finished 1-2-3 in the final polls, a historic conference sweep of the top three spots.
Nebraska’s 1971 national championship run was impressive by any standards—it was a repeat title and included an iconic win. Doing it against competition this stiff only adds to its greatness. They didn’t three-peat in 1972, but the Cornhuskers still returned to the Orange Bowl and won it. At that point, Devaney went on to become A.D., his legend firmly established.