MITCHELL SIMON 1919-2014 | WAYMON CLARK
October 9, 1971
In the annual Red River rivalry game played in Dallas, the Texas Longhorns had recently been getting the best of the Oklahoma Sooners. It was a series between two bordering states that had first been played in 1900, missed a miscellaneous few years in '18, '20-'21, and '24-'28, before being played every year since. In the 65 games that had been played, Texas had dominated by winning 42 games, Oklahoma had won 21, with nine coming in ten years from '48-'57 under legendary coach Bud Wilkinson, and there had been two ties.
Himself a native Oklahoman and one-time Sooners All-American quarterback in '49, coach Darrell Royal took over a Texas program in '57 coming off a 1-9 season and turned it back around, putting it squarely on the national map. Along the way, he had quickly learned how to beat his former coach Wilkinson in just his second year, and proceeded to win 12 of the next 13 games against his former school, including the famed '63 contest between the #1 Sooners and the #2 Longhorns, 28-7, en route to Texas' first national championship. Later in the decade, one in which they were the second winningest program of the Sixties (86-19-2) behind Alabama, it was Royal who introduced the wishbone triple option offense, and once perfected into the most devastating attack in the land, used it to reel off a 30-game winning streak and claim two more national titles, a consensus one in '69 and the UPI crown in '70, along with both seasons' rushing titles.
With an offense led by senior quarterbacks Eddie Phillips and backup Donnie Wigginton and senior fullback Jim Bertelsen, Royal was looking to possibly continue on to an unprecedented third straight national championship. After convincing wins at UCLA (28-10), with Phillips rushing for 142 yards and Bertelsen adding 124, against Texas Tech (28-0), with backup senior fullback Robert Callison rushing for 107 yards, and then Oregon (35-7), with Wigginton rushing for 116 yards for an injured Phillips and Bertelsen for 114, the third-ranked Longhorns faced their toughest test against Oklahoma.
They say that imitation is the best form of flattery, well, the Sooners' coaching staff had done both a year earlier. Faced with the dilemma of having the wrong personnel for their stumbling passing offense after three games, head coach Chuck Fairbanks accepted offensive coordinator Barry Switzer's idea to change the entire offense in the two weeks leading up to the Texas game, and they copied the Longhorns' successful wishbone. Unveiled against their rivals in Dallas, which resulted in a 41-9 Texas win, the Sooners went through some growing pains but stuck with it throughout the '70 season, and it propelled them to a 7-4-1 record.
With a whole preseason to practice for '71, and with an experienced team that returned 16 starters, including 11 juniors and stellar senior quarterback Jack Mildren, Oklahoma was ranked #10 in the AP poll. In their opener against SMU, the Sooners proved they were for real by rushing for 342 yards in a 30-0 victory, with Mildren leading the charge with 109 yards. They followed by rushing for 418 yards during a 55-29 win at Pittsburgh, a game that was not as close as the score, for the Panthers scored a pair of touchdowns in the last 11 minutes for some window-dressing, with junior halfback Greg Pruitt gaining 118 rushing yards. And in Oklahoma's tough test against #17 USC, they showed just how devastating their wishbone was against the Trojans, racking up 516 yards on the ground and pulling away in the second half during a 33-20 victory, with Pruitt exploding for 205 yards and Mildren contributing 102.
The two were a difficult pair to stop, and were the top two ball carriers in each of the three games. Mildren had gained 278 yards on 49 carries, averaging 5.7 yards per carry, and had scored five touchdowns, while Pruitt was almost unstoppable, carrying 39 times for 413 yards, an astounding average of 10.6 yards per carry, and had also scored five touchdowns. So, now ranked #8 in the AP poll, one of a dozen undefeated and untied teams occupying the top 12 spots, the Sooners also faced their toughest test in Texas, a team they had not beaten in five years.
On a beautifully sunny day in front of 73,580 at the Cotton Bowl, Texas benefited from some mistakes in the early going. Junior defensive back Mike Bayer recovered Pruitt's fumble at the Oklahoma 44. Six plays later at the five, Wigginton weaved his way past three defenders and into the end zone for the game's first score with 10:29 showing on the clock. Steve Valek kicked the extra pint, and Texas had the lead, 7-0.
The Sooners received the ensuing kickoff and began at its 31. Any concerns about the wishbone were dispelled when Pruitt took a pitchout and darted for a 46-yard gain, the big play in a seven-play drive that Pruitt capped when he scored from a yard out. Sophomore John Carroll kicked the extra point, and it had taken Oklahoma exactly just 2 ½ minutes to tie the game, 7-7, with 7:59 left in the period.
Not to be outdone, Texas took over at its 20 and proceeded to drive all the way down the field, the big play being Wigginton's 44-yard scamper across the goal line that put the Longhorns back on top. After Valek's kick, it was 14-7 at the 5:04 mark.
Back on cue, the Sooners attacked. Beginning at its 31, Mildren guided the team down the field, and on the eighth play of the drive, senior halfback Roy Bell, subbing for injured junior Joe Wylie, capped it with a three-yard run. Carroll's kick made it 14-14 with 2:04 left in the opening period, and it was beginning to look if any defense would be able to save the Cotton Bowl's scoreboard.
Early in the second quarter, Oklahoma was backed up to its own four, and two plays later, faced a third down-and-six. Bell circled to the left and a Texas posse had him cornered, but he shook two off his back and gained seven yards for a key first down. It launched the Sooners down the field, including a play in which Mildren optioned and cut up field for seven yards before pitching back to a trailing Pruitt to complete a 41-yard gain. Needing ten plays to complete their journey, Pruitt scored from four yards out to cap the 96-yard march and take the lead. Carroll added the extra point, and Oklahoma led 21-14 with 10:33 left in the half.
On the Longhorns' next possession, Wigginton had the ball jarred loose by junior defensive tackle Derland Moore, and senior outside linebacker Albert Qualls recovered for the Sooners at the Texas 24. Despite a 15-yard penalty, it took Oklahoma only four plays to score, and the final one was a beauty. Pruitt shot through a hole off right tickle, and defensive back Alan Lowry had him in sight for a tackle, but Pruitt juked him almost out of his cleats to go untouched for 20 yards and his third touchdown of the afternoon. Carroll's kick made it a 28-14 lead with 9:09 still left in the half, plenty of time for an explosive offense.
Texas came right back with a 55-yard, ten play drive that ended when Bertelsen went in from three yards out, and Valek's kick cut the Sooners' lead to 28-21 with 4:53 left until intermission. Oklahoma bounced right back, and starting at its 30, they drove 60 yards down the field with time running out. At the ten, they had to settle for Carroll's 26-yard field goal with just one second remaining, and went into the locker room ahead, 31-21.
Pruitt was once again the top threat in the Oklahoma backfield, and for any chance to win, the Longhorns had to figure a way to corral him. He had already gained 189 yards in the first half, and had scored a trio of touchdowns.
The second half was only minutes old when Texas got a big break. Mildren, sprinting to his left, was holding the ball out to make a pitch when Tommy Landry knocked it out of his hands and teammate Bayer fell on the loose ball at the Oklahoma 22. But the Oklahoma defense, which forced only three Texas punts in the first 30 minutes, rose up, and two plays later, the Longhorns were faced with a third-and-four at the 16. Halfback Dan Steakley took a pitchout to the left, but senior cornerback Steve O'Shaugnessy was on hand to force the play to the inside, and senior linebacker Steve Aycock, one of the best in the country, made a jolting stop for a gain of only one. Royal opted for a 32-yard field goal attempt by Valek, but it was wide to the left, and the ten-point lead was intact.
From the 20, the Sooners then embarked on a drive, and five plays moved them across midfield to the Texas 47. Mildren then dropped back for his second pass attempt of the game, his first being intercepted, and he found senior split end Jon Harrison all alone for an over-the-shoulder catch before stepping out of bounds at the seven, a 40-yard completion. Mildren did the honors himself and pranced across the goal line on the next play, upping the Sooners' lead and providing breathing room. Carroll's kick made it 38-21 at the 7:17 mark of the third.
Oklahoma continued to hit hard in the second half. Wigginton was forced from the game early in the third period after suffering a rib injury, and Phillips, sore hamstring and all, was pressed into duty. Also, starting halfback Don Burrisk retired early with a shoulder dislocation.
Beginning at the 20 and with Phillips at the helm, the Longhorns took to the air on their next possession. They marched into Oklahoma territory and down to the 15. From there, Bertelsen took a delayed pitch from Phillips and went across for his second touchdown of the day. Valek, who had hit 16 straight extra points on the young season, missed this one, so Texas was still 11 points in arrears, 38-27, with 2:16 left in the third.
The score remained the same into the fourth quarter, and for most of that period as well, as Oklahoma had scored on six of their first nine possessions, yielding twice on fumbles and once by an interception, before somewhat imploding. Any illusions of a Texas comeback started to fade when Qualls popped Steakley loose of the ball on the Oklahoma 33 and senior tackle Lionel Day recovered. Unfortunately, they could not convert the turnover into points.
It was not in the cards for the Longhorns, for on their next possession, they again bobbled it away when Phillips launched a bad pitchout which Steakley might have recovered had O'Shaugnessy not knocked him to the turf with a wicked hit, which left the ball for senior outside linebacker Mark Driscoll to recover at the Texas 29. Mildren drove the offense as close as the ten, but they had to settle for Carroll's 27-yard field goal, which put the Sooners two touchdowns and extra points ahead, 41-27, with only 3:29 left in the game.
Two plays into the next Texas series, O'Shaugnessy intercepted a Phillips pass and returned it down to the seven. Three plays later, it was Mildren who carried the ball the remaining yard for the nail in the coffin, and Carroll's kick made it 48-27 with 2:10 left, assuring an Oklahoma victory.
After 13 years of frustration, the Sooners had gained revenge by turning Texas' own invention, the wishbone, on them, and it had never looked as lethal as they amassed 435 yards on the ground, the most ever by any Longhorn opponent under Royal. Pruitt had been somewhat contained in the second half, maybe a little burned out, but he still rushed for over 200 yards for the second game in a row, finishing with 216 on 20 carries, and those three first half touchdowns. Mildren contributed 111 yards on his 27 carries, and scored a pair of second half touchdowns.
"I've never seen such speed," Royal said afterward. "Their backs look like they are running downhill."
Source: Jeff Linkowski