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Oklahoma 14 – Penn State 0

December 31, 1972 ▪ at New Orleans ▪ Attendance 80,123

For the first time in 17 seasons, no Southeastern Conference team would participate in the Sugar Bowl. In New Orleans for the second straight year, giving Oklahoma the unusual distinction of playing two Sugar Bowl games in one calendar year, January 1, 1972 and December 31, 1972, the second-ranked Sooners (10-1) would meet #5 Penn State for the first time ever. It marked Oklahoma's seventh different top 20 opponent during a season, also a first in school history. They also came in riding a modest six-game winning streak, but in their last 23 games, the Sooners had won 21 of them, and they had an outside shot at the national championship.

The '72 Sooners were an experienced group, featuring an offense with just two underclassmen as starters, but they were a little different in make-up to the record-setting team of a year earlier. Great wishbone quarterback Jack Mildren had graduated, leaving Dave Robertson to guide the club, and the senior proved more than adequate by rushing for 278 yards and six touchdowns and passing for 1,054 yards and nine scores, losing only to Colorado at Boulder. He had help, as senior center Tom Brahaney and senior halfback Greg Pruitt, who had rushed for 938 yards and 13 touchdowns and finished second for the Heisman Trophy, were named consensus All-Americans again, and senior fullback Leon Crosswhite, who was third on the team in rushing with 614 yards, and senior tackle Dean Unruh were named to the All-Big Eight team. Finishing second in rushing was freshman halfback Joe Washington, playing in the first year frosh were eligible for varsity ball, who ran for 614 yards and seven touchdowns, and was coming off his first collegiate 100-yard game, a 109-yard and two touchdown performance in their finale against Oklahoma State. Overall, it was a unit that had averaged 477 yards per game in total offense and scored 35 points per game.

With just five starters coming back at the beginning of the year, the Sooners' defense had returned to its familiar Oklahoma 5-2 alignment roots, posted three shutouts, and had permitted an average of 6.7 points per game. Senior tackle Derland Moore and swift sophomore linebacker Rod Shoate, the team's leading tackler with 139, who both received mention on some All-American teams, anchored it. Aiding them were junior middle guard Lucious Selmon and senior end Raymond Hamilton, second on the team with 102 tackles, both named to the All-Big Eight team.

Penn State was a school that was unbeaten in eight of their previous nine bowl trips dating back 25 years, including wins in each of their last three appearances. Seventh-year head coach Joe Paterno had built the Nittany Lions into the premier program in the east. In the previous five years they had posted one of the better records in the nation, going 50-5 over that span, including undefeated back-to-back seasons in '68 and '69 and a 31-game unbeaten streak, but a national championship had eluded Paterno in each of those seasons, having to settle for a runner-up AP ranking each time.

Coming off an 11-1 season and AP #5 final ranking, Penn State had been ranked #5 in the '72 preseason, but dropped a notch when Oklahoma moved ahead of them before either team played a game. The Lions dropped their opener at then #7 Tennessee, 28-21, also the only team to beat them a year earlier, and fell out of the top ten, but they rebounded to win their next ten straight games. In fact, in their last 28 games, Penn State had lost only to the Volunteers. They came into the Sugar Bowl ranked right where they began the year.

The Penn State offense was averaging 402 yards per game and had scored 32.5 points per game, including over 40 in three of their last four. In charge of the troops was accurate senior All-American quarterback John Hufnagel, who had thrown for almost 1,900 yards and 15 touchdowns during the season, both school records, and had finished sixth in the Heisman voting. His primary target was sophomore tight end Dan Natale, who caught 30 passes for a 15.3 average and five touchdowns. However, the Nittany Lions would be without star junior halfback John Cappelletti, forced to miss the Sugar Bowl with a virus and a 102-degree temperature. He had scored 13 touchdowns, 12 on the ground, and gained 1,117 yards, the second best rushing season in school history, closing the campaign with five straight 100-yard games. And the Lions defense, which had permitted an average of 15.9 points per game, boasted a pair of All-American's, senior right end Bruce Bannon and senior left outside linebacker Tom Skorupan.

It was the first night game in the bowl's 39-year history, and in front of over 80,123 fans, Oklahoma was 13 ½ point favorites. They opened prone to mistakes, and it was an orgy of frustration and fumbles. After the Sooners' Selmon had recovered sophomore tailback Walt Addie's fumble, who was playing on a sprained foot suffered a few days earlier, at the Penn State 15, Crosswhite bobbled it right back minutes later at the two. It grew contagious, as late in the first quarter Pruitt also fumbled the ball away at the Penn State 48.

The Sooners finally emerged from their mistakes with an impressive drive that began at its 23. The wishbone rammed the ball down the Penn State defense, and picked up a plethora of short gains during the march. But the departure from the up-the-middle routine was a key, as senior halfback Joe Wylie, in his final game and getting the start over freshman Washington, circled around the right end on a 14-yard run that moved the ball to the State 29. One play and two yards later, freshman split end Tinker Owens, playing in place of starter John Carroll who had aggravated a knee injury days earlier, broke free from junior defensive back Buddy Ellis over the middle and found Robertson's pass in his outstretched arms for a 27-yard touchdown reception. It capped an 11-play, 77-yard drive, and after Rick Fulcher added the extra point, Oklahoma had a 7-0 lead with 8:28 left in the second quarter.

Later in the period, Pruitt collected a screen pass from Robertson and had run 19 yards in the open field, but he cut one way and the ball the other, and Jim Laslovic recovered yet another fumble for Penn State. And then came some trickery on the last play of the half as Wylie, who had earlier tossed a 24-yard completion to Owens, lined up to punt. More noted for his running and punting, Wylie took the snap and faked a reverse to Crosswhite, and then he found Pruitt with a pass behind a bevy of blockers on the sideline, and he managed to pick up 24 yards to the Lions' 30 before being run out of bounds to end the half. And the scoreboard at the end of the field seemed like a misprint, as the 7-0 Oklahoma lead was not indicative of just how dominant they had been in the first two periods.

The second half started much as the first had, with Oklahoma refusing Penn State's charity. Junior Gary Hayman fumbled while trying to field a kick, and the ball ricocheted off his body and into the open hands of Sooners' guard John Roush at the Penn State 20. Oklahoma moved to the one-yard line in four plays, but from there, freshman quarterback Kerry Jackson tried to sneak it in, and as the scoreboard operator was poised to award six points he lost the ball and the Lions' senior cornerback Steve Davis recovered in the end zone for a touchback. Another costly turnover had kept Penn State in the game.

Breathing a sigh of relief, the Lions also found a brief offensive spark. Thanks largely to a 26-yard pass from Hufnagel to Scott, Penn State managed one of their few advances into Oklahoma territory, albeit just one yard. But a fine punt pinned the Sooners back inside the ten, and after they could not move, Wylie's wobbly 29-yarder gave Penn State their best field position at the Oklahoma 42. Again, the Sooner defense suffocated the Lions, allowing just one yard on three tries, and they went to the final period with a 7-0 lead intact.

Early on, Oklahoma was again forced into a punting situation, and Hayman fielded Wylie's boot cleanly, but it raked out of his hands, and Sooners lineman Ken Jones recovered at the Oklahoma 33. Robertson and the offense had their work cut out for them against a tough defense, and three plays later were faced with a fourth down-and-two at the 25. Pruitt's three-yard burst moved the chains.

Two plays later, the offense was staring at a crucial third down-and-six from the Penn State 18, and the Sooners unleashed their secret weapon. Wylie took a handoff and fired a halfback pass for Owens, who made a great diving catch to pluck it off the turf for a 17-yard gain to the one, despite the Lions' players signaling incomplete. The television instant replay revealed that Owens had been credited with the catch, but the ball had skipped off the artificial turf. Regardless, it set up Oklahoma's second touchdown two plays later, Crosswhite's one-yard run, and Fulcher's extra point put the Sooners up 14-0 with 9:46 left in the game.

All game, the Sooners' front defensive line had harassed Hufnagel, forced to pass more than normal given the revolving door at the tailback position. The Penn State offense had failed to put together two first downs in a series yet, and only three times had the Lions penetrated into Oklahoma territory, but still had not crossed their 41.

Now, they fought back gamely, as Hufnagel passed for 16 yards, and then ran for 13 and was helped by a 15-yard penalty when he was roughed up, which moved the ball all the way to the Oklahoma 28, their most serious threat yet. Hayman, normally the team's #2 flanker but pushed into halfback duty on account of Addie being out of the game, spurted for six on first down, and then added three more on the next play. But the offense never got that extra yard, as Selmon and David Smith stopped Hayman on third down and then Vic Kearney sacked Hufnagel for a six-yard loss, causing a fumble.

Still, the Lions refused to give up. A 25-yard gain on a pass interference call and a 13-yard advance on a shovel pass moved Penn State deep again, this time to the Oklahoma 23. Again, the defense stood tall, as the threat was snuffed out when Selmon crashed through and sacked Hufnagel for a ten-yard loss.

Only three minutes remained when the Sooners got the ball back. They were not content to just sit on it though, and Robertson tossed a 42-yard beauty to Owens that had the offense on the Penn State 20. Robertson then rushed for eight yards to the 12. From there, he called his own number again and carried the final dozen yards into the end zone, but there was one small problem; he lost the ball just short of the goal line, as the official saw it, and the pigskin bounded out the back of the end zone for a Penn State touchback. It was the second such quarterback fumble that had cost the Sooners a touchdown, and the third overall that was within two yards of the goal line.

Regardless, the Oklahoma defense continued to dominate and finished out their taming of the Lions, and the Sooners emerged with a 14-0 victory, their lowest scoring output of the season. It also sent the Nittany Lions to their first shutout in 68 games, dating back to '66. Had the Sooners not lost five fumbles, the game would likely have turned into a rout.

Penn State had come in wanting to control the ball and fan out the Sooners' defense with three wide receivers, but the running game never materialized, and the Lions lost four fumbles. Cappeletti's replacements, Addie and Hayman, gained only 29 yards together, and the Lions could muster 49 rushing yards for the game, and just 11 first downs. In addition, Hufnagel had a terrible game, completing only 12 of 31 passes for 147 yards, and some of his tosses were poorly thrown, several were dropped, and frequently Oklahoma's three-man pass rush applied pressure.

Owens was named the outstanding player of the game after collecting five passes for 132 yards and a touchdown. But he had help, as Robertson was three-for-six passing and 88 yards, while Wylie, noted for his running and punting, had caught the Lions off balance with his right arm, completing all three of his passes for 67 yards. Pruitt rushed 21 times for 86 yards, and Crosswhite picked up another 82 yards on his 22 carries.

The Sugar Bowl brought to a close Pruitt's stellar collegiate career. He had rushed for 3,122 yards, second in the school's history only to Steve Owens, Tinker's older brother who had won the Heisman in '69, but adding receiving, punt and kickoff returns, Pruitt finished with a school record 4,431 yards. His 41 touchdowns, 38 on the ground, also ranked second to Owens in the school record book.

Said Paterno afterwards, "Oklahoma is definitely the best football team we have played this year. No doubt about it. I told Chuck (Fairbanks) I hope Ohio State beats Southern California for you." When asked how far back he would have to go to find a team as strong as the Sooners, Paterno responded with, "The 1966 Michigan State team," referring to the Spartans and their 42-8 pasting of the Lions in Paterno's rookie year, a team that also ended up tying national champion Notre Dame, 10-10. He continued, "Oklahoma would be in their league. They have great balance. They run big league offensive plays."

The Sooners had to hope that their victory would impress enough poll voters, and now had to entrust their national championship fate to Ohio State, which was meeting #1 USC in the Rose Bowl the next day. And at the game was Billy Sullivan, president of the NFL's New England Patriots, reportedly trying to woo Paterno, who did not offer any comments about leaving for the head coaching position.

Source: Jeff Linkowski