Each week, The Daily Nebraskan will look to fill the void of a delayed football season by examining a previous season in program history, looking at key moments, players or storylines. Previous editions recapped the 1890, 1940, 1962 and 1970 seasons. On the docket this week is the 1971 edition of NU football.
“Rodgers takes the ball at the 30 … He’s hit and got away, back upfield to the 35, to the 40. He’s to the 45! He’s to the 50, to the 45, to the 40, to the 35, to the 20, to the 10, he’s all the way home! Holy moly! Man, woman and child, did that put ‘em in the aisles! Johnny ‘The Jet’ Rodgers just tore ‘em loose from their shoes!”
Nebraska radio announcer Lyell Bremser’s iconic call of wingback Johnny Rodgers’ punt return to open the scoring against Oklahoma in the so-called “Game of the Century” remains the most memorable moment of the 1971 season, a year in which the Huskers dominated opponents on their way to a second-consecutive national championship.
After winning the school’s first national championship in 1970, the Huskers entered the 1971 season ranked No. 2 in the AP preseason poll. With talent returning at key positions, including the junior Rodgers, senior quarterback Jerry Tagge, senior running back Jeff Kinney and junior defensive tackle Rich Glover, expectations were high in Lincoln.
Kinney powered the Huskers in the season opener, rushing for 124 and a touchdown on 22 carries in a 34-7 romp of Oregon. Kinney scored twice the following week against Minnesota, while Tagge threw for 218 yards with three touchdown passes to Rodgers as the Huskers rolled 35-7.
One week later, NU cruised to victory once again, this time 34-7 against Texas A&M. Rodgers scored twice against the Aggies, one on a pass from Kinney and the other on a 98-yard kickoff return. Tagge notched two total scores in the win.
In the non-conference finale, the Huskers crushed Utah State 42-6. Tagge led the offense as he threw for two touchdowns — one a 36-yard strike to Rodgers, and the other a rushing touchdown before being replaced in the fourth quarter.
The Huskers hit the road for the first time on Oct. 9 for a matchup against the Missouri Tigers. Offensively, NU fired on all cylinders, with 603 total yards. Kinney ran for 88 yards with two touchdowns, Tagge added 85 yards and another score on the ground while throwing for 234 yards and a touchdown and Rodgers caught five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, the Blackshirts limited Missouri to 113 yards of total offense, including just nine rushing yards on 23 carries, and recorded three interceptions as they pitched a 36-0 shutout.
The next week, NU returned home for a homecoming game against Kansas. The Blackshirts forced eight turnovers, held Kansas to -42 rushing yards — a Nebraska school record — and 56 total yards as it pitched another shutout in a 55-0 bludgeoning.
Offensively, the Huskers rolled to 411 rushing yards, led by Kinney’s 104 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries.
On Oct. 23, the Huskers strolled into Stillwater, Oklahoma, and crushed Oklahoma State, leading 44-0 before the Cowboys scored two late touchdowns in a 44-13 win. Kinney ran for 73 yards and a touchdown, while Tagge threw for 161 yards and two scores. Rodgers also starred, catching three passes for 33 yards with a touchdown and adding a 92-yard punt return touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Now 7-0, the No. 1 Huskers welcomed No. 9 Colorado to Lincoln the day before Halloween. Despite a loss to Oklahoma in early October, the Buffaloes were no slouch, having beaten a pair of top-10 teams on the road — 31-21 at LSU and 20-14 at Ohio State.
In a rivalry clash featuring two top-10 teams, the Huskers dominated, scoring 17 points in the second quarter en route to a 31-7 blowout against a Colorado team that would finish No. 3 in the final AP poll.
Tagge threw for 144 yards with a touchdown and added another score on the ground. Defensively, NU forced four turnovers and held the Colorado offense to 160 total yards.
The Blackshirts pitched their third shutout of the season the following week, forcing four turnovers and holding Iowa State to 106 total yards in a 37-0 victory. Rodgers and Tagge each scored once on the ground to power the offense, while Rodgers ripped off a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter, his third special teams score of the season.
The following week, NU cruised to a 44-17 win at Kansas State. Tagge threw for 285 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions, while Rodgers hauled in 10 passes for 125 yards and two scores.
After an off week, the Huskers returned to action for their greatest challenge yet — No. 2 Oklahoma in Norman on Thanksgiving Day. The Sooners and their wishbone offense, which ranked as the best offense in the country that season. posed a major challenge for the stellar NU defense.
Sports Illustrated’s cover previewing the game declared “Irresistible Oklahoma meets immovable Nebraska,” and many pundits billed the matchup as the “Game of the Century.” The game lived up to its billing, much to the delight of pundits and fans.
Rodgers’ punt return, which FanSided in 2019 ranked No. 15 on its list of the greatest 150 moments in college football history, sparked the Huskers early, but the Sooners led 17-14 at halftime behind a strong performance from quarterback Jack Mildren. Two third-quarter touchdowns from Kinney helped the Huskers take a four-point lead into the final quarter.
Midway through the fourth, a 16-yard strike from Mildren gave Oklahoma a 31-28 lead. With just over 90 seconds left, Kinney plowed into the end zone for the fourth and final time, putting the Huskers on top for good.
Kinney finished the game with 171 yards on 31 carries. The Sooners outgained Nebraska 467-362, but they fumbled five times and lost three of them. Meanwhile, the Huskers committed just one turnover in the 35-31 win.
The Huskers closed the regular season with a 45-3 beatdown of Hawai’i behind Tagge’s 248 passing yards and four total touchdowns. The win completed a 12-0 season and set up a de-facto national championship game against No. 2 Alabama in the Orange Bowl.
Unlike the 1970 Orange Bowl against LSU, which went down to the wire, the Huskers dominated the Crimson Tide from the opening kick. Rodgers’ 77-yard punt return on the final play of the first quarter — his fifth special teams score of the year — put NU on top 14-0.
The Huskers cruised from there, pummeling Alabama 38-6 to clinch the school’s second- consecutive national championship. That put NU in elite company, as it became just the sixth program to win back-to-back titles, following Minnesota, Army, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Alabama. Since then, Oklahoma, USC and Nebraska have each done it once and Alabama has done it twice.
Tagge threw for 2,178 yards with 17 touchdowns and just four interceptions as a senior in 1971 while also running for 330 yards and an additional nine scores on the ground. After finishing seventh in Heisman voting, Tagge went No. 11 overall to the Green Bay Packers in the 1972 NFL Draft.
He did not find the same level of success in the NFL, playing for three seasons and totaling three touchdown passes and 17 interceptions in his career. In 1978, Tagge was enshrined in the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame.
Kinney ran for 1,136 yards and 17 touchdowns during his final year in Lincoln. The No. 23 overall pick in the 1972 NFL Draft, Kinney spent five years in the league with the Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills, rushing for 1,285 yards and five touchdowns. He entered the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 1981.
Rodgers finished the season with 57 receptions for 956 yards and 11 touchdowns and earned consensus All-American honors. He added another two scores on the ground and five more on special teams. In 1972, Rodgers returned to Lincoln for his senior season and became the first Husker to win the Heisman Trophy.
Rodgers was the 25th pick in the 1973 NFL Draft and spent two seasons in the league with the San Diego Chargers. In 1973, he was elected into the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame. In 2000, Rodgers was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Glover earned consensus All-American honors as a junior in 1971. As a senior in 1972, he was even better, earning unanimous All-American honors. Glover also won both the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award for most outstanding interior lineman and lineman of the year, respectively.
Glover spent two seasons in the NFL before injuries ended his career. He was enshrined in the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 1973 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995.
Head coach Bob Devaney retired after the 1972 season, handing the reigns to his handpicked successor Tom Osborne. The Huskers experienced success in the 1970s and 1980s under Osborne, but they could not reach the college football mountaintop like they had in 1970 and 1971.
They had a few close calls — notably the 1984 Orange Bowl against Miami and 1994 Orange Bowl against Florida State. In 1984, Osborne elected to go for two and the outright win, and in 1994 the heavily-favored Seminoles escaped with an 18-16 win after NU missed a field goal as time expired. By the start of the 1994 season, Osborne and the Huskers still needed to find a way to get over the hump and win the big one.