Johnny Rodgers’ Return And Other Big Heisman Performances In The Oklahoma-Nebraska Rivalry

Oklahoma and Nebraska renew their great rivalry Saturday, which brings back memories of Heisman winners in the series.

The Sooners lead the series with the Cornhuskers, 46–38–3[, and the rival schools played every year between 1928 and 1997, on or near Thanksgiving for much of it. Shifting conference alignment and the switching of conferences cooled the rivalry some, including a recent stretch between 2011-2020 when the teams did not play.

While Sooners QBs Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray missed out on the series, plenty of Heisman memories were made in the series, most famously 51 years ago on Nov. 25, 1971.

It was in the second-to-last contest of that 1971 season — a Thanksgiving weekend match-up between No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Oklahoma in a game billed as the “Game of the Century” — that then-future Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers became a national star.

Sports Illustrated previewed the game on its cover three days prior, which included Nebraska linebacker Bob Terrio and Oklahoma running back Greg Pruitt, who was third in the Heisman voting in 1971 and second to Rodgers in 1972.

In what was the signature play of Rodgers’ career and maybe the most famous moment in Cornhusker history, Rodgers opened the scoring — in front of a nationally-televised audience estimated to be over 50 million viewers strong — with a daring, darting and weaving 72-yard punt return for a touchdown in what would ultimately be a thrilling Nebraska 35-31 win. 

The radio call from play-by-play announcer Lyell Bremser captured the magic that day as he belted out: “Holy moly! Man, woman and child, did that put ‘em in the aisles! Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers just tore ’em loose from their shoes!” Hear it in the video below.

In 1983, No. 1 Nebraska and running back Mike Rozier, who was weeks away from winning the Heisman, topped Oklahoma, 28-21. Rozier rushed for 205 yards on 32 carries, helping the Huskers overcome a pair of seven-point deficits. A year earlier, Rozier, on a sprained ankle, ran for 96 yards in a 1982 Nebraska with over its rival.

Like Rodgers, Eric Crouch had his own Heisman moment in a huge win over Oklahoma. In 2001, Crouch’s No. 3 Huskers hosted the No. 2 and defending national champion Sooners. With nine minutes left in the game and Nebraska ahead 13-10, head coach Frank Solich dialed up a trick play called Black 41 Flash Reverse Pass and it worked to perfection. 

Crouch pitched the ball to running back Thunder Collins, as he had done twice before earlier in the game. Collins, however, pitched it back to freshman wideout and former prep quarterback Mike Stuntz, who threw it perfectly to a streaking Crouch for a 63-yard score, sealing Nebraska’s 20-10 win.

Oklahoma has had its share of strong Heisman performances in the series.

Billy Vessels, the Sooners’ first Heisman winner, posted 95 total yards in Oklahoma’s 34-13 win over Nebraska in 1952.

Billy Sims, the 1978 winner, gained 153 yards rushing and scored twice, although No. 4 Nebraska got the best of the top-ranked Sooners, 17-14.

Sims and the Sooners, however, got their revenge later that season as the teams met again in the 1979 Orange Bowl, winning 31-24. Sims gained 134 yards and scored twice more in the rematch.

2003 Heisman winner Jason White did not play Nebraska in his trophy-winning season, but did get the best of the Huskers a year later in a  30-3 win. White completed 29-of-35 passes for 383 yards and three TDs in a dominant win for the No. 2 Sooners.

Finally, 2008 winner Sam Bradford led OU to a similarly one-sided 62-28 win on Nov. 1 of his trophy-winning year, throwing for 311 yards and five TDs.