The date: January 2, 1956
The matchup: No. 1 Oklahoma (10-0) vs. No. 3 Maryland (10-0)
The stakes: For Maryland, a claim to the mythical national title. For Oklahoma, already named AP champion, a chance to prolong a 29-game winning streak into 1956.
The back story: College football was changing pretty dramatically in the mid-1950s. From 50 Best*:
During this time, meanwhile, NCAA director Walter Byers cynically created the term “student-athlete” to avoid any direct or indirect insinuation that scholarship athletes were employees of a given university. As employees, after all, they would be eligible for workmen’s compensation, and in a rather violent sport like football, that could be costly. Can’t have that. [...]
Integration was ongoing but not comprehensive. Southern teams were not to play teams with integrated rosters, which made non-conference and bowl scheduling a tricky, limiting issue.
Ivy League schools, slowly deemphasizing athletics after the war, picked up that pace as scholarships proliferated.
On top of all of this change, un-change, and re-change, a generation of accomplished coaches was slowly fading away.
Alabama’s Frank Thomas retired after 1946, Michigan’s Fritz Crisler in 1947, Minnesota’s Bernie Bierman in 1950, Neyland in 1952, Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy and Michigan State’s Biggie Munn in 1953, California’s Pappy Waldorf and Missouri’s Don Faurot in 1956, UCLA’s Red Sanders in 1957, Army’s Red Blaik in 1958. The generation that had defined the sport as it grew more and more popular was no more.
Amid such massive, multi-directional change, the sport’s balance of power was altered. Alabama managed just one top-10 performance between 1948-58; it was the same story for programs like USC (one from 1948-61), Michigan (one from 1951-63), and Notre Dame (one from 1956-63). Hell, Nebraska had only one winning record between 1951-61. Meanwhile, Rice finished sixth in 1953, Miami finished sixth in 1956, and Maryland briefly became a national power.
This was a strange time.
Amid all this change, however, was one constant: Bud Wilkinson. His Sooners finished in the AP top five in 1948, 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, and 1958.
Wilkinson and OU were at the peak of their power in 1955, but Maryland was maybe the second-most sturdy program of the mid-1950s. Jim Tatum had learned the Split-T from Don Faurot with Wilkinson during the war, hired Wilkinson as an assistant at OU in 1946, and was succeeded by Wilkinson when he took the Maryland job in 1947.
And he was in the middle of a spectacular run of his own. Maryland went 10-0 in 1951 and finished third in the AP poll, then went 10-0 to win the AP national title in 1953 before losing to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. They had finished in the top 15 six times in seven years and in the top 10 for each of the last three.
Tatum would leave for alma mater North Carolina after this season, which would bring an abrupt end to the Terrapins' run, but with a revenge win over OU, he could certainly go out on top.
It was not to be, but the Terps definitely gave it a go.
The game: From Newspapers.com:
Miami, Jan. 2 — Oklahoma marched with the precision of a crack drill squad over the sunny turf of the Orange bowl stadium this afternoon to eras a 6 to 0 Maryland half time lead and then slam the door in the faces of the Atlantic Coast conference champions with a 20 to 6 triumph in this 22nd Orange bowl game.
This colorful Miami production, on a beautiful summer like day with the thermometer registering 73, was presented before an all-time record Orange bowl turnout of 76,561.
Oklahoma, demonstrating power and determination, turned the game into a near rout with power and reckless defensive play.
Trailing at halftime, OU broke out a hurry-up tempo in the second half, then scored on back-to-back drives to take a 14-6 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Then, with Maryland driving late, Carl Dodd picked off a Lynn Beightol pass and took it 82 yards for the final score.
The box score:
The game as a whole was pretty even, which makes sense considering OU’s offense only scored one more time than Maryland’s. The Sooners outgained the Terps, 255-233, and built a cushion thanks to turnovers — they committed two and forced five.
(Ah, the mid-1950s: OU was 4-for-10 passing with one pick and 53 yards, and Maryland was 3-for-10 with three picks and 46 yards. OU’s interception return yardage more than doubled Maryland’s passing gains.)
This was the end for Maryland, but OU would keep right on rolling. The Sooners would go 10-0 and win another national title in 1956, and when their 47-game win streak came to an end at the hands of Notre Dame in 1957, they would turn around and win 13 of their next 14 games as well. They were the decade’s only constant, and they were one of the most constant constants college football has seen.