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Back to the Future: The 1971 Oklahoma Sooners

The ‘bone comes to Norman.

Oklahoma Sooners Barry Switzer Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

College football always finds a way to come full circle. Bo Schembechler was Woody Hayes’ assistant at Ohio State before taking the job at Michigan, igniting the 10 year war. In 25 years, we may be talking about the war between Nick Saban and his former assistant Kirby Smart. The tangled web of college football connects anyone and everyone.

This is the story of Oklahoma, their arch-rival Texas, and their arch-rival Oklahoma.

In part 2 of Back to the Future, we profiled the 1956 Oklahoma Sooners, who, through head coach Bud Wilkinson, created one of the first ever truly dominant option offenses.

Ten years prior to the success of the ‘56 team, Wilkinson had inherited a Sooners team with a backup quarterback and starting defensive back name Darrell Royal. By 1949, Wilkinson had his first undefeated team in Norman with Royal now starting all 11 games at quarterback. Royal led the Sooners to 33.8 points per game, good enough for 3rd in the country that year.

Remember this play from Part 1 of our series?

That’s Darrell Royal taking the pitch back from his running back.

Royal graduated after the 1949 season and immediately started his coaching career. Before being named head coach of Texas, as we all remember him, Royal made stops at NC State, Tulsa, Mississippi State (twice), EDMONTON and the Washington Huskies. In Austin, with guidance from his offensive coordinator, Emory Bellard, he tinkered with the ever present T formation that so many college teams were running at the time. The Longhorns moved the fullback up a couple yards, kept the other two backs in the same T alignment, and created the Wishbone formation.

After the Wishbone made its debut, Texas rolled through the end of the 60’s, winning 30 straight games at one point and taking the 1969 national title. It didn’t take long for the Wishbone to proliferate throughout the rest of college football — it swept across the border to Oklahoma, where head coach Chuck Fairbanks and offensive coordinator Barry Switzer ended up producing the greatest Wishbone team of all time: the 1971 Oklahoma Sooners.

Oklahoma was not very Oklahoma-like in the first few years of the Fairbanks/Switzer era. After a 10-1 first year under Fairbanks in 1967, OU would go a combined 20-12-1 over the next 3 seasons before the 1971 offense took the field.

The history books will tell you that Barry Switzer perfected the Wishbone offense beginning with the ‘71 squad. Perfected is an interesting word, though. Schematically, there wasn’t much going on with that ‘71 Wishbone. We saw in past Back to the Futures how, because teams lined up with all their players around the ball, you needed a lot of misdirection to create openings. ‘45 Army would motion backs out of the backfield, and ‘59 Syracuse played an unbalanced line the whole game.

But these Sooners simply lined up and beat you up from start to finish. Not a ton of “creativity.” Still, 44.5 points per game and 472 rushing yards per game is out of this world.

Again, we don’t have a ton of game film from these eras, but luckily in 1971 Oklahoma played Nebraska in that decade’s ‘game of the century.’ That Nebraska team came into the game having allowed 6.4 points per game — 5-6 Kansas State was the only team to hit even 17 points.

Oklahoma would score 31 points on that destructive Nebraska defense ... in a loss. It was neither an offensive or defensive play that turned the tide in the game, but a special teams play from the electric Johnny Rodgers:

Alright, on to the Sooner offense —

What I found interesting was that while they were awesome, they didn’t do much schematically. They ran the triple option the majority of the time and only had a few counters off of it. However, they did change up their blocking for the option and you can see the remnants of that in modern triple option offenses.

Nebraska came out in their 3-4 base and didn’t really change much throughout the game. One of OU’s big plays was to run the triple option look but block the end. This meant that the end was pinned outside and the linebacker flew out to play the QB, created a lane for the fullback.

Most of the time, OU ran its triple option the lead back would block for the QB and try to find the defender responsible for the QB on option. That forces the safety to come down and make the tackle. Nebraska had the personnel to defend this well enough, but most teams did not.

The changeup was when the lead back would try to block the pitch defender, but Nebraska was pretty sound in defending it. OU maybe got the pitch off one time this whole game.

Again here’s the triple option with the lead back blocking the QB’s guy and Jack Mildren making the safety miss.

One of their most used counters was this reverse pivot dive to the far back.

My favorite counter was this one. Show all the triple option action but then the QB just kinda darts backside. It was their best counter play in this game. You can see how Nebraska linebackers flow pretty hard to the triple option side

Show the triple and then reverse it back for the split end to the throw downfield to the tight end

Another counter was for the lead back to come through first as the dive man. I imagine there’s no option off it. Probably designed to give all the time.

Tight split by the split end was their regular approach. You see that a lot now in the NFL. You can run some concepts with the running back to the weak side or sometimes it gets him across the field faster on deep or shallow crosses. For OU, this allowed the receiver a two way go down the field and they could get 1v1 and throw corner routes away from any inside traffic.

There wasn’t a lot of variety in this offense. I watched them in the Sugar Bowl against Auburn to end the ‘71 season, and they ran the same stuff. I think what we can take away from this offense is how the modern triple option teams are always ready to change up their blocking schemes when they figure out how you are defending them. Everything might look like the triple option but with a few tweaks your defense is lost.

It’s crazy to think that an Oklahoma quarterback developed a scathing attack at Texas only to be perfected a couple years later back in Norman. That’s college football in a nutshell.