War Eagle Extra

1972 Sugar Bowl: How a loaded Oklahoma team took Auburn ‘to the woodshed’

Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan, No. 7, is brought down by Oklahoma's Lucious Selmon in the 1972 Sugar Bowl.
Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan, No. 7, is brought down by Oklahoma's Lucious Selmon in the 1972 Sugar Bowl.

Auburn hopes the second ever meeting against Oklahoma has nothing in common with the first.

The 1972 Sugar Bowl played in front of a then record setting crowd of 84,031 fans at Tulane Stadium isn’t a game former Tigers fondly remember.

“They really took us to the woodshed,” former Auburn fullback Rusty Fuller said.

Fuller is one of the many voices to look back on the 40-22 loss with a clear understanding of what transpired 45 years ago on New Year’s Day.

“They were bigger, stronger and faster than we were,” former Auburn safety Johnny Simmons said. “We could have played them 10 times and not won a single game.”

“A damn good football team”

The game pitting No. 1 Nebraska against No. 2 Oklahoma on Thanksgiving Day provided Auburn its first glimpse of the talent level in the Big 8.

“I’ve gone back and looked at the box score,” Lorendo said. “Oklahoma had four or five turnovers and still almost won that game. Nebraska needed a long punt return by Johnny Rogers to even get past them.”

The Sugar Bowl ended up as a consolation game of sorts with Nebraska edging out the Sooners 35-31 and No. 3 Alabama beating No. 4 Auburn 31-7 in the Iron Bowl.

“We were obviously a little bit disappointed,” Fuller said. “We went from undefeated (9-0) to losing a game to our biggest rival. That was a downer.”

Scouting Oklahoma helped players put the frustration out of their minds. The tape of the Sooners unprecedented offensive production — the team set NCAA records for rushing yards, scoring and total offense — grabbed Auburn’s attention.

“We were watching defensive film in the offensive room, but we got a great feel for how good their offense was because they would show the scoreboard after each sequence,” former Auburn offensive lineman Mac Lorendo said. “It might say Oklahoma 14, Oklahoma State 0 with 2:50 left in the quarter then they would show it again and it would be 21-0 and 30 seconds or a minute would have gone by.”

Auburn’s first up close look at Oklahoma in New Orleans provided additional warning signs.

“When we got together at the team functions that the Sugar Bowl put together where you intermingled with each other — they were a hell of a lot bigger than we were,” Fuller said. “It was kind of like what are they feeding these people and where did they find them. You just didn’t see folks that big around the SEC.”

It all gave Lorendo an uneasy feeling going into the game.

“They were a damn good football team,” Lorendo said. “It was one of the only times in my career I can remember I went into a game really not knowing if we had a chance.”

“They were almost like machines”

Oklahoma quarterback Jack Mildren faked to his left, spun around and teased handing it off to running back Greg Pruitt.

Mildren pulled the ball away from Pruitt’s chest at the last possible second before bursting around the right end. The nimble quarterback left a pair of Auburn defenders diving at his feet and bounced off another.

With a cut back to the inside, Mildren gained a hard-fought 18-yards.

Auburn’s first look at the wishbone in the Sugar Bowl kicked off what turned into a long, ugly morning in New Orleans.

The results didn’t change whether Mildren kept the ball himself or let Pruitt and fullback Leon Crosswhite go to work.

Oklahoma held on to the ball for long stretches — the opening drive was a methodical 13-play 77-yard drive lasting one second shy of six minutes — on its way to a 31-0 halftime lead.

“I think the only time we really stopped them was when they put the second team in,” Simmons said.

Simmons was exaggerating, but only slightly — the Sooners punted twice in the first half.

Alabama ran the only other wishbone offense Auburn saw that season, but it paled in comparison to Oklahoma’s version.

“They didn’t do anything we hadn’t seen, but they just executed so well, they were almost like machines,” Simmons said.

Auburn’s defense thought it might have an advantage in team speed, but there weren’t any holes in the Sooners’ record-setting attack.

Nowhere was that more evident than Joe Wylie’s 71-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the first quarter.

An Auburn defender managed to get a harmless single hand on Wylie, but it wasn’t enough to knock the running back off his stride as he found his way to a wall of blockers down the sideline.

“One of our guys came off the field, he was the safety man and he said, ‘I almost caught him,’” Fuller said. “Tommy Unger was sitting there and just said, ‘you couldn’t have caught him if you had a damn motorcycle.’”

Mildren won the game’s MVP award carrying the ball 30 times for 149 yards with three first-half touchdowns.

Lorendo said his late father Gene Lorendo, a longtime member of Auburn’s coaching staff at the time, called Mildren “the best wishbone quarterback there ever was” anytime the family members reminisced about the game.

It helped Mildren was playing with a “loaded house” along side Pruitt and Crosswhite, who each scored in the game.

Simmons’ most vivid memory of the game came at the goal line trying to prevent Pruitt from scoring a late touchdown.

“I had a good angle on him, thought I had him stopped for a loss,” Simmons said. “He did a couple of zig-zags and all I got was air. He walked right past me into the end zone.”

“What are you laughing at?”

Auburn’s defense didn’t expect to get “outplayed and outclassed” as Simmons described, but at worst the Tigers expected to score some points against Oklahoma behind Heisman winning quarterback Pat Sullivan.

A tough loss in the Iron Bowl did little to lesson the team’s confidence in their offense that averaged more than 30 points a game.

“We thought we might be invincible,” Simmons said referencing Sullivan’s magic.

There was nothing magical about Auburn’s offensive performance in the Sugar Bowl.

What few plays Auburn did run early in the game resulted in little offense. The Tigers didn’t move the chains until there was 1:39 to go in the first quarter. Sullivan was 1 of 7 for 7 yards in the quarter and fumbled a handoff exchange on the offense’s second possession.

Sullivan failed to connect with wide receiver Terry Beasley multiple times. Passes to the quarterback’s favorite that went for long gains in the regular season fell hopelessly incomplete.

Beasley got open over the top of Oklahoma’s secondary late in the quarter, but Sullivan had to rush the throw thanks to blitzer coming unblocked around the corner. The ball sailed over Beasley’s head incomplete.

Auburn’s three quick early drives helped Oklahoma hold onto the ball for more than 10 minutes in the first quarter.

“They were basically a professional football team in waiting,” Fuller said. “A lot of times you play someone that’s big they are big and slow. These guys were big and fast and big and strong. That’s a hard combination to beat sometimes. They were really damn good.”

Oklahoma linebacker Steve Aycock was the only person celebrating Auburn finding the end zone for the first time — Unger scored from 1-yard out — midway through the third quarter.

“We were coming up to the line and he was laughing out loud, somebody and to this day I don’t know who it was said, ‘what are you laughing at’ and he said ‘we’ve been trying to let you score for over a quarter,’” Lorendo said.

Aycock’s wasn’t the only Sooners player having fun at Auburn’s expense either.

“It wasn’t the kind of football we were used to,” Lorendo said. “In the SEC there wasn’t a lot of trash talking. You didn’t say much and just played ball. They were talking and having fun the whole time. They knew they had us.”

“Everybody started writing our obituary”

Auburn coach Shug Jordan had strict guidelines for his players’ appearance in the early 70’s.

“We had several rules that dealt with length of hair, mustaches and all that kind of stuff,” Fuller said. “He felt like you had to be a disciplined person to play football. Having your hair cut neat and not having facial hair was part of that discipline.”

Oklahoma didn’t have a similar policy.

“Those guys are walking around with Fu Manchu moustaches, beards and long hair,” Fuller said. “We were receiving our sixth kickoff of the first half and a guy named Robin Robinett, who was a senior on that team, goes, ‘you know somebody forget to tell those son of b****es they can’t play football with all that damn facial hair.’”

The gallows humor served as Auburn’s coping mechanism.

“Every time they scored that Boomer Sooner wagon would come out and they would sing ‘Boomer Sooner, Boomer Sooner (singing),’ they scored so many times by the fourth quarter it turned into a catchy tune,” Lorendo said laughing. “You found yourself on the sideline tapping your foot to it. That’s the kind of game it was.”

A late tackle that spilled onto Auburn’s sidelines provided the fitting coda for the afternoon.

“(Team physician) Dr. Jack Hughston got hit, fell, separated his shoulder and later had to have surgery,” Lorendo said. “That sort of optimized the game.”

The disappointment lingered for weeks to come with a growing chorus of college football pundits and fans ready to write off Auburn following the lopsided losses to Alabama and Oklahoma.

“Everybody started writing our obituary with Pat Sullivan and Terry Beasley graduating,” Fuller said.

The losses would be a defining part of “The Amazins” origin story. Auburn coaches shaped the team’s offseason program in direct response to the team’s late season collapse.

“We didn’t lose because we quit or didn’t give effort,” Lorendo said. “The coaches felt if we are going to play with those kind of teams we had to be tougher — mentally and emotionally tougher.”

Fuller said the staff put players through “holy hell” in the spring and fall leading to the program’s unlikely run to the SEC Championship.

“The coaches took us in a new direction and it paid off,” Simmons said.

Michael Niziolek: 334-332-8572, @wareagleextra