17th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 1, 1951
#7 Kentucky 13 (11-1-0)
#1 Oklahoma 7 (10-1-0)
How Kentucky and Oklahoma Met in the 1951 Sugar Bowl
Walt Yowarsky was to get a football baptism against Oklahoma. He was moved to defense – where he had played exactly once before in his life.
Kentucky Coach Bear Bryant had a plan: to offset Oklahoma’s lightning-quick split-T offense, which carried the Sooners to 31 straight victories, he was going to use a multi-look defense that often ballooned to a nine-man line. It’s not like the Wildcats were incapable. Kentucky was 10-1 and the SEC champion. It’s just that in order to beat a juggernaught like OU, something radical had to be tried.
Four Kentucky tackles were to be incorporated onto the line of scrimmage, including Yowarsky, who was put on the end of the revamped line in the scheme. “Coach Bryant wanted his biggest kids on defense to shoot gaps in the Oklahoma offense,” remembered Yowarsky, who was 6-foot-2, 208-pounds.
“That’s why, I suppose, I was moved to defense. I think the feeling was that Oklahoma could probably move some on us until they got near the goal, but that they weren’t strong enough to move us out of there.”
Yowarsky was to go head-to-head with Oklahoma’s highly-touted Jim Weatherall, and had specific tasks: Shut down the wide option, consistently harass quarterback Claude Arnold, and, in general, upset the Sooners’ offensive precision.
In another bold move, Bryant, ever-mindful of Oklahoma’s devastating speed, decided to use an unprotected punter and a line that did little blocking on punts, believing it was less of a gamble than allowing OU return man Billy Vessels an opportunity to break loose on kicks.
The pressure exerted early paid dividends as Arnold was cracked by Bob Gain behind the line of scrimmage on Oklahoma’s first play and fumbled. Yowarsky recovered at the Oklahoma 22.
Quarterback Babe Parilli dropped back on first down, faked a handoff, faked a jump pass, then threw into the end zone for 5-foot-9 Wilbur Jamerson, who out-muscled defender Tommy Gray for possession. Gain kicked the extra point before some of the spectators got to their seats.
After Oklahoma reached the Wildcat 31 in the second quarter, Yowarsky got the ball back for Kentucky by slamming Arnold down for a 12-yard loss. Shortly, Parilli heaved a shot to a streaking Al Bruno, who made an over-the-shoulder reception at the OU 15, then dragged Jack Lockett several yards before going down inside the 1. Jamerson dove over on the next play. Gain missed the conversion.
Kentucky went into the dressing room behind in most of the crucial stats – although importantly Parilli was 7-of-9 – but the Wildcats were ahead on the scoreboard 13-0.
On the first Oklahoma possession of the second half, the ‘Cats faced their trial by fire. The Sooners got to the Kentucky 4 with a first-and-goal. On third down, from the 2, Yowarsky shot into the line and threw Vessels for a monumental 5-yard loss.
“I just knifed through,” Yowarsky said. “I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I do remember thinking and feeling this was a fairly large play.”
An incomplete pass ended the series.
With six minutes to go, though, Oklahoma was suddenly in position to win again, when Vessels started wide, drew up and passed 17 yards to Merrill Green for a touchdown.
After Kentucky couldn’t move, the Wildcats punted back to the Sooners with plenty of time to score and steal the victory. Lockett attempted to field the ball on the bounce, but lost control and fumbled. Recovering on the Oklahoma 32 was Yowarsky. That sealed the outcome.
Just as Bryant had blueprinted, Oklahoma won the battle of the stats but fell short on the scoreboard. Two Kentucky statistics may have been the difference: the unprotected punter strategy allowed the Sooners less than a half-yard average on returns, and when the Wildcats needed to control the ball, they did. In the time remaining after Oklahoma’s touchdown, only 13 plays were run. The Wildcats wouldn’t snap the ball until the game clock was right at its limit – drawing three delay of game penalties.
And there were Yowarsky’s contributions: a fumble recovery that led to Kentucky’s first touchdown; a touchdown-saving tackle of Vessels at the Wildcat goal line; and his recovery of Lockett’s fumble which allowed Kentucky to run off most the clock in what turned out to be one of the most significant games in Sugar Bowl history.
Following Kentucky’s win, Earl Ruby, the sports editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, wrote, “The University of Kentucky today earned – and I mean earned – its greatest football triumph since it took up football in 1881. In a game that was a reversal of the late-lamented Kentucky-Tennessee tussle, the Wildcats crashed Oklahoma’s national champions to earth so forceful that the Sooners fumbled repeatedly…They ended the Oklahoma winning streak at 31, and richly deserve all the honor that goes with such a signal achievement.”
This turned out to be a gateway game. Bryant (pictured above with future LSU coach Charlie McClendon) would bring back eight more teams (all Alabama teams) to the Sugar, most of any coach; his teams would win eight of their nine appearances, most of any coach; and he would send four national championship teams to the Sugar Bowl playing field, most, by far, of any coach.
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.