39th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ December 31, 1972
#2 Oklahoma 14 (Final: 11-1-0, #2)
#5 Penn State 0 (Final: 10-2-0, #10)
How Oklahoma and Penn State Met in the 1972 Sugar Bowl
Trivia question: Exactly who won the 39th Sugar Bowl?
On the field, the answer is Oklahoma. The official outcome would be questioned afterward.
But that was months later.
Before kickoff, a virus struck the Penn State team, and bad health news hit Oklahoma.
Joe Paterno learned the day of the game he would be without much of his ground attack – John Cappelletti, who had rushed for 1,117 yards during the regular-season, had a 102-degree fever and was out of the Sugar Bowl. The Penn State coach had the flu himself, but refused to have his temperature taken so no one could command him from the sideline.
Chuck Fairbanks, coach of the Sooners, decided hours before kickoff that the knee of starting split end John Carroll still hadn’t recovered sufficiently. It was a major decision because much of Paterno’s pre-game concern centered on Carroll. Just before the game, freshman Tinker Owens was told he would start.
Oklahoma was stymied until the Sooners started hammering the Nittany Lions in the middle. “That’s where most of our success came from,” said OU quarterback Dave Robertson. It opened up the passing lanes. After 10 consecutive running plays used five minutes of the clock in the second period and put Oklahoma at the 27, OU put the first points up. “We called what we referred to as ‘346-S-Post,’ said Owens. “It was a fake dive and I would go down field. Penn State was playing me man-to-man and really watching for Joe Washington to get the ball.”
Owens made an over-the-shoulder catch at the 7 between two defenders, worked himself loose and went over. “It was funny,” Tinker said. “I didn’t even think I would catch it. The ball was right there, but it was over my shoulder and I had to look up and back. After I caught it, I just kept running and the guy on me slid off.”
The half ended with the same 7-0 score, and it was obvious that without Cappelletti, Penn State was seriously hindered. The Sooners concentrated on stopping a suddenly one-dimensional offense.
Two minutes into the fourth quarter, Gary Hayman dropped an Oklahoma punt and Ken Jones recovered on the Lions’ 33. After a couple of plays, Joe Wylie unleashed a halfback pass in the highlight (though disputed) of the night. “I ran a post pattern again,” Owens said, “and the ball was a little underthrown. I dove for it and caught it between my elbows. It didn’t bounce at all.”
The Penn State contingent, and some reporters, felt the reception at the 1 was trapped. The film was unclear. Owens maintained it was a catch. “I caught it,” he said. “I knew I had it then, I know I had it now.”
Leon Crosswhite went in two plays later and, after Rick Fulcher’s kick, Oklahoma led 14-0 with 9:46 to go.
Owens, in his third starting assignment, had five receptions for 132 yards, which resulted in one touchdown and set up another. He would receive the Miller-Digby Trophy.
Three months later there was a question of having to change the score: A joint investigation by the University of Oklahoma and the Big Eight Conference revealed that the high school transcripts of freshman quarterback Kerry Jackson and center-linebacker Mike Phillips had been tampered with. As a result, Oklahoma voluntarily forfeited every game in which the pair participated, including the Sugar Bowl.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno refused to change the outcome. “It’s a shame that a great effort by an Oklahoma football team has to be marred by an inexcusable recruiting violation such as this incident,” Paterno said in a prepared statement. “However, irrespective of what action Oklahoma or the Sugar Bowl would take in regards to the forfeit, our players and the Oklahoma players know who won the game.”
Penn State-Oklahoma was a treasure trove for trivia buffs: it was the first Sugar Bowl every played on a Sunday; it was the first time two Sugar Bowls were played in the same calendar year (Jan. 1, 1972 and Dec. 31, 1972); one team, Oklahoma, won two Sugar Bowls in the same year; and for the first time a freshman was the game’s MVP.
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.