Followers of the Minnesota football program can point to myriad reasons why the Gophers haven't rediscovered that decades-ago success and glory.
Forced to pick one enduring sign of the failures, though, this would be it for so many fans:
Nebraska 84, Minnesota 13.
That was the unforgettable final score from their Sept. 17, 1983 meeting at the Metrodome, when Tom Osborne's prolific team trampled the reeling Gophers.
The 13th-ranked Huskers visit Minnesota again this Saturday, and their entry in the Big Ten this season - in the Legends Division with the still-struggling Gophers - has naturally brought back memories of that infamous game of 28 years ago.
Ever the gentleman, Osborne found himself in the unusual position of being criticized for piling on an overwhelmed opponent. But Osborne, now Nebraska's athletic director, calmly and vividly recalled this week how the game got so out of hand.
The Gophers blitzed frequently, sending two or three linebackers into the backfield on almost every play, a high-risk, high-reward strategy against the high-powered option offense that Nebraska ran and drew the nickname “The Scoring Explosion.” The Huskers scored 21 points in each quarter and finished with 790 total yards.
“It seemed like every play went for either no gain or a touchdown,” Osborne said. “If they happened to get us against the right play, they'd do well, but if they were caught in a bad position then it was usually all over.”
The Huskers had their backups in the game by the second quarter, but with travel rosters smaller - 60 players - than they are now they simply ran out of healthy bodies once some guys got hurt or gassed. Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier returned to the field in the second half, Osborne said, because he was the only fresh tailback at the time.
“We weren't trying to run up the score. We were just trying to get out of there,” Osborne said.
He remembered one play when wingback Irving Fryar, one of many players from that team who went on to NFL fame, lined up wide without anybody covering him. Quarterback Turner Gill threw Fryar the ball for a too-easy 70-yard touchdown.
“We weren't trying to embarrass anybody,” Osborne said. “After looking at the film, you knew you did what you had to do.”
Minnesota went 1-10 in 1983, Joe Salem's last season as coach. That loss to Nebraska remains the largest in program history. The Huskers averaged 52 points per game that year and were undefeated until a one-point loss in the Orange Bowl to Miami for the national championship, so the Gophers weren't the only foe to find out the hard way about that firepower that fall.
But Minnesota has had many humiliating football lessons against Nebraska since the last great Gophers teams of the early 1960s.
In 1973, Osborne's first year as coach, the Huskers came to Memorial Stadium in Tony Dungy's first season as quarterback and beat Minnesota 48-7. Their most recent meeting, in 1990, was a 56-0 victory for Nebraska at home.
Despite leading the overall series 29-20-2, the Gophers have lost 14 in a row to the Huskers. The last 10 of those defeats have come by an average score of 49-6, including four shutouts.
“You've got to have good teams before you start having a rivalry,” said Gill, now the coach at Kansas, “but I think it can be built up over time.”
Two decades and four coaches after they last faced Nebraska here, the Gophers are preparing for a Huskers team still built on running the ball out and relying on an option-style attack. This will be a tough test for Minnesota's young defense, as so much of this season has been.
“You've got somebody on the dive and somebody on the quarterback and somebody on the pitch, and get you get somebody who makes one mistake - or they put you in one-on-one situations and the guy sidesteps you - and it's over,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. “That's the beauty of option football and what they do.”
He added: “The only way to stop option football is to play 12 people.”
The Gophers (1-5, 0-2) must keep quarterback Taylor Martinez from taking over the game and tailback Rex Burkhead and his cohorts from running all over them.
The Huskers (5-1, 1-1) are eager to maintain the momentum they created from their comeback win over Ohio State on Oct. 8, before their bye last week.
“I think it's dangerous with the three running backs we have back there,” Martinez said. “They have to get one of the running backs or choose me, so it's kind of difficult to stop.”
Nebraska has been difficult to stop for Minnesota for a long time.