Published Thursday, October 24, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 2:33 pm
FOOTBALL
Husker flashback: Nebraska dropped 84 on Minnesota in '83

It's the only time I can recall tiptoeing into a postgame locker room.

Staying as quiet as possible seemed appropriate after what happened to the Minnesota Gophers football team at the Metrodome in 1983:

Nebraska 84, Minnesota 13.

And it wasn't as close as the score indicates. Seriously, it could have been worse. It was bad enough because Nebraska was limited by travel-squad rules to 60 players, which led to situations like this:

With the Husker reserves gassed from playing so much, NU coach Tom Osborne reinserted All-America I-back Mike Rozier for one series late in the third quarter. Rozier promptly raced 71 yards for a touchdown to make it 63-13.

That sent longtime Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman — who at age 93 still writes today — into a rage in the press box, accusing Osborne of running up the score.

Thirty years later, such details remain vivid for me.

Just as they are for Minnesota linebacker Pete Najarian, whom I interviewed that night amid the hush of the 100 most shell-shocked football players ever seen.

“I still remember that game like it was yesterday,” said Najarian, a financier now better known as co-founder of Optionmonster.com and a contributor on CNBC's show “Fast Money.”

“The good news is after 30 years it gets a little easier to talk about. It's something I can sit back and sort of laugh about now.”

Najarian wasn't surprised by my interview request, with Nebraska playing at Minnesota on Saturday. He has relived the 1983 game a few times since NU joined the Big Ten three years ago and started playing the Gophers regularly.

One recent trip down memory lane, though, stands out. It occurred in Lincoln in August — in Osborne's office.

“We both had pretty clean, fresh memories about how the game went,” Najarian said.

But why in the world was Najarian, who lives in New Canaan, Conn., in Lincoln talking to Osborne?

It was a stop Najarian made after dropping off his daughter, Alexis, who is attempting to walk on to the track and field team at ... Nebraska.

“Of all the places, right?” he said, laughing. “But it's a great school.”

Osborne tried hard to recruit Najarian to play football at NU. But the son of famed University of Minnesota transplant surgeon John Najarian stayed in Minneapolis to play for the Gophers.

“When I walked into Coach Osborne's office in August,” Najarian said, “he looked me in the eye and said, 'Well, we didn't get you but we got your daughter.' It was flattering for me that he remembered.

“I could have been just a number to him, but I wasn't. His career and his dealings with people are second to none.”

Questionable scheme

Statistics from the 84-13 contest are video game-esque. Nebraska scored 21 points in each quarter. The Huskers had the ball for only 22Ĺ minutes yet scored 12 touchdowns and gained 790 yards.

What led to the crazy numbers, including six touchdowns of longer than 40 yards, was Minnesota's defensive strategy. Labeled the “Husker Defense,” it involved crowding the line of scrimmage with six players and blitzing nearly every snap.

Did any Gophers question that plan during the week before the game?

“I did,” Najarian said. “I had huge questions about it.”

But on the first series, Nebraska went three and out.

Said Najarian: “We kind of felt, 'Wow, as crazy as this is, this defense might work.' But I knew it wouldn't be long before the Nebraska coaches adjusted.”

On a play late in the first quarter, Najarian surveyed the Gopher defense from his linebacker spot and saw Nebraska wingback Irving Fryar spread out — with no one covering him.

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“No cornerback. Nothing,” Najarian said. “And he was jumping up and down trying to get Turner Gill's attention. So I started running, trying to take an angle. But Turner grabbed the center, got the ball and shot it over to Fryar, who took it to the house.”

Nebraska backup quarterback Craig Sundberg, now a Lincoln businessman, led the Huskers to their three fourth-quarter touchdowns during what he called “a very strange night.”

The stat sheet shows a 51-yard touchdown pass from Sundberg to Jeff Smith, but it was a swing pass in the flat, not a long bomb. Sundberg also had a 44-yard touchdown run.

“It was a basic option play,” he said. “We ran nothing but basic plays all night. I cut it up and after four or five yards, there was nobody there. I just kind of started jogging and nobody came after me.”

Minnesota suffered injuries during the game to its starting quarterback and top running back.

“We were very young, beaten up and overmatched,” Najarian said. “I still believe Nebraska that year could have competed against some of the teams in the NFL. That's how good I felt they were. I played against a lot of those guys later when I was in the NFL.”

As for the “Husker Defense?”

“Thirty years later, we have some laughs about it that we couldn't have at the time,” Najarian said. “It became a joke for us later in life.

“To this day, with guys from that team, if someone isn't playing very well, we'll text each other that they might be playing the 'Husker Defense.' ”

Stand-up guy

Watching an 84-13 game was difficult to fathom. Trying to get the losing side to talk about it could have been a monumental chore.

Minnesota coach Joe Salem, instead, greeted the press like a night-club comedian.

“I think the turning point was probably the opening kickoff,” he cracked. “We tried to take Rozier away, and we did a heck of a job. What did he have — 300 yards?”

Salem, who eventually lost nine more games in a row that season and his job, said his light-hearted approach had to do with playing the No. 1 team in the country.

“When you lose to someone like Nebraska, it almost doesn't mean that much,” he said that night. “I feel bad, but Northwestern beat us last year, and, boy, you really can't get them out of the tank after that.”

When Salem finished, the Minnesota locker room was opened. Chuck Sinclair of the Lincoln Journal-Star and I looked at each other with a shake of the head and ventured in.

“I really dreaded going into the Minnesota locker room after watching Nebraska put up 84 points in every imaginable way,” said Sinclair, now a retired Goodyear executive living in Ohio.

“Covering the Nebraska opponents' locker room in the year of The Scoring Explosion was not a job for anyone with a weak stomach.”

The utter quiet in a room with that many football players in it will stick with me forever. Only an occasional sniffle, cough or slammed piece of equipment registered.

“It was brutal in there,” Najarian recalled. “Just brutal.”

But Najarian, a sophomore, stood tall and answered every question. And he did it again this week, with our gratitude.

* * *

Video: Bo Pelini discusses Taylor Martinez, Minnesota (Oct. 24):

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht

lee.barfknecht@owh.com    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.

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