NORTHFIELD, MINN. – The most notorious moment in Nebraska’s 84-13 victory over the Gophers in the Metrodome in 1983 came in the middle of the first period. The Huskers’ great receiver Irving Fryar split right, the Gophers ignored him, quarterback Turner Gill flipped him the football and Fryar went 68 yards for a touchdown.
On a different Minnesota football field, on St. Olaf’s leafy campus, another drubbing from the visitors was ignited when the Oles defense offered a Fryar flashback.
St. Thomas was in close on the first play of the second quarter, star receiver Gabe Green split to the right and was ignored by all the men in the home black.
Quarterback Tommy Dolan flipped a pass to Green, and while the touchdown covered only 5 yards, Green could have left the stadium, run the nearby cross-country route that was being used for the state high school meets on Saturday, and the St. Olaf defense might not have noticed.
Yes, on this cold Saturday the Tommies returned to the scene of the 97-0 crime in 2017 that launched a thousand complaints to get St. Thomas booted from the MIAC, and this time the final was 56-7.
There was much agreement afterward that the Oles were much improved, but it’s also evident they will not be missing St. Thomas on the gridiron when the Tommies leave the conference in the spring of 2021.
The first downs were 32-12 and the yards were 678 to 139. St. Olaf’s major accomplishment was a touchdown at the end of the third quarter that ended a streak of being outscored 221-0 by the Tommies.
The latest beating might have created more belief in the righteousness of the anti-Tommies cause in the president’s office at St. Olaf and elsewhere, but come on — some of the responsibility here must go to the Oles.
Teams are required to design defensive plans that encourage players to account for where opposing receivers are located, right?
James Kilian was in his first season as the Oles’ head coach in 2017 after being Glenn Caruso’s offensive coordinator at St. Thomas. He was talking informally on the field 45 minutes before kickoff and said:
“I do think what happened here two years ago sort of got the ball rolling for what has taken place in the MIAC. Last year it was 60-0, and that’s what the score should have been.
“Two years ago I don’t go back there; I don’t talk about it with our players.’’
Caruso turning St. Thomas from a sleeping giant to an actual giant soon after his hiring in 2008 increased the traditional MIAC football imbalance to a new levels. What differentiated the game here in 2017 was the sheer magnitude of 97-0, the fact it was over a once-competitive St. Olaf program, and then the final touchdown.
It was 90-0 in the closing seconds, St. Thomas was in deep, and rather than ordering a kneel, Caruso allowed lineman Jaxson Lind to score on a 5-yard run with seven seconds remaining.
I was talking with Steve Fritz, the now-retired athletic director after being a Tommie for 50 years, a couple of months later. My impression was the Tommies were facing routine unhappiness after the 97-0 massacre.
“No, this is bad,’’ Fritz said. “St. Olaf is way past unhappy. It has become a big issue at conference meetings.’’
The rest is MIAC history. Fritz retired. Phil Esten was hired as the new AD, with a Big Ten background. The votes were lined up to boot St. Thomas from the conference. The school accepted being involuntarily removed from the conference. Division I now beckons.
The idea that St. Thomas would try to hit 90 again as revenge for St. Olaf’s strong role in its ouster was always ludicrous. Plus, Kilian’s recruiting has gotten the Oles to the point that they actually send tacklers to the ball.
“We had a sluggish start, and then we lost our senior fullback, Stephen Wagner, one of our leaders, to that leg injury in the first quarter,’’ Caruso said. “I’m proud of the way we picked it up right then.
“What I see from St. Olaf is what we see with most football teams when a new coach and staff go from Year 1 to Year 3. Those programs almost always get better. And we saw that in Kilian’s team today.’’
Which was a contrast to the Oles somehow not seeing Gabe Green in the right flat as he prepared to make it 22-0 and start another rout.
“I don’t know what happened,’’ Green said. “I didn’t think I was hiding.’’
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