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The History Of The Penn State vs. Rutgers Rivalry

The history of the Penn State — Rutgers football rivalry dates back to the earliest days of college football, when teams consisted of only a handful of players, safety equipment like helmets and facemasks were still years away from being used in competition, and throwing the ball was essentially a trick play.

The game this weekend between the Lions and Scarlet Knights in Piscataway, N.J., features two of the oldest college football programs in the country. Rutgers is considered the “birthplace of college football” for its role in staging the first-ever American college football game, a matchup against Princeton on Rutgers’ campus in 1869. Penn State started intercollegiate ball 18 years later, playing two games against Bucknell University in 1887.

Now, more than a century later, Penn State boasts 842 wins, including seven undefeated seasons and two national championships. Rutgers has 632 wins, two undefeated seasons and one national championship — despite getting a nearly two-decade head start over the Nittany Lions (it should be noted that Rutgers split its lone championship in 1869 with the only other college football team in existence – the Princeton Tigers. Rutgers went 1-1 that year).

While it’s been nearly 20 years since Penn State and Rutgers last squared off, the game this weekend is shaping up to be the beginning of a bitter rivalry. Playing in its first conference game as a member of the Big Ten, Rutgers will be looking for a statement win to prove it can compete against quality opponents after fleeing the national punching bag known as the Big East. Penn State, fresh off the news that it will be immediately eligible for postseason play, will be highly motivated and looking to build off a solid 2-0 start to the season.

Before kick off under the lights at High Point Solutions Stadium this Saturday, let’s take a look at the key moments — both on and off the field — in the history of the Penn State vs. Rutgers rivalry.

November 9, 1918 – Penn State and Rutgers meet on the field for the first time

In the Lions’ first season under head coach Hugo Bezdek, the season began with a 6-6 tie against the Wissahickon Barracks (yes, that’s a real team) in New Beaver Field. The next week, Penn State hosted Rutgers and fell to the Scarlet Knights, 26-3.

Penn State only played four games that season, finishing with a win over Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pa., and a loss to Pittsburgh in old Forbes Field, the former home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Although the Lions put forth a mediocre 1-2-1 record, the team can take pride in knowing that it boasted a pretty intimidating game face.


November 18, 1950 – October 10, 1987 — Penn State’s run of dominance begins

After the first contest, Penn State and Rutgers didn’t meet again until 1950, 32 years later. Under the direction of new head coach Rip Engle, the Nittany Lions edged the Scarlet Knights in New Beaver Field, 18-14. A short, stocky kid with thick glasses from Brooklyn by the name of Joe Paterno roamed the sidelines as an assistant coach, joining the staff at the start of the season after playing quarterback for Engle at Brown.

For the next 37 years, the “rivalry” between Penn State and Rutgers was really anything but. Under Engle and Paterno, who succeeded as head coach in 1966, the Nittany Lions won the next 15 contests by a combined score of 462 — 195. The most lopsided win, a 45-7 drubbing in Giants Stadium to kick off the 1977 season, was Paterno’s first game against the Scarlet Knights as head coach.

Rutgers’ lone win against its “neighbors to the west” in the last nine decades came in 1988, when an upstart and motivated Scarlet Knights squad knocked off a ranked Nittany Lions team on the road in front of the 10th-largest crowd in Beaver Stadium history.

September 24, 1988 — Rutgers earns a shocking upset over No. 15 Penn State

Heading into the game, Penn State was feeling confident after back-to-back wins over Virginia and Boston College to start the season. The Nittany Lions climbed to No. 15 in the AP poll, and looked poised to add another ‘W’ over Rutgers, a team they had beaten fifteen times in a row, and hadn’t lost to in seven decades. The problem was, this group of Scarlet Knights was no ordinary bunch.

Before taking over as Rutgers head coach in 1984, Dick Anderson played football at Penn State, and spent 10 seasons under Joe Paterno as the offensive line coach. His team was two weeks removed from an upset over No. 15 Michigan State, but still entered the matchup against the Lions as two-touchdown underdogs.

“Beat State in ‘88” was the was the rallying cry for a Rutgers team that was desperate to end a seven-decade long losing streak at the hands of the Nittany Lions. Thanks to an incredible performance by junior running back Mike Botti, who rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns, the Scarlet Knights silenced the crowd of 85,531 fans in Beaver Stadium and walked away with a shocking 21-16 victory.

”It was the best feeling of my life,” Botti told reporters after the game. ”I’ve been dreaming about this since I came here. It’s been so long since we’ve beaten them.”

The win seemed to cripple Penn State’s season, as the Lions went on to lose five of their final eight games.

Looking back on that game 26 years later, Anderson admitted that for his players, suiting up against a big-time program like Penn State meant something a little extra, a feeling that still resonates today.

“Penn State was one of the big names that we played,” Anderson recently told the Asbury Park Press, “and the kids always seemed to react a little differently when you have one of the big name teams out there.”

September 23, 1995 – Joe Paterno and Doug Graber end blowout with shouting match at midfield

Penn State defeated Rutgers 59-34 in the most recent matchup between both schools, led by its high-powered offensive attack of quarterback Wally Richardson and star running back Curtis Enis. However, what happened on the field is not nearly as noteworthy as what happened when the clock hit double zeros.

With 1:20 left to play, the Nittany Lions faced a 2nd and 7 on the Scarlet Knights’ 42-yard line. Having already taken out the starters, Penn State was looking to bleed the clock and leave the Meadowlands with a victory.

So when backup quarterback Mike McQueary hit wideout Chris Campbell on a deep seam route for a 42-yard touchdown to extend the lead, Rutgers head coach Doug Graber was visibly upset on the sideline. To Graber, Joe Paterno and his team were clearly running up the score, and he thought it was bullsh–t.

Graber decided to voice his displeasure to the two-time national champion head coach during their post-game handshake, and they had a few choice words for each other before parting ways. Paterno wasn’t pleased, and needed to be physically restrained from running after Graber.

I guess we’ll never know what might have happened on that day in Giants Stadium had JoePa broke free and chased down the Rutgers coach. We can only dream.

February 12, 2014 – Kyle Flood calls Penn State “the team from Pennsylvania”

In an interview with ESPN Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett before the season, Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood was asked if he was worried about new conference opponents invading New Jersey to recruit homegrown talent. Flood mentioned Iowa and Maryland as teams that have always featured teams laden with players from the Garden State, but when he talked about Penn State, he curiously stopped short of referring to the name of the university.

“You know, I think they’ve been doing it for a long time,” Flood said. “Iowa, over the years, has always had players from New Jersey. Certainly the team from Pennsylvania has always had teams from New Jersey, and Maryland has always recruited Jersey. I don’t feel it being any different than it’s been the last nine years. It’s always a highly-recruited area. There’s no lack of coaching traffic in New Jersey.”

In a recent conference call with members of the media, Flood was asked directly about why he chooses not to utter the words “Penn State” out loud.

“I think there’s a lot of ways you can describe where that University is and what they are,” Flood said. “Some I use, some I don’t.”

Right. Moving on…

July 30, 2014 – Bill Belton spurned Rutgers for Penn State because he wanted to play “big time football”

At Big Ten media days, Belton spoke with Onward State about the reasons why he chose to wear the Blue and White over the more familiar Scarlet. The Sicklerville, N.J., native and former Winslow Township standout said it was simple: Penn State > Rutgers.

“Rutgers recruited me,” said Belton, “but I wanted to play big-time football, so I came to Penn State.”

Needless to say, this ruffled some feathers over in Rutgers camp. Leonte Carroo, a star wide receiver for the Scarlet Knights, did not take very kindly to the disrespect, and recently told the Asbury Park Press that he plans to show Belton the error of his ways.

“I wanted to stay home because I wanted to bring a championship back to New Jersey,” said Carroo. “You’ve got guys like Bill Belton saying that he wanted to go to Penn State because he wanted to play big-time football instead of staying home. Well, I guess we’re going to have to show him he made a terrible decision.”

In fact, Carroo went as far as to suggest that a win over the Nittany Lions could be a program-altering moment for Rutgers, fueled by the fans’ collective hatred for Penn State.

“In January, a lot of fans message you on Facebook, saying, ‘I hope you beat the (heck) of Penn State, ‘I hate Penn State,’” said Carroo. “This is going to change New Jersey and Rutgers football forever.”

September 6, 2014 – James Franklin needs to ask who Penn State’s next opponent is (Spoiler Alert: It’s Rutgers.)

Following Penn State’s 21-3 win over Akron in James Franklin’s first home game as head coach at Penn State, the new coach talked glowingly about the wonderful scene of “the walk” from the bus to the stadium, the impressive performance of tight end Jesse James, and the joy of being undefeated to start the season. When asked about what’s next for the team in terms of preparations for the game against new conference opponent Rutgers in New Jersey, he gave a pretty standard answer in coach-speak.

“Same old,” Franklin said. “I want the staff and I want the guys to go out and enjoy themselves tonight without any problems, and then I want to get back to work tomorrow, get on the field (and) make some corrections and get on to our next opponent.”

What followed was a bit more bizarre. The first-year head coach showed some gamesmanship, asking Tony Mancuso of if he could help him identify Penn State’s next opponent.

“Who do we play next?” asked Franklin.

“Rutgers,” said Mancuso.

“Then we’ll start working on Rutgers tomorrow,” Franklin said.

Apparently Rutgers needs to do a little bit better than beating Washington State and Howard to earn Franklin’s attention. Either that, or he’s just as confused as we are as to why a conference called the “Big Ten” has fourteen teams. Either way, this weekend’s meeting in Piscataway promises to be one the of the best in the series’ history.

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About the Author

CJ Doon

CJ is a senior journalism major from Long Island and Onward State's Sports Editor. He is a third-generation Penn Stater, and his grandfather wrestled for the university back in the 1930s under coach Charlie “Doc” Speidel. Besides writing, one of his favorite activities is making sea puns. You can follow him on Twitter @CJDoon, and send your best puns to [email protected], just for the halibut.

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