After 108 years of playing football and, most recently, 18 straight victories against a lot of Lehighs and Bucknells, ambitious Rutgers sent its troops against the big boys last Friday night, and Penn State all but left them for dead. After this one they'll probably rename Giants Stadium in New Jersey Little Bighorn Stadium. At least Custer had the Seventh Cavalry. Rutgers had nothing. At least not in this league.
The final score was 45-7, and long before it had reached those proportions most of the 64,790 fans were fleeing into the hot muggy night, more than one of them wondering what will happen when Rutgers starts playing Alabama and others of that stature in the next few years.
The final score was not a true measure of Penn State's dominance. By halftime the Nittany Lions were leading 38-0, had 342 yards to Rutgers' 51, and, if Penn State Coach Joe Paterno had so chosen, the final score could have been 80-0. Before the game ended, Penn State played every man it had, 74 in all—because of an NCAA regulation limiting traveling squads, some paid their own way to East Rutherford—and for the final 27 minutes Paterno ordered his quarterbacks not to pass.
"It was tough, telling our kids not to throw," said Paterno. "We've got three hard games [Houston, Maryland and Kentucky] coming up and we needed the experience. There were a lot of things we wanted to try, but if we tried them they might have worked and that would have just run up the score. I won't run up the score against anybody."
September 11, 1977
After a relatively dismal 7-5 record last season, Paterno rebuilt his offensive line and redesigned an experienced but weak defense. He went in against Rutgers believing that the 1977 Lions can be a good team. When it was over, he still didn't know. "You can't tell an awful lot in a game like this," he said. "You don't know if you're that good or they're that bad. I may go home and look at the pictures and say, hey, we are a long way off."
When he looks at the movies what he'll see, among other things, are two fine scoring runs by Fullback Matt Suhey, one of them 51 yards; two more by second-string Tailback Mike Guman; another by second-string Fullback Bob Torrey; and Chuck Fusina's 31-yard scoring pass to Split End Bob Bassett. Plus Matt Bahr's 23-yard field goal. And a typical hard-nosed Penn State defense that gave up 25 yards on the ground and 130 through the air. Rutgers' lone score came in the closing minutes on a four-yard run by Halfback Lester Johnson.
In fairness to Rutgers, which had planned its move toward bigger things to begin next year, the Penn State disaster happened more by accident than by design. Last spring Duke and Penn State got into a scheduling dispute and elected to part company, canceling their game scheduled for Sept. 10. So Penn State needed an 11th game. "We could have gone a lot of places," Paterno said, "but I liked the idea of playing Rutgers. It would be a great rivalry: state schools in sister states."
Rutgers has been talking to Penn State about a possible series for the past two years. So when Penn State called with an offer to play this season—plus three more games in the future—the Scarlet Knights were more than interested. Too, Rutgers was miffed that despite an 11-0 record last season, it was ranked only 17th nationally and had received but one bowl bid, and that from the inaugural Independence Bowl at Shreveport, La. The bid was rejected.
But now Rutgers had a problem: it already had 11 games scheduled, including Colgate for Sept. 10. Colgate was asked to step aside. After last year's game (you may remember that crazy punt-penalty Rutgers victory) Colgate has been counting the days until it could meet the Scarlet Knights again. Colgate refused to cooperate. Finally, Rutgers got Columbia to drop its date, making room for Penn State. But that meant they would have to meet on the weekend before Labor Day. Neither side was happy with that.
"To be blunt about it," said Frank Burns, the dour Rutgers coach, "I don't think it's right for a kid to play as early as this. I would not want my team to open this early again."
Burns also was well aware of the particular perils of playing Penn State this year. Last season his Knights had led the nation in total defense and rushing defense and had tied Michigan in scoring defense. But five defensive starters from that team had graduated.
"This is the kind of football game we want Rutgers to be involved in," Burns said. "Winning would be a great accomplishment and really boost the program. But the important thing right now is that we have reached the point where we are playing teams such as Penn State."
Burns thought about that for a moment, then added, "A win would be a feather in our cap. A big plus. But if we lose, the average guy on the street will be saying, 'Didn't I tell you so.' Fortunately, I think we have the kind of people who are mature enough to handle a victory or a loss. If we win, I hope we are mature enough to maintain our balance and pace. If we lose, we should shrug it off and play as we are capable."
Significantly, none of Burns' players spoke of victory. Instead the consensus echoed the coach's long-range enthusiasm. "We've upgraded the program the last few years, but the Penn State game is what it's all about," said Linebacker Jim Hughes. "This is the start of something that should have been going on quite a while."
Middle Guard Rich Wagner agreed. "Losing to teams like Bucknell would be a disaster at this point. But this is Penn State, and if we lose it's no big deal. We've heard all the talk about stepping up; well, this is it."
Quarterback Bert Kosup said, "I think even a bad loss would only be a blow to our pride for a short time. We know it's the greatest opportunity we've had to show people what Rutgers can do in football. But the whole season isn't going down the drain if we lose."
On that note they gathered on a Friday night and played. Hughes said he knew what Penn State had: "A stereotyped white boy's offense. They run well but they're all short, stocky and look alike."
Penn State's short, stocky look-alikes opened haltingly. They gave the ball up on a fumble, scored on a two-yard run by Suhey, then lost another fumble. After that they got serious, Suhey showing the way with his 51-yard scamper around left end. The next two times the Nittany Lions had the ball they muscled 93 and 96 yards for touchdowns, the first coming on a 15-yard run by Guman, the second on Fusina's pass to Bassett. Then Penn State marched 27 yards after a fumble recovery, this time scoring on a two-yard dive by Guman. Rutgers' fumble on the ensuing kickoff set up Bahr's field goal with just two seconds left in the half. That made it 38-0.
When the second half opened, Paterno elected to take one final look at his starting offense. One more was enough, in this case. Penn State went 72 yards in nine plays, the last a nine-yard scoring run by Torrey. Bahr's extra-point kick made it 45-0, and that's when Paterno pulled the plug. There were still 26 minutes and 35 seconds to play.
"That last touchdown," said Paterno, "I just told them to take it in, get it over with and then everybody would play."
And everybody did. All 74 of them.
"You have to hand it to Rutgers," Paterno said. "They never quit. They were battling right to the end. And cleanly. They didn't take any cheap shots. You have to admire them; they have class."
If Rutgers has seen what the future is like in the big time and discovered it looks grim, the players didn't show it. The talk in the Scarlet Knights' locker room was still forward-looking, specifically about where everyone was going to celebrate the Labor Day weekend. Even Burns, who was sparing with his words during the 18-game win streak, joined in the lightheartedness. "Was it a good learning experience?" he was asked. "No, I don't like to be taught that way." But Athletic Director Fred Gruninger summed it up best. "Well, we made some mistakes early," he said. Like last April when he scheduled the game.