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Rutgers Has More Going for It Than Just Tradition

October 07, 1988|SALLY JENKINS | Washington Post

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Nestled in a turnpike wasteland is the site of the first college football game, where a mob of Rutgers men in 1869 first shed coats and vests and engaged in some lively shin-kicking and hair-mussing with Princeton.

Rutgers contributed little of note in the sport since, until the Scarlet Knights upset two top 20 teams this season--Michigan State and Penn State--an unprecedented achievement after the last century or so when it probably should have given up its antique pretensions and just called itself New Jersey State, which is what it really is.

Five years ago, this state university, tired of obscurity, set out to build a program that could be regarded as something more than quaint.

It poured $7 million into a spanking new athletic complex with modern scientific training rooms and glittering offices. It brought in a knowledgeable, well traveled and potentially major coach in Dick Anderson, who served as Penn State's offensive coordinator under Joe Paterno.

Then Anderson went out after all the nearby talent he could find, some of those nasal-talking Long Island toughs like fullback Mike Botti, hardy Pennsylvania talent like quarterback Scott Erney of Mechanicsburg, cold-hardened Upstate New Yorkers and even a Maryland punter in Matt O'Connell.

The result may be a comer in the East. Rutgers (3-1) considers itself possibly a top 20 team.

"There's no reason why not," O'Connell said. "It's only the third week of the season, and we can play our way into it."

The Scarlet Knights began the season by stunning the Spartans, defending Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions who were ranked No. 15 at the time, 17-13.

After losing to Vanderbilt, 31-30, the Scarlet Knights knocked off Penn State, 21-16, at a time the Nittany Lions were No. 13 in the polls. It was only the second time they had beaten the Nittany Lions, having lost 15 straight since their last victory, in 1918.

Last week, Rutgers beat Cincinnati, 38-9.

But whether Rutgers is actually talented enough to continue this success, or is just a game little entity that defeated a couple of overrated teams, remains to be seen.

The Knights' recent habit has been to alternate upsets with losses, as they did 2 weeks ago, when, still giddy about from the victory over Michigan State, they blew a big lead and lost to Vanderbilt.

Saturday, the Knights play at Syracuse (3-1) and later on face Boston College (Oct. 15), Pittsburgh (Nov. 5), and undefeated and 7th-ranked West Virginia (Nov. 12).

Anderson remains cautious and he may be well advised, because the Scarlet Knights have been through this before. Last season, they won 5 of their first 7 games, but were able to win just once more and finished 6-5. In 1985, they opened the season with a stunning 28-28 tie with then-No. 1 Florida, but were beaten by Army the following week and finished 2-8-1.

"When you win games that people don't anticipate or expect you to win, it's obviously a boost," Anderson said. "But the thing is, we've got to continue to win. None of this will do us much good if we lose the rest of our games."

Rutgers' few recent successes have been hard won, as Anderson has a 22-22-2 record since taking over in 1984, with his best season a 7-3-1 mark that first year.

The Scarlet Knights made their only postseason appearance in 1978, when they were 9-2 and became the host team in the short-lived ill-advised Garden State Bowl, where they lost to Arizona State, 34-18.

That Rutgers is unused to the current level of expectations is seen in the arguments over whether the New Jersey legislature should approve funds for expanding its 50-year-old stadium, capacity 23,000. The Scarlet Knights play most of their games at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, and school administrators favor funding for libraries and laboratory facilities first.

But a top-20 season could put the Scarlet Knights on a new level, and they have already erased much of their reputation as a fluky team.

"Yeah, no one thought we could do it," Botti said. "But we can't let two games make a whole season."

That explains why, although many on the Rutgers campus are streaming to the box office, the Scarlet Knights have a grim attitude. Anderson refuses to discuss last Saturday's game once Monday arrives, with a new opponent for which to prepare. He has ingrained that in his team, which shares his apprehension. They are a workmanlike group that Anderson calls "not a great team, just a good team."

Even Anderson, 47, is something of a journeyman. A native of Queens, N.Y., and a former Penn State tight end--class of '63--he spent 11 years as an assistant there under Paterno, working his way up to offensive coordinator in his last 3 seasons. Rutgers' talent takes the form of physical durability rather than startling speed or grace, and some of its players are those that Penn State or Syracuse didn't want.

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