Rarely do seasons start so well.
As Dick Anderson entered the season as the Scarlet Knights' head coach, he was looking to take Rutgers above their mediocre play of the previous two years (5-5-1 in 1986 and 6-5-0 in 1987), and put the program in the right direction. In his first season (1984), the team posted a respectable 7-3-0 mark, but fell flat the following year, struggling to a 2-8-1 record.
But in 1988, while the Edmonton Oilers were the team to beat in hockey, the Lakers ruled the hardwood and the Dodgers were on their way to winning the World Series, Americans were also talking about movies like Rain Man and Who Framed Roger Rabbit after discussing the latest episode of The Cosby Show. And while "glasnost" might have loosened Soviet society a bit that year, they were still not able to listen to Billboard's number one song on September 10, 1988: "Sweet Child O' Mine."
It was on that day that the Rutgers Scarlet Knights traveled to East Lansing, Michigan to play the season opener against the No.15-ranked Spartans. Opening on the road would be tough enough, but opening against a nationally-ranked Big 10 team at their home stadium (where the Spartans have traditionally won more than two-thirds of their games) seemed like an extra-tall order for Rutgers.
It had been 69 years since Rutgers had played a Big 10 team, and now Dick Anderson was bringing his squad into enemy territory against the defending Rose Bowl winners—a team that had finished third in the nation in total defense in 1987, and number one against the run.
But Michigan State wasn't the only team with a fired-up defense. The Scarlet Knights made the day tough for Spartans' quarterback Bobby McAllister, who could only manage to complete 8 of 18 passes all day for a paltry 80 yards. In fact, the lone touchdown that the Spartans could muster came on a 1-yard plunge by McAllister himself.
Conversely, Rutgers quarterback Scott Erney threw for 239 yards and the Scarlet Knights posted a 17-0 lead in the second quarter after scoring strikes to receivers Eric Young and Brett Mersola. In fact, against Michigan State the Knights rolled up 333 total yards in offense, 61 of which came on the Erney-to-Young touchdown pass that put Rutgers ahead 7-0.
Head coach George Perles' Spartans chipped away at the lead, and eventually closed the gap to 17-13. From there, quarterback Bobby McAllister took Michigan State from their own 35 yard line down to the Rutgers 15 with time winding down in the fourth quarter. Needing a touchdown for the lead, the Spartans attempted to use the clock as they moved towards the goal line.
On first down from the Rutgers 15, running back Blake Ezor was tackled for a one yard loss. On second down, the Spartans went back to the run, and as Ezor ran wide right, he rambled down to the 10 yard line but fumbled, where an opportunistic Doug Kokoskie fell on the ball for the Scarlet Knights.
With what seemed like an eternity to kill, the Scarlet Knights drained the remaining 5:23 seconds of life in the game and stunned the home crowd of 70,693 in attendance at Spartan Stadium, knocking off Michigan State by a final score of 17-13. In fact, the Knights squeezed the time out of the final period, controlling the clock and the ball for 9:16 in the fourth quarter.
The win was Rutgers' first over a top-25-ranked team since they defeated West Virginia in 1984, and while this seemed to be the start that the Scarlet Knights needed to ensure a successful season, the year was a difficult one. The Knights finished the year 5-6-0, and when the team went 2-7-2 in 1989, head coach Dick Anderson moved on, replaced by Doug Graber.
Quarterback Scott Erney ended the season with 13 TD passes, and 41 touchdown passes (tied for 4th all-time) for his career at Rutgers. In addition, Erney ranks 3rd all-time in passing yards and 3rd in completions. Following college, Erney spent two seasons with NFL Europe's Barcelona Dragons, but never made it to the NFL.
One 1988 Rutgers player who did go on to NFL success was tight end James Jenkins, who played from 1991 to 2000 with the Washington Redskins. In his time with the Redskins, Jenkins was fortunate enough to win a Super Bowl.
All time, Rutgers leads the head-to-head series with Michigan State, 3-2-0. But the biggest of these victories was undoubtedly against the No. 15-ranked Spartans on their home field on September 10, 1988.