PSU was Goliath, constantly slaying David year after year, until a former assistant coach who had served under Joe Paterno took the knowledge he had accrued at Penn State to fashion a battle plan to defeat a hated foe.
That's how Sept. 24, 1988, became the date that David finally slayed Goliath.
Dick Anderson had taken over the head coaching job at Rutgers in 1984 after having been offensive coordinator at Penn State. In his first year, he had gone 7-3-0, but the following seasons were not fruitful. In 1988, the season started brightly when Rutgers traveled to East Lansing, Michigan and defeated the previously-ranked No. 15 Spartans, 17-13. But the week after that, they dropped a one-point decision to Vanderbilt, 31-30.
Rutgers entered the game against PSU a two-touchdown underdog, as no one expected the Scarlet Knights to travel to State College, Pa. and even give the new No. 15 nationally-ranked Nittany Lions a competitive game. After all, it had been 70 years since Rutgers had defeated Penn State, and in those intervening years, the Knights had dropped 15 in a row to the Nittany Lions.
So the 85,531 fans who packed Beaver Stadium for what they anticipated would be just a typical game were given a rude awakening named Mike Botti. The junior running back hit his high-water mark in 1988, rushing for 715 yards and five touchdowns that season.
The scoring began when Rutgers quarterback Scott Erney (9-of-20, 85 yards) hit wide receiver Eric Young for the game's opening touchdown to give the Knights a 7-0 lead in the first four minutes of the contest.
In an attempt to harass Erney and the Rutgers passing attack, the Nittany Lions would often put five linebackers on the field, but the Knights countered with a heavy dose of their ground attack. Rutgers ran the ball 38 times in the game, with 18 carries by Mike Botti for 112 yards and two touchdowns which helped to stake the Scarlet Knights to a 21-10 lead going into the fourth quarter.
After starting quarterback Tom Bill had to leave the game with a leg injury, Penn State put in backup QB Tony Sacca, who then led the Lions on a 90-yard TD drive to cut the deficit to 21-16, after the two-point conversion failed.
In the waning minutes of the game, Sacca again led Penn State down the field, and it would again be up to the Scarlet Knights defense to save the game. Down by five points, the Nittany Lions reached Rutgers' three-yard line and tried to run the ball on first and second down, for no gain either time. On third and goal, Paterno sent Sacca on a roll out, but he threw an incompletion to the tight end. That set the stage for the nail-biting fourth-and-goal play that would decide the contest.
But the Knights defense prevailed, as on fourth down Sacca threw an incompletion to wide receiver Michael Timpson, and all that remained was for Rutgers to run out the clock with under a minute remaining.
"We poured our hearts out on those last plays," said Rutgers defensive tackle George Bankos. Ironically, Bankos had been recruited by Penn State, but decided that Rutgers was a better fit for him. "We were ready for everything they tried against us. We were geared for their run, and we were able to pressure their quarterbacks when they tried to pass."
But while the defense saved the game, it had been the offense that scored just enough points to put the game out of reach, despite a disappointing day passing.
"For me personally," said RU quarterback Scott Erney, "it was a bigger win than Michigan State."
It was a career day for running back Mike Botti, who fulfilled a personal goal in the game. "It was the best feeling of my life," he said elatedly after the win. "I've been dreaming about this since I came here. It's been so long since we've beaten them."
"They were a better team than us," admitted Joe Paterno after the home loss. "They played hard on the line of scrimmage. They hustled, tackled well and mixed up their defenses well. They stopped our best offensive plays."
Penn State was stripped of their No. 15 ranking, and this loss appeared to derail the remainder of the Nittany Lions' 1988 season. They went on to lose five of their final eight games that year.
Dick Anderson would coach through the conclusion of the 1989 season, finishing his RU career 7 games under .500 (27-34-4). He then returned to Penn State as an assistant coach, where he worked from 1990 through 2011.
Penn State holds a 22-2-0 series advantage, with those two Rutgers victories occurring on either end of the 70-year bridge from 1918 to 1988. The Nittany Lions won the next seven games from 1989 through 1995. The two teams have not played since.
The Scarlet Knights and Nittany Lions are next scheduled to play in 2014.