Where it all began: Princeton vs. Rutgers

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Princeton’s 1883 squad, left, notched the Tigers’ 10th straight win over Rutgers in a 61-0 blowout. The Scarlet Knights would gain the upper hand in the 1970s. At right, a statue in New Brunswick commemorates the first game. (Photos: Athletics at Princeton: A History; courtesy Flickr.com)

College football was born in New Jersey, 140 years ago today, when a team from Princeton traveled to New Brunswick to challenge Rutgers. The rules from that first contest differ greatly from those used today. Each team fielded 25 players who advanced the ball by kicking it or batting it with their hands (catching the ball was permitted, but running with it was not). The home team won, 6-4. Princeton topped Rutgers in a rematch one week later, the season’s only other game.

In a span of 111 years, the Tigers and Scarlet Knights played 71 times. While Princeton had a 53-17-1 record in the series, Rutgers dominated the later years, winning nine of the last 13 games. In 1980, PAW covered the final installment in football’s oldest rivalry. See story below.

From PAW, Oct. 20, 1980

Going Separate Ways

Rutgers 44, Princeton 13

By Martin E. Robins ’64

If the Brown game was a fork in the road, then the last game in the Rutgers series was a freeway interchange where the Scarlet Knights were jockeying for a spot in the fast lane, while the Tigers were exiting to the slower pace of secondary highways. Outdistancing Princeton 44-13, Rutgers ran up the highest point total and widest victory margin it has ever enjoyed in the 111-year history of college football’s oldest rivalry. In so doing, it vindicated Nassau Hall’s decision to let the two teams go their separate ways.

Since the inaugural had taken place in New Brunswick, the finale was held at Rutgers Stadium, before a festive, sellout crowd of 26,000, which reveled as the home team jolted the Tigers with three first-period touchdowns. To its credit, Princeton did not cave in and played the Knights even in the second and third quarters. Bob Holly ’82’s accurate passing (13 completions on 15 attempts) and an alert defense enabled the Tigers to keep the game interesting for most of the afternoon.

Equally interesting was the atmosphere in and around Rutgers Stadium. Bearing colorful banners and beating on a large stuffed Tiger, the Knights’ fans demonstrated their usual keen desire to defeat Princeton, but also their sadness at losing the opportunity. The Rutgers marching band, known for its disciplined, high-stepping maneuvers, abandoned tradition to spoof the casual formations and satirical antics of the Tiger band, then offered a poignant rendition of Auld Lang Syne. And as expected, almost 10 minutes before the final gun, hundreds of students surged on the field to tear down the goal posts.

Whenever Princeton established reasonable field position in the first three quarters, Coach Frank Navarro unleashed Holly, who collected 119 yards passing, mostly on short shots over the middle. But when the Tigers were deep in their own territory, as during the bleak first period, and caution dictated a running game, they had trouble moving the ball.

As in the loss at Cornell, errors were a big factor. On the opening kickoff, Larry Van Pelt ’82 dropped the ball twice at the goal line and could only scramble out to the 6. Six plays later, Ken Buck ’81’s punt was blocked, and the Knights recovered at the Princeton 18. On third-and-goal at the 4, quarterback Ed McMichael notched the first of his four scoring passes.

The Tigers netted only eight yards on three rushes in their next possession and punted to the Rutgers 39. On the first play from scrimmage, Dave Dorn, the Knights’ deceptively speedy flanker, slipped down the left sideline behind two Princeton defenders and caught a perfectly placed pass from McMichael for a 61-yard touchdown.

Van Pelt returned the next kickoff to the 30, then Cris Crissy ’81 carried three times in a row and came up short. Buck got off a solid punt, good for 43 yards, but it was more than neutralized by a 36-yard return and a personal foul, placing Rutgers at the Tigers’ 29. Princeton’s defense tightened and the Knights’ 41-yard field goal attempt went wide, but an unusual defensive holding call on the play gave them a first down on the Tigers’ 12. Three plays later McMichael threw for his third TD.

With Rutgers ahead 21-0, Holly began to move the offense. Mixing rushes by Crissy and Van Pelt with passes to his ends and backs, he drove the Tigers 74 yards in 13 plays. The TD came on an eight-yard pass to Crissy in the left flat. Princeton went the rest of the half without a first down, however, and teetered on the brink of a rout several times. One Rutgers march ended with a fumble at the Tigers’ 3, and another stalled inside the 10, resulting in a 26-yard field goal. Then Dorn broke loose on a punt return and glided 49 yards to the Princeton 21. McMichael collected his fourth touchdown pass, making it 31-7 at the half.

In the third period, Mike Neary ’82 tipped a Rutgers punt, and Princeton took over on the Knights’ 44. Seven pass plays later, on fourth down, Holly hit tight end Scott Oostdyk ’82 in the end zone for the Tigers’ second score. On the ensuing series Chris Boudreau ’81 intercepted a McMichael pass at the Princeton 35. But another error, a clipping penalty on the return, set the Tigers back.

On their next two possessions, the Knights marched 78 and 66 yards for touchdowns, while Princeton could get no closer than their opponents’ 33. After the goal posts came down, Rutgers turned its thoughts toward Alabama, while the Tigers looked forward to returning to their own league.

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