As we all know, it’s Penn State week and it will be a very difficult game for Rutgers. The visitors come to High Point Solutions Stadium riding a six game winning streak and the possibility of them playing in the Big Ten Championship remains. Rutgers is the polar opposite and searching for anything positive after last week’s blowout loss at Michigan State. It’s 8-2 v. 2-8 and Rutgers needs all the help it can get on Saturday. Fans need to turn out in support of the seniors in the last home game of the season!
It’s no secret that Penn State has dominated this series for years, as the Joe Paterno teams of the eighties and nineties won every time they played Rutgers. Scratch that, every time, with the exception of one game. In 1988, Rutgers went into Happy Valley and beat the #15th ranked Nittany Lions 21-16, which included a late goal line stand to secure the victory. It was called the 2nd greatest win in program history by the Bleacher Report a few years back.
In the spirit of gathering all the good mojo we can find for this weekend’s game, I reached out to a player from that team. Bill Dubiel was a captain and starting guard on the 1988 team that ruined one Saturday in September for the Penn State faithful, way back when. Bill gave some great insight on that win, what the program was like back then, as well as his thoughts on the current state of things with Rutgers football. Here we go!
Bill, you were captain of the last Rutgers team to beat Penn State back in 1988. The head coach of Rutgers was Dick Anderson, who was a longtime assistant of Joe Paterno. Please describe the emotions that you, the team, and the coaching staff had with going into Happy Valley and beating the #15th ranked Nittany Lions.
Growing up in New Jersey at the time, Penn State was the powerhouse brand in our area. The tradition, the coach and it was the place that you wanted to play at. Most of us went to Penn State Football Camp to learn and try to get noticed. Since I was not able to play for them, it did not take much for me to get amped up for this game. Many of the players we had were either from NJ, PA or Ohio. Combine that with the coaches, nobody had to say anything to us. We all knew that this game was our bowl game no matter what. Our coaches never made us feel that game was more important then any other, but we all knew they played/coached at PSU and knew that game took on a different meaning. You could see the look in their eyes and the intensity level was different when we were getting ready to play them.
Our biggest challenge was not getting too emotional and not play our assignments or not concentrate. For the seniors, we wanted to go out and finally get the monkey off our backs. We knew we could compete, as we knocked off the defending Rose Bowl champions Michigan State on the road the opening weekend of that season. They were 15th ranked in the country at the time. We never were intimidated by anyone and most of our players had a chip on their shoulders for being snubbed during recruiting for various reasons. That fueled our fire and we knew as seniors this was the last chance we would get to beat them, so we're very very focused at practice that week.
Rutgers had lost to Penn State the previous season and 15 games in a row. How much were you and the team fired up for the rematch the following year? What was it like going into Penn State in front of 85,000 fans at that time and walking out the victor?
First, what most people don't realize was PSU always had an advantage. They would play a 4 to 1 home & home game series. That means you would have to play four games at their stadium to every one game at ours. The worst part is we would have to go to Giants Stadium to play our home game, due to capacity requirements back then and our stadium didn't meet the requirements to host big teams. I say this because going to Penn State is not easy. There is no airport, it’s a long bus ride, there was a small hotel to stay at and it was not close to the stadium. The locker rooms were small. They make the game experience not fun at all for the visiting team. Now that being said, walking out onto the field was a totally different experience.
I will tell you playing any team with 85,000 fans is an incredible experience, but beating them the way it happened was one of the best moments of my football life. A couple of moments that I recall that were special to me:
We were in a TV time out in first quarter near the end zone (student section nearby). All of a sudden, we see hundreds of marshmallows landing at our feet. We were like what the heck are these doing out here? I remember quarterback Scott Erney, the smart one of the group, told us they symbolized that we are soft. I played guard and my tackle, Bill Milano, bent down and grabbed a handful, lifted his helmet, and started to eat them. Soon, all the lineman bent down, grabbed some, and starting eating. We waived and thanked the student section. We just all cracked up and it got us to relax. We drove the field and scored on that series.
At the end of the game, PSU was driving down the field and we could all feel the "oh know, here we go again feeling". It felt like they had 25 plays on the 5 yard line because we had two pass interference plays on critical conversion downs that extended their drive and chance to win. I could sense the defense was exhausted and the pressure was immense. Their body language said it all. It was fourth down on the 2 yard line and the last play of the game was coming. There was a timeout and I ran out to the huddle. Yeah, offense lineman really are not supposed to do that, but I just tried to pump them up and get them focused for one more play. It was the last play of the game and personally I wanted to do my part to ensure the guys left it all on the field. I don't even remember what I said, but it was emotional, real and I wanted to see my teammates eyes. I left the huddle knowing we were going to win.
A couple of years ago, I ran into a former defensive player Steve Tomkins, who out of the blue told me he remembered me coming out there during that situation. He felt it made a difference at the time. Maybe that was because of the shock factor that nobody had really ever done that before. The pass fell incomplete and what followed was the most emotional moment in my life and I am sure the rest of the team and coaches. The entire team charged the field and I just could not comprehend what just happened. Yes...Happy Valley truly was the happiest place on earth at that moment...but for us!
That locker room after the game was the most amazing experience. Guys were going crazy, jumping around, crying with happiness, hugging each other and the coaches. Just an incredible moment that you wish you could bottle it and make it never end. That bus ride back home was a blur. Several of us had injuries, but we did not feel them or care. The adrenaline had not worn off yet and felt like it was still pumping through our veins well after the game had ended. When we returned home, fans came to greet us at the stadium. It was monumental at the time, as that never occurred before during my time with the team. We went over and rang the Rutgers bell that was just rung for the 250th celebration. I climbed up in the tower and was one of only a few people that ever got a chance to ring that bell in its history. It was special and memorable.
Your senior year opened with a win at #15 Michigan State, a 1 point loss to Vanderbilt, and then the win at #15 Penn State. It was an up and down year, as the team finished 5-6. Overall, what were your thoughts on your experience with the program and has your love & pride grown over the years?
Coming from a winning tradition in high school, we hardly lost. For me, I never really felt what it was like to lose and especially over multiple games. My first year we were 7-3 and should have gone to a bowl. There were three teams we beat who had worse records and they all went to a bowl game over us. Back then it was about how much a fan base would travel. Although that is still the case now, but to a much lesser degree.
I naturally assumed we would continue to win after that season and had no idea that we would never get back winning consistently. We had a lot of guys that were talented, but came from losing program's and I really feel that played a role in not getting over the top.
My final season we were clicking and felt it was our year. But one of the big things that separate good programs from great is depth. The scout team and backups play critical roles in preparing a team to compete. We had a couple of key injuries my senior year and just could not get over the hump consistently.
You played with quarterback Scott Erney and wide receiver/returner Eric Young, who had a lengthy and successful career in major league baseball. They are two great players in program history that more recent fans probably don't know much about. Can you give some thoughts on their careers at Rutgers?
We knew we were the "easy winnable" game on the big boy team schedules. We loved playing the underdog, as the expectations were always so low for us, so we would come in and surprise teams. Our offense with Scott Erney and EY under offensive coordinator Dick Curl scored a lot of points. Having the same offensive coordinator over 5 years was the key.
Scott was a great guy. He was absolutely the team leader, both on and off the field. When he came into the huddle, we felt confident and would march the field. Our offense featured the guard pulling out a lot with a roll out play action pass. I really loved rolling out to protect him or at time he would yell go, and I would lead block for him down field so he could get a first down.
EY was amazing athlete. Played baseball and wide receiver. He was small in size, but very quick and elusive. He did not have the same body type of Janarion Grant, but did have similar skills. He and Scott were a great combination on offense, along with Brian Cobb, who was our deep threat in the passing game.
We also took heavy pride in our special teams, specifically our kick return. I played the back wedge and Brian Cobb was our return specialist. If we were able to set the wedge 8 yards from when Brian caught the ball, we knew we would score or get a great return. We were ranked 2nd or 3rd in the country my senior year in kick returns.
You played for Rutgers during an interesting period in program history. It was the late 80's and Rutgers was an independent at that time. However, the schedule was usually filled with mostly schools that became the original Big East, with Boston College, Pitt, West Virginia, Temple and Syracuse. You also played games against Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Michigan State and Penn State. However, Rutgers was still playing schools like Colgate as well. What was your feeling at the time, in terms of the future of Rutgers football and who made sense for the school to align with? Did you think making the jump to big time college football made sense and how much push back was there at the school during this period?
At the time, it was exciting to play the teams that were considered big time programs. I felt at the time we belonged with most of the teams. We played well against everyone at the time. The one team that had our number was West Virginia. Their team speed killed us every year. I don't remember push back. They was funding for the Hale Center, the practice bubble, and for stadium expansion. The only thing I remember was support, however, expectations of winning definitely started to grow. However, we got very little media attention unless we shocked a team.
What were your thoughts when it was announced that Rutgers was entering the Big Ten? Did you think it was the right move?
With all of the moves going on at the time with teams going to other conferences and the likely scenario of remaining in the AAC and not being considered as a power 5 league, I thought it was the one thing that would inhibit our ability to attract the top talent, get the funding needed, and prevent any chance to ever build a national powerhouse.
The day I heard we were joining the B1G for me was like coming down on Christmas morning and finding that bicycle or getting the GI Joe with the Kung Fu grip:)! I was elated and knew that the program would finally have the last piece it needed to build a powerhouse program. I know a lot has to happen still, but the journey has begun. Pat Hobbs is finally getting the donations needed and the facilities upgraded to the standard that is needed.
The revenue that will be made off the B1G conference is a game changer. No longer having to ask the state tax payer to pay to compete is huge. We now have to build the winning tradition from the athlete up. It is clear that skill and body type to play in this league is at another level. We need to win that battle next with recruiting. It is doable, but comes down to kids wanting to stay home and be a part of something special. That comes down to the coaching and the media. Yes, the media plays a huge role in this journey.
What are your thoughts on the current direction of the program under first year head coach Chris Ash?
I am very excited about the direction. For the most part, he is attempting to change the engine in mid-flight. Greg Schiano was able to get us to the next level, but he used scheduling to his advantage. Coach Ash does not have that luxury of stacking the schedule with easier teams. The B1G conference is relentless and unforgiving.
How much hope do you have for Rutgers to be successful long term in the Big Ten?
I am very hopeful. It just takes winning consistently. Everything takes care of itself when that occurs. That comes down to coaching and recruiting top players. The good news is we have plenty of them right here in the tri-state area. But unlike basketball, where you only need a couple, we need 20 plus players every year. I plan to do my part as a supportive fan, season ticket holder and donor to the program.
Beating Penn State could go a long way to show that we belong and hope I can enjoy that feeling all over again....but this time as a fan.
I wanted to thank Bill for taking the time to answer all of my questions and giving Rutgers fans some great insight. The marshmallow story was my favorite! Stay positive this weekend and when you have doubts, remember the 1988 team and never say never!
To read the New York Times coverage of when Rutgers beat Penn State, which included quotes from Bill, click here and here.