We’ve all been there before. Swallowing tough losses involving your favorite teams, whether college or pro sports, are never easy. Circumstances change the degree of defeat, but for a true hardcore fan, every loss takes a tiny bit of your soul with it.
Bill Simmons wrote a classic piece many years ago while with Page 2 of ESPN called “The 13 Levels of Losing”, which I relate very well to. As a longtime Rutgers fan, I attribute any difficult loss to the second worst kind that Simmons accounts for, the Level II stomach punch loss. Every soul crushing loss that Rutgers suffers in football or men’s basketball, for me, always feels like a stomach punch type of loss. There are just varying degrees of this feeling, in terms of how hard it hits and how long it lingers, but a stomach punch loss just the same.
With the offseason now over, as newcomers reported and training camp officially begins on Monday, I thought it was a good time to come up with some what I hope you consider as entertaining content before the 2017 season begins. Rather than cover the biggest wins I’ve ever attended, I decided to review the worst Rutgers football losses I’ve ever witnessed in the flesh. To be honest, wins are truly joyous occasions, which make for less interesting stories. Drama and comedy, in my opinion, are always best in the face of adversity.
To be fair and set the stage before we get into it, here are the best Rutgers football wins I’ve ever seen in person:
- August 31st, 1991 - Rutgers 20 Boston College 13 (NYT recap)
- October 31st, 1992 - Rutgers 50 Virginia Tech 49 (game recap)
- September 4th, 2004 - Rutgers 20 Michigan State 14 (I wrote about it here)
- November 9th, 2006 - #15 Rutgers 28 #3 Louisville 25 (I wrote about it here)
- December 30th, 2011 - Rutgers 27 Iowa State 13 (my thoughts here)
- September 21st, 2013 - Rutgers 28 Arkansas 24 (recap)
- October 4th, 2014 - Rutgers 26 Michigan 24 (OTB round table post-game)
Now, for the suffering. I’ve been going to games since 1984, but for many of these years, there weren’t a lot of painful losses, in a particularly devastating sort of way. Just losses. Lots and lots of them. When I was an undergrad at Rutgers, the football team went 8-36 from 1996-1999. It was worse than it sounds. If you take away the 1998 season when they went 5-6, my other three years as an undergrad, Rutgers went 3-30. I once bet on Rutgers as a 35 point underdog at home to Syracuse and Donovan McNabb, only to watch them lose 50-3 on a Thursday night under the lights at the Stadium. That was nothing though, my friends. When the games really matter, the losses hurt the most. Here are the worst losses I’ve ever seen in person, with all but one taking place at Rutgers Stadium. My rule is if you've been going to games pre-expansion, you can still call R home by its true name. Here we go.
2008 Opening Losses To Fresno State & North Carolina
After the 11-2 breakout season of 2006 and the disappointing 8-5 follow-up of the 2007 season, there were big expectations entering the 2008 season. Mike Teel was a senior and there ended up being almost a dozen NFL players on this team, including Kenny Britt, the McCourty brothers, and Joe Lefeged. I was a bit amped up for the season to begin, to say the least. The schedule opened with back to back home games against Fresno State and North Carolina. The fact that both these defeats occurred back to back at home to start the season really strangled the hope right out of you.
Rutgers was embarrassed in both contests and lost by a combined score of 68-19. The Fresno loss was just plain boring and sad, while the UNC loss was a slaughter on a Thursday night on ESPN. For the Carolina game, I took my sister, also a Rutgers alum, who had never gone to a game with me, before or since. After the drubbing, it only got worse. My friends agreed to drive us back to our car, which was parked on College Avenue. Long story short, we walked 20 minutes from the Stadium to their car, only to realize that my friend lost his keys. My sister and I then had to walk back to the Stadium and from there, on to College Avenue. It took an extra hour and with both of us having to work the next day, it wasn’t a fun ride home. At least Rutgers won their last seven games of the season after starting with a 1-5 record.
2004 Loss to UConn 41-35 on Thanksgiving Day
I’ve been working on this article for over a week and my good friend, Jim Sias, somehow channeled this story and teeeted about it the day I was writing about it. I was living in Boston at the time and managed a sports bar in Southie called “The Stadium”. I had to work the Wednesday night, Thanksgiving Eve, which is the busiest bar night of the year across the country. However, I wanted to surprise my mother and make it home for Thanksgiving, as it had been a difficult year for the family and I thought it was important to be there. Since Rutgers happened to be playing at home for an 10 or 11 am kickoff that morning against UConn, I figured I’d double down and go to the game with friends, before heading home for late afternoon turkey dinner. The problem was there were no buses, planes, or trains that would even get me back to New Jersey before late afternoon. So in a display of true fanaticism, I convinced a cab driver, who took me home often after closing the bar at 3 am most nights, to drive me to Rutgers.
This was well before the days of Uber. As soon as we got on the Mass Pike at around 3:30 am, I dozed off. Maybe 15 minutes later, I awoke to a loud noise that the cabbie confirmed was due to a lack of cover plate over the engine. He didn’t normally go 60 mph plus in the city, so it wasn’t normally an issue. Then I asked why he had the steering wheel turned all the way to the left and he explained the alignment was off. Add the fact that bucket seats in cabs aren’t the best for highway travel and I started questioning my decision. However, I was so tired that I still fell asleep. Thankfully, we made it to the garden state alive and my driver was nice enough to drop me off at the early morning tailgate my friends were hosting. He actually had the guts to ask a cop to let him through a barricade to get me right up to the Stadium in the Red lot. He insisted. I’ll never forget the cop radioing to someone, “Hey Sarge, you’ll never believe this, but I have a cab from Boston dropping off a Rutgers fan going to the game. Yeah, I know. Can I let him through?” Sure enough, we got the go ahead and I arrived just before 8 am to tailgate with my friends.
As for the game, I remember little of it and barely saw the wild affair, which included Willie Foster running back an 80 yard kickoff with just over 2 minutes to play, cutting the lead to one score. Rutgers failed to recover the onside kick and the season ended with a 4-7 record. It was the last game for Tres Moses, a personal favorite of mine and one of the best receivers in program history. I remember having a blast at the tailgate and the smile on my mom’s face when I got home. It was worth it. Plus, I had attended the season opening win over Michigan State, one of the best wins I mentioned, so it felt good to bookend the season while living in Boston.
For the record, the ride cost me $300 all inclusive, which we agreed upon before the trip. He did keep a running tab to see what it would run and it came to $365 dollars, without tip. I ended up giving him the extra $65 out of principle, despite his insistence on not doing so, and he then immediately drove back to Boston, calling me once he got home. That was a hell of a trip. God bless that cabbie, wherever he is today.
If there was a Venn diagram charting Amazing and Insane, this would be right where the concentric circles overlap.— Jim Sias (@JimSias) July 24, 2017
Now on to the Top Five.....
5) 1994 - #5 Penn State 55 Rutgers 27
This was the last time Rutgers had played at Happy Valley until they returned in 2015, as a member of the Big Ten. My dad and I made the trip together. I was 17 years old, but my only remembrance aside from the game was my father’s parked car being hit by a Winnebago in the pregame tailgate. I don’t remember the details, but we definitely were given the impression it was our fault for parking our car anywhere near a spot that a Winnebago might reside. I never felt more like city folk before, even though I grew up in a suburb that was once farmland between New York City and Philadelphia.
On to the game, which saw a spirited Rutgers team give the 5th ranked team in the country at the time all they could handle in the first half. In the first three games of the season, the Nittany Lions led at the half against Minnesota by 32 points, USC by 35 points, and Iowa by 38 points. Rutgers came to play and only trailed 27-20 with just over a minute left in the first half. Ray Lucas was brilliant at quarterback and Rutgers had several prolonged scoring drives, eating up the clock and keeping the potent Penn State offense, led by QB Kerry Collins, off the field.
There was literally one section of Rutgers fans at Beaver Stadium, maybe close to 2,000 fans in a stadium that seated 95,000+ at the time. I remember after the initial RU touchdown, basically every Rutgers fan stood the remainder of the first half. After scoring on a 46 touchdown pass from Lucas to Reggie Funderburk, we believed. It was only six years prior that Rutgers stormed into Happy Valley and beat them for the first time ever. I interviewed Bill Dubiel, a captain on the 1988 squad about that victory here.
As to be expected, Penn State fans were not happy about our upbeat view, nor our standing. It wasn’t until Rutgers surrendered a 5 yard touchdown with 5 seconds left in the half that Rutgers and the fans in attendance became deflated. Penn State scored three more touchdowns to start the second half and the rout was complete.
It was the first time I actually felt nervous at a game. Not just because of the action on the field, but because it was truly a hostile environment, as we were heckled often. That was a coming of age game for my life as a Rutgers fan. Oh and by the way, that Penn State team ended up finishing 12-0 during the 1994 season, only to see it end in controversy by being voted #2 in the national polls, with Nebraska winning the national championship. I don't feel bad for them.
4) 2007 - #7 West Virginia 31 Rutgers 3
After the glorious season of 2006 and the best ranking in program history, finishing #12 in both the AP and Coaches Polls, expectations were sky high the following year. After a 3-0 start and being ranked #10 in the polls, Rutgers suffered back to back disappointing home losses to Maryland 34-24 and #20 Cincinnati 28-23. I’m sure many of you were there, but I worked Saturdays back then and taped the games to watch afterwards. Very upsetting, to say the least. Actually, let me throw an infuriating in there, too. However, the season was resurrected after Rutgers stunned #2 South Florida at home in another Thursday night victory, one year after the signature win over Louisville.
The 30-27 triumph on ESPN set the table for the next week, as 5-2 Rutgers hosted #7 ranked West Virginia, who was 6-1, for a noon kickoff the following Saturday. I requested off of work for this one and was hungry to finally celebrate a win over the Mountaineers. I can still taste the Tequila shots at 7:30 am, which was before even getting to the tailgate. I was young once. As is usual with Tequila, it all went downhill from there.
I remember some obnoxious West Virginia fans chirping quite a bit at my group before the game and I was none too pleased. It was threatening rain, but I was off of work, I was at my home away from home, and I was ready to rock. Cue the opening kickoff and the flood gates opened and not of the Kyle variety. More on him in a bit.
Our season tickets at the time were in the upper deck and I felt like we were sitting in an actual rain cloud. And this was no ordinary rain. It was swirling, sideways rain and it was cold. It lasted pretty much the entire first half. I’ve never been that wet and miserable in my life.
Rutgers was just as bad on the field, surrendering four turnovers and they trailed 17-3 at the half. I have never left a game so early in my life, before or since, but after one of our friends was in the fetal position in his seat for the entire second quarter, we decided to leave at the break. I swear to god, as soon as we exited the turnstile, the clouds shifted and the sun came out. It wasn’t an omen though, as Rutgers never really came out of the locker room and were embarrassed with the final score being 31-3.
3) 2015 - Washington State 37 Rutgers 34
The season was in turmoil before it even began, with the arrests of players after practice the week leading up the home opener against Norfolk State. The investigation into Kyle Flood’s academic misconduct was underway. I was less than a month in my tenure as managing editor of this site and I had literally walked into a nightmare. All of a sudden, I was tasked with covering the darkest days of the program and thrown into the fire, having to cover the downfall without much of a choice.
My only solace was the naive hope that all would be okay when Rutgers was on the field. After beating the Cougars the season before, there was optimism they could sweep the home and home series, especially after Wazzou lost their season opener the week before to Portland State.
This game also had rain clouds hovering over the action. I remember as the game was unraveling in the second half, I felt the sky was a literal interpretation of the state of the program in that moment. It felt surreal. Still, Janarion Grant had the best game of his career and almost won the game by himself, amassing over 300 all-purpose yards.
Of course, the defense fell apart and Washington State scored the winning touchdown with just seconds remaining. An hour or so later, Leonte Carroo was involved in “the incident” and suspended the following day. Flood was suspended later that week and the the program was officially in a free fall. This game was so painful, because it was the rare occasion that one loss ended the season before it even got going. The silver lining was that the worst season in recent memory led to the hiring of Pat Hobbs and truly a new era in Rutgers athletics.
2) 2014 - Penn State 13 Rutgers 10
The hype for this game, the first Big Ten contest in Rutgers history, was off the charts. I organized the menu for our tailgate and went all out. It rained again this day, notice a theme, but we had a full spread that was worthy of the occasion. The hatred between the two fan bases peaked that night and the atmosphere was intense. There were a lot of Penn State fans around during the tailgate and walking up to the stadium, you could feel the electricity. As you know, it was a tight game the entire way. Biggest upset for me was having two Penn State fans sit behind me, telling me we were going to win and actually seemed to feel bad at the outcome. This loss felt like I got punched and kicked in the stomach multiple times over and walking out of the stadium was a blur. The only positive was the magic cookie bars my wife had made us that we had waiting for the car ride home.
1) 2012 Louisville 20 Rutgers 17
This was another Thursday night game on ESPN, six years later after Rutgers had their historic win over Louisville. This time the stakes were even higher, with the winner heading to the BCS Bowl as the Big East champion. Year one of Kyle Flood as head coach was mostly about inheriting arguably the best defense in Rutgers history, a nice parting gift from Greg Schiano. There were actually eight players on both offense and defense that have spent some time in the NFL, which only makes me more angry as I write this. This team was flat out stacked, but suffered from inconsistency at quarterback with Gary Nova still trying to figure things out.
Let’s skip to halftime for this story. Rutgers led 14-3 and a severely hobbled Teddy Bridgewater, the star QB for Louisville, had barely played. Rutgers dominated the first half, but should have been leading by more. In the concourse during the break, my friend, who I love dearly, starts to loudly declare that Rutgers is going to the Sugar Bowl and there is no chance they lose this game. Being a grizzled veteran at the ripe age of 36, I immediately demanded he not only shut his mouth, but that he take back the blasphemy that he just uttered. He tried to talk me into admitting it was going to happen. I was furious and he just kept going on. I was instantly sick to my stomach and walked away. I knew Rutgers blew some opportunities in that first half and my friend’s boasting felt like the kiss of death. I just knew fate of this game was sealed, but I was trying to pretend that it wasn't true.
Cue the second half beginning and Rutgers pulling off a tremendous trick play, with D.C. Jefferson scoring a touchdown on a fake field goal from a pass by holder T.J. Tartacoff. In arguably the most gut wrenching call I can remember as a Rutgers football fan, the refs called an illegal man down field penalty, which had zero impact on the play. Instead of leading 21-3, the score was erased and the collapse began. Bridgewater staged a ridiculous comeback, essentially on one leg. I still remember Nova’s wounded duck on the last drive that resulted in an interception. It sat in the air for what felt like forever, as no Rutgers receiver was within 7-10 yards of the throw. For the record, I recalled this game and season when Nova played so well in 2014, particularly the Michigan victory.
I am still good friends with the person who said what he said at halftime. In fact, the story of that night was retold by another friend at his wedding. The reality is he didn’t actually jinx the game. I blame Kyle Flood for failing to get the most out of that team. It was like having a finely tuned race car and giving it to a driver with a permit. Disaster is fated to ensue.
That was the longest walk I ever made out of the stadium. I haven't ever gotten over that loss and I never will. I hate when anyone brings up that Flood brought Rutgers a Big East championship that season. I don’t count a four way tie. And he didn’t win the Big East championship, he lost it.
And that my friends are the salty tales of my Rutgers football fandom. We'll save basketball for another day. Please share the toughest losses you've experienced in the comment section below. Let’s toast to better days ahead in the 2017 season!