Penn State History: The Lehigh Lashing

On November 11, 1889, Penn State suffered their worst loss in football history falling to Lehigh 106-0. And it might have been worse if the Lehigh head coach and the official had not decided to mercifully end the game with five minutes to go. By today's standards it seems unbelievable that the Nittany Lions could fall to the Mountain Hawks by such a lopsided score, but there are explanations. Part of it was due to a masterful strategy by Lehigh, and part of it was due to poor scheduling and just dumb luck. There might have been a little extortion involved too.

The forward pass was still several years away from being invented in 1889, so offenses basically consisted of a mass of players pushing their way down the field. The most feared formation was the dreaded "Flying Wedge", and Lehigh coach Jake Robeson coached it better than anyone.

The flying wedge was basically a formation where blockers formed a circle around the ball carrier and locked arms. Then they pushed their way down the field punching, kicking, and stomping everything in their path. When run effectively, there was little that the defense could do to bring down the ball carrier. In fact, the best defense anyone could come up with was to throw themselves into the legs of the lead blockers hoping to trip them up and bring the wedge to a stop. When the Penn State players returned to campus after the game, guard Charlie Aull said, "We couldn't get at the son-of-a-bitch with the ball." 

 

 

In the days before helmets and pads, the wedge was an extremely dangerous tactic. It was quite common for players to be seriously injured or killed in trying to defend it. In fact, several of the rules in place today originated from attempts to outlaw the wedge. This is why seven men must be on the line of scrimmage and only one man is allowed in motion parallel to the line of scrimmage prior to the snap.

It's quite possible that the Penn State players were pretty tired and banged up prior to the game. That's because they played a game against Lafayette just two days earlier. It was pretty common to play a few games as part of a road trip back then. There were no charter jets. Heck, the automobile was still about ten years away, and interstate highways wouldn't come around for almost another 60 years. In order to get out of State College, the players, and any fans that accompanied them, had to ride by stage coach out to the train station in Lemont, which is roughly where modern day Route 322 meets East College Avenue. From there they had to ride by train 60 miles to Lewisburg, which took several hours. From there they could pick up a train to Philadelphia. Once in the Philadelphia, it was common to see them play a few teams in order to keep the travel time and costs down. And as you can imagine, getting teams to come to State College was like pulling teeth. Who wants to take a three or four day trip up into the mountains when you have several universities you can play right there in the Philadelphia area?

After the game against Lafayette and prior to the game against Lehigh, Penn State captain Charles Hildebrand and two other players went to Philadelphia to attend the funeral of Hildebrand's younger sister. The three men did not make it back to the game until the first half was nearly complete, and Penn State was forced to start the game with just nine players. Lehigh had rolled up a 56-0 lead by halftime. In retrospect, the Penn State players said they probably should have waited until their teammates arrived, but Lehigh had threatened to withhold Penn State's travel compensation of $25 if the game didn't start on time. Football was not a revenue generating sport back then, and $25 was a lot of money. Especially for some poor college kids that needed the money to buy their train tickets back to State College.

Thankfully, none of the Penn State players died or suffered serious injury against the wedge that day, though you can be sure it was a long train ride back to State College. Two weeks later they defeated hated rival Bucknell 12-0 on the Old Main lawn on Thanksgiving Day to salvage a 2-2 season. But they didn't get another crack at revenge against Lehigh until 1901. Penn State won that game 38-0.

(H/T to Lou Prato's Penn State Football Encyclopedia from which much of this information was found.)

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