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The History of the Penn State - Syracuse Rivalry

This is Part One of a two part series examining the rivalry between the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Syracuse Orange. This series originally ran a year ago, but since the two teams are meeting this weekend for the last time in the foreseeable future, I thought it would be appropriate to run it again. Part II will run tomorrow.

When I was a young boy growing up in the 80's I never understood our rivalry with Syracuse. But I knew there were three teams my grandfather hated more than any other: Pitt, Notre Dame, and Syracuse. I was young and you couldn't get all the games on television back then, so my obsession with all things Penn State football didn't really kick in until around 1986. It was only four years later until the Nittany Lions and the Orange played their last game in 1990.

As I cruised the message boards and blogs this week it has been interesting to see the different levels of anticipation. Older fans have had this game circled on their calendar since the ink dried on the contract a few years ago and are really looking forward to putting the hurt on our old nemisis. But I've also seen inquisitive younger fans struggle to understand why we should care about this game any more than Temple or Coastal Carolina. In fact this week our own Anthony Scirrotto had this to say.

How aware is the team of the history of the rivalry between Penn State and Syracuse?

To be honest, I'm not very familiar with the rivalry. Before practice yesterday, coach Paterno talked to us about how big this game is. From their standpoint, there's going to be a lot of people there, very famous people. Jim Brown's going to be there. It's going to be a packed house. He mentioned other names that I don't really remember but he said it's going to be a big game.

To a certain extent I include myself in this group of ignorant fans. As I said above, I never really lived during the glory days of this rivalry. So I started reading up on it earlier this week. Soon I realized this is a rivalry that has it all. A long history. Frustrating losses. Gut wrenching upsets. Demoralizing beatdowns. Epic battles for eastern supremacy. Biased officiating. Animosity between coaches. And even fist fights on the field. For younger fans like myself, this is a story that needs to be told and passed down through generations. This post will attempt to do that. I only hope I can do it justice.

In The Beginning

Penn State and Syracuse met for the first time at the Polo Grounds in New York in 1922. Penn State had firmly established itself as the dominant team in the east by that time. They were riding a 29 game unbeaten streak and had accepted an invitation to the Rose Bowl prior to the 1922 season. They were easily favored to win, but Syracuse played an excellent game. State knocked on the goal line several times in the first half, but Syracuse stopped them each time. But then Penn State's star fullback Mike Palm got injured and the referees refused to allow him to keep playing. After that the Penn State offense could not move the ball. It was Syracuse who had several scoring threats in the second half, but they too were turned away by the stout Nittany Lion defense. The game ended in a 0-0 tie, but everyone considered it a victory for the Orange.

The next several years saw Penn State go through a lot of soul searching as a university and football team. Athletic scholarships were eliminated in 1927 as the university wanted to focus more attention on scholastics. The Penn State football program suffered mightily. Over the next 18 years from 1923 to 1940 Penn State would only manage four wins and four ties against the school from up north. You can only imagine the utter frustration in State College as seven of the ten losses were by a touchdown or less. As Penn State slipped into mediocrity, the Syracuse program filled the power vacuum and established itself as the new Beast of the East.

Year Home/Away Penn State Syracuse Win/Loss
1922 New York 0 0 Tie
1923 Away 0 10 Loss
1924 Away 6 10 Loss
1925 Away 0 7 Loss
1926 Home 0 10 Loss
1927 Away 9 6 Win
1928 Home 6 6 Tie
1929 Away 6 4 Win
1930 Home 0 0 Win
1931 Away 0 7 Loss
1932 Home 6 12 Loss
1933 Away 6 12 Loss
1934 Home 0 16 Loss
1935 Away 3 7 Loss
1936 Home 18 0 Win
1937 Away 13 19 Loss
1938 Home 33 6 Win
1939 Away 6 6 Tie
1940 Away 13 13 Tie

The 1940's - The Lions Strike Back

By the 1940's, Bob Higgins had the Penn State program back on track to its winning ways. Syracuse, on the other hand, went through a mediocre stretch of its own only managing two winning seasons during the decade. And Penn State was all too happy to put the beatdown on the school that had nearly dominated them the first two decades of the rivalry. Penn State won eight straight times from 1941-1949, and only the 1942 game was close. State shut out the Orangemen four straight years from 1944 through 1947. Each game got meaner and nastier as Syracuse refused to come to grips with the fact these boys from the farmer school in the Pennsylvania hills were whipping their butt.

Year Home/Away Penn State Syracuse Win/Loss
1941 Home 34 19 Win
1942 Home 18 13 Win
1944 Away 41 0 Win
1945 Home 26 0 Win
1946 Away 9 0 Win
1947 Home 40 0 Win
1948 Away 34 14 Win
1949 Home 33 21 Win

But the best days of this rivalry were yet to come. Tomorrow we'll cover the epic battles of the 1950'sand 1960's in great detail and discuss the utter dominance of the Joe Paterno era.