I can’t imagine the attendance was greater than 10,000 on that October day in 1996. Coming off a 4-7 record the previous season, now with a new Head Coach, and entering the game with an 0-6 record against D1 (now FBS) competition (the Knights beat D1-AA Villanova in the season-opener), it was much of the same for Rutgers football fans. It was just the 6th year of the school’s Big East membership, following 28 years playing as an Independent (Rutgers had a short stint in the Middle Atlantic Conference from 1958-61), and attending a Rutgers game was more of a spontaneous decision on a sunny Saturday than a pre-planned commitment for most.
I was 9, and this Rutgers-Temple game on October 26, 1996 was my first ever, accompanied by my mom (Rutgers College class of 1981), dad, grandmother, and brother (Rutgers class of 2014). There was little reason for a casual fan to make a commitment to watching the game. At the time and at that young age, that’s precisely what I was. But on that day, I learned a valuable lesson on why to watch Rutgers football: it makes the unexpected that much more satisfying.
With under a minute left in regulation, the Scarlet Knights had a 21-17 lead over the Owls, but Temple was driving, getting the ball down to the Rutgers 1-yard-line. I recall my mom remarking that it was just “much of the same” for Rutgers football, expecting a last-minute loss to sink the team to 1-7. But Temple fumbled. Rutgers recovered. And Rutgers then produced a 90+ yard rush on the following play to seal the victory.
We stayed for the entirety of the game. Perhaps enjoying the sunny weather more so than the lackluster play, but we watched nonetheless. We watched because we were (and are) Rutgers fans. And we got to see a W.
The Scarlet Knights finished the season 2-9, with that victory over Temple as their only Big East win, and the following three seasons with Terry Shea as the Rutgers coach produced records of 0-11, 5-6, 1-10 and 3-8. Fast forward over 20 years later, and Rutgers fans have witnessed somewhat similar back-to-back seasons. Sure, 2017 saw 3 Big Ten wins, but it was much of the same with real competition. The Miami’s and West Virginia’s of the old Big East (the Hurricanes moved to the ACC in 2004) have been replaced with Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and others for Rutgers’ foes. During that 1996 season, Rutgers endured losses of 33-0 to Miami (at that time ranked No. 10 in the country), 55-14 to West Virginia, and 62-0 to Notre Dame (also ranked No. 10 in the country for that game). There’s an eerie similarity between Rutgers first handful of seasons (and perhaps even first 10 seasons) in the Big East to the beginning of their Big Ten tenure, 2014 aside.
But I still watch. I always watch. I have not missed a game for the last 15 years. I was there for Louisville. I was there for South Florida. I made sure to attend the bowl game at Yankee Stadium against Iowa State. Some of my friends and colleagues suggest my affinity for the “Kool-Aid,” but I’m okay with that. Because those same people know my deep commitment and loyalty to the Scarlet Knights. There’s never a question of “did you see the Rutgers game?” It’s a foregone conclusion that I saw it, watched the whole thing, and have a boatload of analysis ready to discuss. The thing about watching Rutgers Football is that it’s a program that can’t survive an extreme drop-off in interest or attendance, especially considering High Point Solutions Stadium’s capacity pales in comparison to the Big House, Beaver Stadium, the Horseshoe, Camp Randall, etc. It thrives on viewership, attendance, and enthusiasm. The school has a major market in New York and is just an hour or so away from Philadelphia (insert bitter comment about South Jersey students rooting for/attending Penn State here). I suppose I’m a glutton for punishment being a Rutgers, Philadelphia, and Cleveland fan, but I don’t waiver in my support. But I watch because I know there will be an upset. I know there will be a bowl game. I know there will be a satisfying future. I know there will be future NFL players. There’s proof of all of that.
But it starts with alumni. It’s the alumni that still attend games and don’t live in the area that is the epitome of dedication, it’s the alumni who donate money to the program (how about that Marco Battaglia Complex, eh?!) that keeps them competitive with larger programs, and it’s the alumni that pass on the support and enthusiasm to the next generation that keep the Scarlet spirit alive. The students will show up to the games. Sometimes in droves and sometimes rather scarcely, but they’ll get on the L or the LX (they still running those?) and make their way to High Point Solutions Stadium. Sure, their punctual arrival and week-in and week-out commitment cannot be understated when presenting recruits with the atmosphere and creating a deafening shout, but it’s more difficult for alumni, at the end of long work weeks, with financial obligations. And those are precisely the ones that show what it means to bleed Scarlet.
This has been rather anecdotal so far, so let me dive a bit into the specifics of why I watched Rutgers in 2017, and why I’ll be watching yet again in 2018.
WHY I WATCHED IN 2017 (and reflections)
1. Jerry Kill: Another season, another Offensive Coordinator
2017 marked the umpteenth offensive coordinator in as many years. 2014 was exciting when Ralph Friedgen came in and ran the offense but I think many knew the realistic possibility of a 1-year tenure; the arrival of Jerry Kill, however, brought about both anticipation and caution, as the former Minnesota Head Coach was returning from a hiatus due to his seizures. I disagreed with Kill a lot out of the gate, but as the season progressed, it became abundantly clear that he had squat to work with. Janarion Grant, arguably their only weapon, was in-and-out of the lineup, Johnathan Lewis struggled in limited action and was hampered by an injury, and Gio Rescigno—despite his work ethic, attitude, and resiliency—was just so painful to watch. Historically, Rutgers performs well with a ground-first approach, but with a complete inability to throw the ball, Kill’s offensive play-calls were predictable…understandably. Huge credit to the offensive line for still allowing guys like Gus Edwards and Raheem Blackshear to rip off big runs against stacked boxes.
2. Incoming Freshmen Skill Players
I was excited to see if Johnathan Lewis, Raheem Blackshear, Bo Melton and Hunter Hayek would see game action, and how often they were used. Here’s an obvious observation: Raheem Blackshear was the star of this freshman class. He was the beneficiary of settling into a loaded RB corps and therefore wasn’t asked to be the bellcow, allowing him to stay fresh. I liked how the offense gradually brought him into game action and though I thought he could have been used more towards the end of the season considering he’ll likely be receiving 15+ touches per game next year, it was a good season for the freshman. Bo Melton, the 4-star WR, was simply the victim of an anemic passing game. Melton boasts incredible speed, and is a legitimate deep threat and all-around wide receiver, but he was simply a non-factor all season long. I didn’t really expect Johnathan Lewis to be heavily involved as a freshman, but considering there were so many games already out of hand by half-time, there was no need to keep Rescigno in, as long as Lewis was healthy. I think that was one of my bigger beefs with the offensive playcalling.
3. Janarion Grant’s Final Season...
…was a bummer. The fifth-year senior who nearly declared for the NFL draft after his stellar 2015 season again couldn’t stay healthy, appearing in only 7 games and posting 16/167/1 receiving and 7/74/1 rushing. He also failed to score either a punt-return or kick-return TD after totaling 5 in his first 4 seasons. There were flashes here and there, including his long TD run against Michigan, but he was sorely inefficient and sorely missed. Granted, I do still believe he’ll be a late-round draft pick for a team willing to take a gamble based on his first three seasons at Rutgers and his special teams excellence, but Grant, unfortunately, finished his Rutgers career with two lost seasons.
4. Couldn’t Be Worse than 2016, Right?
It looked like it actually could get worse, as Rutgers’ competitive game against Washington in the season-opener was basically erased and forgotten about because of the Eastern Michigan loss (not to rub it in Rutgers fans, but EMU finished 2nd to last in the MAC West). It was the lowest of the low in years—worse than any major blowout by Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin or Michigan in the preceding years—because Eastern Michigan had never beaten a team from a Power 5 conference. But thanks to a fairly kind schedule, 2017 was still significantly better than 2016. I still went into the Ohio State and Penn State games expecting a blowout, but had hopes for the Michigan game—which wasn’t too bad through the first 20 minutes—had high hopes for the Purdue and Illinois games, and was excited about the Maryland game. Sure, it’s not an official rivalry as of now, but considering the B1G newcomers are 2-2 thus far, it should make for some exciting football games in the near future.
WHY I’LL BE WATCHING IN 2018
1. The Quarterback Competition
Over the last 2 years, we’ve seen the likes of Gio Rescigno, Chris Laviano, Hayden Rettig, and Kyle Bolin duke it out during preseason (and in-season) competition. Now, we’ll get to see some young, heated competition between Johnathan Lewis and incoming freshmen Jalen Chatman and Arthur Sitkowski (and perhaps Rescigno still). At this point, I can’t confidently say who I believe will have the edge, considering Lewis apparently still has a long way to go as a passer. If I had to put my money on it, Ash won’t name a starter until late August.
2. Offensive Coordinator Consistency
If Kill stays, it will be the first year Rutgers has kept an OC since Kyle Flood was the co-offensive coordinator in the 2009 and 2010 seasons. There’s been no consistency in the offensive play-calling for the most part because of the OC carousel, which understandably has stunted the growth of many players. If Jerry Kill stays, he’ll have an entire offseason to work with the young crop of players that played as freshmen this year, most notably Johnathan Lewis.
3. Good Chance for a Bowl Berth
Yes, Rutgers has to play Wisconsin again as part of their Big Ten schedule, but Ws over Texas St., Kansas, Buffalo and Illinois can probably be penciled in, and 2 out of 3 against Maryland, Northwestern and Indiana is possible. A 6-6 record and bowl berth for Chris Ash could go a long way and reassure impatient fans and donors that his recent extension was deserved.
4. The Secondary
There are plenty of playmakers in this deep secondary and it seems like they all take turns making plays, but haven’t quite found the weekly dominance some were expecting. There’s been the hashtag #DBU over the last year or so on Twitter, and while Rutgers is known for producing NFL-quality cornerbacks and safeties, this team still has plenty of Swiss cheese games. In 2016, the Rutgers secondary was in the top-20, allowing just 186.5 passing YPG. 2017 was rough, however, as they fell out of the top-50, allowed 216.8 passing YPG, and star CB Blessaun Austin sustained a torn ACL after the Nebraska game, ending his season. But 2018 provides some hope...Austin will hopefully return healthy, Kiy Hester, Saquon Hampton, and Isaiah Wharton will all be seniors, and KJ Gray and Damon Hayes will have another year under their belt. Make no mistake, this is a deep and talented secondary.
I think a lot of other fan-bases from middle-tier programs can benefit from this kind of thinking. Look at Central Florida, an 0-11 team in 2015 now on the brink of going 12-0 and [hopefully] to a major bowl game. Rooting for ya! Hey, Boise St. fans, remember those 3-8, 2-10 and 4-7 seasons in the 1990s? Bearcat fans, were those seasons in the late 80s/early 90s any fun? Trust me, I’m not delusional enough to think that a comparison can be made between the American Athletic Conference or the Mountain West Conference (or the now-disintegrated Western Athletic Conference) to the Big Ten East, but Boise State’s 2006 season culminated with a Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma, a Power 5 team. Central Florida’s 2013 season culminated with a victory over Baylor, another Power 5 team. In the foreseeable future, Rutgers will not defeat Ohio State, nor will they beat Wisconsin. Nebraska, however? Michigan State, perhaps? Michigan, for a second time? Even Penn State on a bad day? Maybe. That possibility alone is reason enough to watch our Scarlet Knights.
So this is why we watch. Rutgers still might be the measuring stick for mediocrity, at best, until perception is changed. But while public perception starts with on-the-field play, the ability to recruit and staying informed cannot be overstated. And that starts with watching every week, with support, enthusiasm, and optimism. It’s a good way of putting it, frankly, because when it comes to college football, remember…it all started here.
Hey Rutgers fans! Follow me on Twitter at @bKukainis.