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Dreaming of Rutgers, not Maryland, as Oregon of the East

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Oregon has Nike, but Terps have Under Armour.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Rutgers
Lots of black magic in this contest.
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland came into town (not Yankee Stadium) Saturday for the annual Big Ten East’s Easternmost tilt which may one day have a rivalry trophy attached to it. Rutgers has declared the game a “blackout” and had some pretty good performances in night games wearing the black uniforms in the last decade. They added another with a 31-24 victory Saturday Night.

Even after returning to a more conventional look from the more Knight-like outfits in 2015, the team plans to keep the blackout tradition. Chris Ash talked about how Maryland has fast players with good “body control”. Is that true or is it an illusion brought on by the Terps never-ending supply of different, often-black, bling supplied by their biggest benefactor, Under Armour? In 2011 I had a vision that Rutgers could model their program after Oregon, but Maryland may have beaten them to it, drawing first blood at least.

In 2011 Rutgers bounced back to a bowl bid from a terrible 2010 season where defensive emotional leader Eric LeGrand was paralyzed and the team surrendered 61 sacks on offense. The 2011 uniforms worn at Yankee Stadium had a different yet clean feel, the helmet particularly was a great tribute to the patriotism of both the opponent (the Army Black Knights) and anniversary of 9/11. This put the first thought in my head of comparing what was going on the other side of the country where the Oregon Ducks were wrapping up their third consecutive Pac-12 championship, all of which resulted in a BCS bowl game. The Ducks were in the midst of a relationship with Nike that saw a different uniform almost weekly, some being hideous, but people around the country took notice of both their play on the field as well as the look.

With the talent at the skill positions evident returning to Rutgers in 2012, the team on the upswing, and a shift to the controversial Nike Knight like, salmon trimmed threads, my dream seemed on pace even if the team remained in the tumultuous Big East. The Scarlet Knights generated huge momentum, starting 7-0 in the Big East as rumors started circulating that Maryland was in talks with the Big Ten. Many of us rightfully concluded it meant a 14th team would also be needed and Rutgers logically should be the front runner for that spot.

Suddenly, the wheels fell off as the team was stunned by Kent State then had to only win one of the final two games to reach a BCS game. With shifty, star running back Jawan Jamison injured they fell badly to Pitt and then lost the game against Louisville where there are too many what ifs to list them all here. An ugly bowl 13-10 OT loss against former Big East foe Virginia Tech where neither team seemed to want to win was completely absent of offensive playmaking. At least the defense looked tough and fast. The Oregon dream was still alive because the Scarlet Knights future Big Ten “rival” Terrapins despite the beginnings of UA investment were a dismal 4-8 in Randy Edsall’s second year. Fans of the tortoise were calling for the return of Ralph Friedgen.

Let’s take a moment to dive into what my dream entailed:

  1. Recognizable school branding. The uniforms surely help in this area especially in recruiting. I’m a more traditional sports fan who likes basic uniforms, hates the designated hitter, hates the 3-pointer in basketball, etc. But the uniforms make a difference when recruits come and get their picture taken. Rutgers when they struggle is hurt by their name not being that of a state (i.e. Rice and Purdue), but I think if they turned the corner could have even more success in branding than a similar team that’s just the name of the state. If Rutgers and Maryland were both top 10 teams (wishful thinking) the average person may hear Maryland and think of crabcakes. When they hear Rutgers they will think the football team, or school at least. Notre Dame is traditionally good so that is an outlier, but what about BYU, SMU, or even Clemson?
  2. Explosive playmaking. The type that casual fans will want to tune in for. This is really a double because let’s take other examples from #1, Baylor and TCU. A few short years ago people tuned in for Baylor and TCU because they knew video game offense would be put up. Boise State captured the country’s imagination with a hook and ladder (or lateral if that’s your preference) punctuated by a Statue of Liberty. This unstoppable attack has rarely been the hallmark of a Knights club outside of this, this, and that. This is crucial when you don’t have an edge when playing straight up against division foes and also allows your team to come back when trailing big.
  3. An opportunistic defense. Purists point out that scoring too quickly or simply going three and out way too fast prevents your defense from resting. That is true, so if you have #2 above, your defense has to be resilient and force turnovers to win. Often it is not the most talented players who have a knack for this, but tough kids who never give up.
  4. Venue & Northern cold weather. This is where a combination of #2, #3, and the elements can simply cause an opponent to roll over and die, especially late in the season. Oregon doesn’t have an edge over OSU, WSU, or Washington in this regard, but stealing a home win from USC, UCLA, Arizona, or Arizona State does. I mean with a lesser team, Oregon State embarrassed USC in 2010 in these type conditions.
  5. Local flavor++. Plus some guys from outside the area. This strategy was made most famous by Howard Schnellenberger who sought to keep all the Miami talent in Miami hence the birth of “The U”. That was enhanced by adding a key player here and there from outside the area. Take too many guys from outside the area and you may have the initial struggle of Coach Mac in Colorado bringing too many Los Angeles players, though they righted the ship in a big way. Perhaps Rutgers can use New York instead of LA as the mining ground. Greg Schiano tried to use this strategy of keeping top players at home, adding some Florida speed along with it. Wisconsin does this very well as Wisconsin natives want to play there and when you add a guy like Ron Dayne, Corey Clement, or Jonathan Taylor, magic happens.
Louisville Cardinals v Rutgers Scarlet Knights
There may never have been a faster Scarlet Knight than Tim Brown (#2).
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

So, Rutgers was destined for the Big Ten and fans had plenty of optimism heading into a bridge 2013 American Athletic Conference season. The first game kicked off super late on the East Coast against Fresno State and featured plenty of playmaking above in the anti-thesis of northern cold weather (a cross-country night game in 100 degree temperatures). Rutgers lost 52-51 in overtime, but Janarion Grant returned his first touch for a TD, Leonte Carroo seemingly came out of nowhere, and walk-on Paul James was awesome so the future of the offense looked bright. Perhaps it was the expectations, an inexperienced secondary (too much playmaking from other teams and not enough opportunistic defense from RU), and a team just saving it for the Big Ten, but Rutgers got embarrassed several times (branding fail) and what was at one point the best recruiting class in school history (perfect infusion of local talent) evaporated midseason. Luckily, the elements saved the day as Rutgers needed to win their last game against South Florida to achieve bowl eligibility and salvage a forgettable season. They did as USF did not want to be up north on a cold night, then Rutgers saved face against the king of branding, Notre Dame, with a moral victory in the Pinstripe Bowl when it easily could have been a blowout. The dream was on life support with several potentially awful seasons on the horizon.

2014 began with fears of a 2-10 season and in the Big Ten, plus the home field advantage of weather and fan base was all but erased against other northern schools with tons of alumni in the New York and Philly areas used to the late season weather. Speaking of cold, Ralph “The Fridge” Friedgen came out of retirement though to inject excitement into an offense that returned everyone but superstar yet injured wideout Brandon Coleman. It worked and the team shocked virtually everyone with the entire state getting behind them again as the team was led by a local quarterback-wideout tandem (Gary Nova-Carroo) and a walk-on running back from Glassboro (James). They sat 6-5 after some big offense when needed and some key turnovers, most notably in the form of a blocked kick to defeat struggling powerhouse Michigan (huge boost for branding). Potential rival Maryland seemed to be the better team, but Rutgers erased a 25 point deficit in the season finale to reach 7-5. No, Rutgers did not win the state of Delaware but drew first blood on the field anyway in electrifying fashion and earn title of best team of the northeast. Then the Knights absolutely annihilated North Carolina’s vaunted offense and strong brand in a bowl game even if their football team was a .500 club. So despite the money Maryland was accumulating, it was edge Rutgers as the Terrapins hungover from the RU debacle were trucked by Stanford in their bowl appearance.

What I didn’t realize was how much off the field went into this branding. In August 2015 the New York Times published an article describing how UA (Under Armour, not United Airlines) was taking the exact same approach as Nike did in Oregon. Kevin Plank, the founder of UA, is a Maryland graduate who seeks to replicate what Phil Knight did in Eugene. This $30+ million explains a lot more about how Maryland can have so many different uniforms and draws recruits above what you would think.

This story was much more interesting than the play on the field in 2015 as Rutgers was crippled on and off the gridiron with a series of scandals losing all momentum from 2014. They did almost pull out a miracle win in a raucous atmosphere against undefeated and future college football playoff participant Michigan State, who seemed to have perfected the recipe to compete in the Big Ten East. It was a blackout game where two jersey kids (Carroo was making plays everywhere and Kiy Hester added an interecption in the end zone) that the Spartans did not want to be a part of it seemed. Despite all the problems, Rutgers came into the season finale against Maryland where a win would almost surely mean a bowl invite even at 5-7 due to the team’s solid APR for a long period of time. This time Maryland returned the favor as an unstoppable rushing attack awoke after 10 weeks of Terrapin loses, spoiling the Knights hope that 2015 was simply a bump in the road. So Rutgers and Maryland were back to square one on the hunt for new coaches.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Rutgers
Rutgers has reverted to a more classic look, but UMD pushes limits.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Then in 2016 The Terps and Knights poached the defensive coordinators from the Big Ten’s powerhouse programs keeping the measuring stick handy. Drew Mehringer was brought in as offensive coordinator though and most Rutgers fans felt a spread system was exactly what the team needed to at least be able to keeps things interesting against the Power teams. This was a disaster and arguably the greatest hit ever to the brand was a 78-0 drubbing to Michigan not only devoid of explosive offensive plays, but without even an offensive first down until midway through the fourth quarter. Despite record number of plays and yardage allowed, the defense could never get a sack or a fumble or any big play either. To make matters worse, Michigan’s Heisman candidate was local product Jabrill Peppers who wildcatted on offense, was everywhere on defense and special teams. At one point one of our great readers asked the question, “How much crap football have Carroo and Grant covered up the last few years?” further illuminating the need for playmaking as part of the big picture.

The 2016 finale was then 2015 all over again with the roles reversed as Rutgers looked to play spoiler from a Terps Bowl bid after a really soft schedule. Despite a fairly even game by most metrics, Maryland had way too many offensive playmakers with some opportunistic D for RU who had none of either. Rutgers ended up losing 31-13 in the season finale at Maryland and the difference on the field was evident, “speed.” Edge: Maryland.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Maryland
Both teams have struggled to keep their footing at times in the Big Ten.
Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

“We have to get faster,” Chris Ash said. That’s what the staff attempted to do with the 2017 recruiting class with a similar eye toward 2018. With five true freshman wideouts (all local) plus grayshirt Eddie Lewis and electric Raheem Blackshear (a solid flip from Michigan State), the offense hasn’t quite yet figured out how to utilize the full personnel. Defensively, four of the five true freshman linebackers have already made an impact on special teams (four are from NY/NJ and the 5th was poached from Maryland), but not in base D or even special packages yet. The defensive backfield did not get the jolt it needed and Jawuan Harris had to switch sides of the ball. Harris has unfused some big plays into the D already netted two interceptions. With so many players back in the secondary in 2018, a sprinkle of a little more speed could make the group an elite unit under a set of four coaches who all specialize in that area (Ash, Niemann, Busch, and Baker).

Offensively, Rutgers has its fastest, most explosive healthy one-two punch of Grant (though he had to sit out v UMD) and Blackshear since probably the trio of Tim Brown, Tiquan Underwood, and Kenny Britt as the nj.com writers pointed out on their podcast this week. On the other side Maryland boasts several speed demons of their own. D.J. Moore and Ty Johnson who the Knights contained enough for a win. Maryland (Testudo Times) and Rutgers OTB bloggers both seem encouraged and the game was about as even as it could have been, luckily Rutgers pulled it out. The two teams seem as even as can be on the field.

Longer term, the Terrapins have plenty of exciting quarterbacks returning in 2018 with experience to go along with a recruiting class way above Rutgers at the moment even after top ranked QB prospect Artur Sitkowski flipped from #8 ranked and undefeated Miami to Rutgers earlier this week. Though he is currently at IMG in Florida, he is a New Jersey product and average people just see that a recruit flipped from Miami to Rutgers. Maryland’s facilities will be among the best in the Big Ten by 2018. On the flip side, Under Armour stock has dropped from $33 dollars per share to $12 though I’m sure their founder is probably doing just fine. The company has taken a major hit and is in as much turmoil as Maryland’s administration. Though probably not on the level of RU in 2015, the downside of too many power donors can result in instability of the athletic program.

Rutgers finishes their season with Michigan State this year and next. Then it’s Penn State closing out the regular season in 2019. This rotation seems logical as the Big Ten East already has two last week games locked in annually: Michigan-Ohio State and the only protected crossover matchup between in-state rivals Indiana and Purdue. So that leaves the Big Ten East to rotate the other four teams’ finales until a true rivalry emerges. Rutgers expressed more interest than Maryland of the two schools in solidifying their rivalry. Rutgers and Maryland both want to be a rival of PSU, though the Nittany Lions want to be “unrivaled” and have gotten the better of both Red and Black squads thus far.

Will UA’s generosity continue to elevate the Terps above the Knights? Will someone else like Adidas relish this opportunity for competition with UA? Will UA go out of style? With another classic on Saturday, the two programs forever linked for joining the Big Ten at the same time may be destined for what seems inevitable, an annual year-end clash with Rutgers the more traditional, Maryland the trendier. Right now my Oregon dream for Rutgers is off life support with a third ugly Big Ten win.

Sound off in the comments below. Do you have a vision like this one or perhaps some other for what Rutgers football should be? Perhaps a Wisconsin type, or Michigan State. Maybe you think they should be after that early 90s Colorado Buffaloes model of focusing on NYC kids as opposed to what coach Mac did in LA. Or maybe Schiano copying Howard Schnellenberger was right ...

Poll

What program do you think Rutgers should model itself after at this point?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    A: Still Oregon, maybe Adidas can help out.
    (14 votes)
  • 37%
    B: Michigan State, they have the recipe to compete with the Big Three in the B1G East.
    (137 votes)
  • 26%
    C: Wisconsin. Best able to bring top in-state talent, even walk-ons.
    (95 votes)
  • 1%
    D: Early 90s Colorado Buffaloes. Make it the destination for city kids.
    (7 votes)
  • 30%
    E: Old Miami/Schiano. Keep best kids home and only top guys (speed) from elsewhere.
    (112 votes)
365 votes total Vote Now