Former conference foe Boston College visits Piscataway this Saturday for the first time in 16 years and for most Rutgers fans, this is a big game for several reasons. Some carry ill will towards the Eagles after their departure from the former Big East help lead to the end of that conference. They are also a regional rival who have met 26 times previously, with BC going 12-0-1 in the last 13 meetings. There are many more reasons than that to make this a very big game for Rutgers and arguably the most important of head coach Chris Ash’s tenure.
Of course, the most obvious reason this is so is it’s an opportunity for Rutgers to prove that true progress is possible this season after a troublesome performance two weeks ago at Iowa. Rutgers desperately needs some positive momentum to build off of and hopefully the bye week helped reset the focus of the team ahead of Boston College. I’ve talked before about having such micro expectations for this program like making it out September with some hope still intact. A win Saturday would certainly do that, while a loss would put hope on life support on the first official day of fall.
One area that I think should be a major concern is the confidence level and mindset of this Rutgers team. They endured a lot of losing last season and with most of the same personnel having returned, it’s fair to wonder how this team will react if they fall behind against Boston College early in the game. Last year, if they fell behind by two scores, the game was pretty much over. The same thing happened two weeks ago at Iowa. Something has to change. Rutgers either needs to start fast or show more resolve than in the past by fighting back.
Changing perception around the program, both inside it and within the Big Ten, winning this game is hugely important. Two weeks ago, Ash was asked ahead of the Iowa game about the importance of producing a signature win for the program. His response was “we’re worried about just trying to get better and we’re trying to play the best we can on Saturday. I don’t care who it is we play against. So you know, they are all signature wins. Last Friday night was a signature win. They are all the same.”
I respectfully disagree with this notion. Beating Iowa would have been a huge narrative changer for this season and for the Ash era. It didn’t come close to happening, but that’s not the point.
The reality is Rutgers has lost 15 consecutive Big Ten games and while BC is no longer a conference foe, it’s a power five team that’s gone to a bowl game five of the past six seasons. While Rutgers won three Big Ten games in Ash’s second season, Purdue and Maryland are his best wins to date and neither had a winning campaign that year. Beating BC, while they may be in line for a down season after last week’s blowout loss to Kansas at home, it would still certainly be the best non-conference win of Ash’s tenure.
At this week’s press conference ahead of Saturday’s game, Ash was asked about the importance of beating Boston College from a recruiting perspective. He responded, “No. Our focus is on our improvement, that’s it. This is a big game and like we’ve said -- I’ve said since we started, every game’s a big game for us and our focus is just on our process of trying to improve every single day. Every team we play pretty much recruits in the State of New Jersey. Boston College because of proximity recruits here a little bit more because it’s so close. But every game is a big game and our focus is not on the game right now. Let’s try and have a great Monday and go have a great Tuesday practice.”
Boston College has 17 players on its current roster from New Jersey. In reviewing the rosters of the six Big Ten East opponents that Rutgers plays every season, there are only 22 New Jersey players combined on those teams. The bulk of them play for Penn State (9), Michigan (5) and Ohio State (5). Those three programs have taken the best talent from New Jersey for decades and well before Chris Ash ever stepped foot in the garden state. They steal the cream of the crop year in and year out, which is obviously a problem long term. However, Rutgers is not going to ever be realistically able to recruit the best players in its own state until significant improvement occurs on the field. They really aren’t in a position to worry about those schools and need to focus on their toughest competition for realistic targets year after year.
There is no program outside of Rutgers that recruits New Jersey more prominently than Boston College. For perception within recruiting circles alone, that makes this a huge game. BC head coach Steve Addazio has hurt RU on the recruiting trail for years, even before Chestnut Hill when he was at Temple. A portion of Rutgers fans were upset that they decided to begin a series with Boston College for two reasons: their role in ending the Big East football conference and their ability to enhance their recruiting profile against the Scarlet Knights by beating them.
I felt the complete opposite and commend Ash, as well as AD Pat Hobbs and any others involved in scheduling Boston College. The most direct way to counter them on the recruiting trail is to beat them on the field. Saturday that opportunity arrives. For a program that has it’s current recruiting class ranked last in the Big Ten and 89th nationally per 247 Sports, this game is the life boat to get back to land. It won’t save their recruiting lives, so to speak, but it will get them back to shore and probably help land a few more capable recruits than they have today.
I am quite familiar with coach speak and I do understand that Ash wants to keep extremely vanilla during these press conferences. Of course every game is important. However, this repeated mantra that every game is the same has grown tiresome. Perhaps Ash doesn’t actually believe this and behind closed doors with the team, he is much more animated and emotional about games that are truly “big.
I sure hope so. Football is a game that needs to be played with emotion and energy. Rutgers is near the bottom of the Big Ten in regard to talent and depth of the roster. They desperately need an edge to give them an added boost to be competitive and win games in the conference and against other power five programs. Game planning by coaches is one. Player development is another. Sometimes, being inspired and playing for one another and your coach can bring the best out of players. Rutgers needs this type of fire on Saturday. This is without a doubt, not another game.
Just once, I wish Ash would say this on his Monday game week presser. He politely asked fans to turn out this Saturday, saying “it’s a great opportunity for us to play a quality opponent here at our stadium. I hope the fans will show up. In our last home game, the fans as we talked about were an X-factor in that game, especially the student section. They showed up with great energy and passion and cheered throughout the game and really made the difference in that game and I’m hoping we can get that energy here on Saturday against a good opponent.” The marketing department has followed that up with its usual stellar work on social media with hype videos and positive messaging.
I think it would have been better for Ash to dig a bit deeper. This is about protecting the program’s home turf, home state and proving to recruits in New Jersey that you can stay home and be successful. Connecting with Rutgers fans hasn’t been Ash’s strong suit and I feel like Monday’s presser was a missed opportunity to show some genuine emotion and talk up the importance of this game on a human level. Acknowledge the moment and embrace it, I say.
Do you think Boston College quarterback Anthony Brown thinks this is just another game? The Holmdel native was never offered by Rutgers during a successful high school career at St. John Vianney. This wasn’t Ash’s fault, as Brown enrolled at BC about a month after he took the Rutgers job. That’s not going to change Brown’s mindset though, as the senior will likely have plenty of family in attendance and will want to make a big statement against the state university that snubbed him.
That’s part of what make sports great. The rivalries, the emotions, the human nature of it all. Rutgers needs to bring passion and energy just as much as they need to bring focus and execution on Saturday. It might just be the third game of the season, but it could define it. A win and this team takes a necessary step forward towards making significant improvement, although not close to achieving that measure yet. A bad loss could sink this team for good.
I say the “Damn the Torpedoes”, it’s time to hold nothing back, open up the playbook and be aggressive. What does this team have to lose? Well, except it’s 16th consecutive game to a power five team, the answer is nothing. It’s dire straits and time let it all hang out and hold nothing back. I just hope Chris Ash thinks the same and isn’t approaching Saturday against Boston College as just another game because no matter the coach speak, nothing could be further from the truth.