“Turn and Face the Strange—Ch-ch-anges” - David Bowie.
I still remember when my dad first got his Rutgers season tickets. He would come to my apartment on Saturday morning to come check on me on his way to the game. At the time, this was early on in Schiano’s first tenure, the games did not appeal to me as much and so I attended games sporadically. It was the arrival of Brian Leonard on the banks, and all the talent he attracted in Schiano’s golden years that ignited my love of the game. I started attending more games with my father until about 5 years ago when I officially took over that second season ticket. It was not just the love of the game, learning the rules of a new sport, that attracted me to High Point Solutions (now Shi) Stadium but all the things that make a game day atmosphere. The music, the band, the crowd united in cheering for the team, the friends we made in our section who cheered and commiserated right along with us.
Now for the first time since my father showed up on my doorstep all those years ago, I will not be attending a single game at Shi Stadium this year. No fan will be due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Living in what was once a hotbed of activity, my logical mind is glad that the school and conference are taking seriously a pandemic that is still affecting our daily lives. Emotionally, I am not quite sure what to make of a season without a trip down the turnpike, walking along the Scarlet Walk, seeing the Scarlet Knight trot onto the field on horseback before the game, and cheering along our section mates who I have come to know as friends in the last ten years. While a lot will look different this season, and I will miss the “Bayonne Boys,” the “Doctor,” and all the other characters in my section, the “Knight Pulse” pumping me up, and the noise in the stadium that could often throw off the opposing team just for a moment, there is a lot of comfort to be taken in the return of Rutgers Football:
1). Greg Schiano is back: If we close our eyes, and are able to escape reality in the way that our national pastimes often allow us to do, we can almost imagine we are back in the year 2001, when Greg Schiano first arrived on the banks, and lead us to a time when Rutgers was a perennial bowl team, and once ranked in the top 25. I can imagine a time when I was still wearing low rise jeans, way too much makeup, and waking up before noon on a Saturday seemed like torture. Sports often allow us to escape reality, and lucky for us, having a former head coach return is kind of like time travel and provides a special sort of nostalgia. We may not have all the fanfare that I would imagine would have happened were we allowed in stadium, but it’s still something behind which we can rally as a fanbase. Which leads me to…
2). Fingers crossed, we may be finally on the up and up: My dad and I were talking about the start of the season, and the upcoming game at Michigan State this Saturday. My dad mentioned that he wished the opening game were not against Michigan State. I reminded him that Michigan State is in a transition period as well with a new coach, so while I am not predicting a win, we might hopefully see some competition as Rutgers almost won last season. That lead to some discussion around what our expectations could be for the season, and how Rutgers would stack up against an all Big Ten schedule. Given that as of now a starting QB has not been announced, and the lack of spring practice has not allowed for as much news out of Piscataway it is hard to say how much the Scarlet Knights have improved. However, what I can say with confidence, is that…
3). We finally have some competent coaching (again, fingers crossed as I am superstitious and don’t ever like to jinx things): This was ultimately where my father and I landed when discussing what to expect from the season, and what would quantify improvement for this season. Listen, anyone who is expecting a winning schedule in Greg Schiano’s first season back on the banks is likely in for disappointment. Even 2-6 against this schedule might be a stretch. However, I for one am excited to see some competent coaching, improvement week over week, a team that doesn’t seem to be confused as to which play was called, some aggressive defense, and an offense that doesn’t put me to sleep.
While I wish Chris Ash the best in his endeavors, although there seems to be mixed reviews in Texas, he always seemed like a deer in headlights and way in over his head. The team seemed to get worse every year, or at least not better. There was never marked improvement, and he did not seem to be able to inspire his players or develop talent. All of this from the armchair coach in section 124. Regardless, I was impressed with the support staff Schiano was able to bring to the banks, including former Rutgers superstars like Tiquan Underwood (one of my personal favorites from that era), and retain great talent like Nunzio Campanile who deserves so much credit for holding the team together after Ash’s midseason firing last year.
I am excited for this team to have an identity, for players who seem excited and inspired, the return of our once dynamic special teams, and play calling that brings out the best of the players. While that may not equate to wins, and Schiano was also once criticized for not being a great gameday coach in his first tenure, I do think that he has learned during his time in the NFL and working under Urban Meyer. Hopefully, the new and improved Greg Schiano 2.0. can lead us in the Big 10 the way we imagined when we joined the conference. Maybe, or maybe you were like my dad and many others who believed we should have stayed in the now defunct Big East, but that is a debate for another day. For now we can say…
4). Talent has been upgraded via the transfer portal and strong recruiting: The depth chart and roster for the Michigan game were released this week, and my colleagues David, Aaron, and Greg did a great job analyzing what it means in-depth (no pun intended). What I will say, is that while we are looking for improvement and the immediate impact we can see on the field, we can see that Schiano and team made great use of that jet this offseason (too soon?) in recruiting not just for the 2021 class but also filling holes for this 2020 season. Schiano has said it has been a competitive offseason, and the fact that there are OR’s within the depth chart could mean a lot of things, but also that there is enough talent that this staff feels they have options at certain positions as to who might be the best fit.
When was the last time we had options before, or depth at key positions? Stronghold positions like linebacker and running back seem to have the most depth and quality of talent, but for the most part it seems all position groups, particularly the defensive line, have gotten an infusion of Big Ten quality talent or at least players with some level of college-level playing experience. I am excited to see how the inclusion of BIG and B1G quality talent, married with improved coaching, will marry together to showcase improvement and more exciting play-calling on the field.
Regardless, as we head into the first game of the season, it may take some time to adjust to a new way of playing and being a fan. I am right along there with you and wish I were heading to our first home game next Saturday, sitting among my football family. What I also know is that I will be bringing some bagels to my parents’ house just like I would on a normal gameday and will be ready to see what the Greg Schiano 2.0 era has to bring us and escape back to the early aughts for a few hours. Whatever game day looks like for you this year, I hope it brings some escape and excitement as we kick off the season opener this Saturday at noon. Go, Knights!