And So It Begins

Seldom has a game been met with as much anticipation as this Saturday's opener against Michigan State University. For the first time since Rutgers players ran out of the tunnel in leather helmets, there is a strong belief amongst the Rutgers faithful that the Scarlet Knights will be playing football in December.

The false hope and expectations of the Graber and Shea years have faded into the landscape as Bob Mulcahy and Greg Schiano have layed down the foundation for a program that will compete year-after-year amongst the upper echelon of Division 1 football programs. September 4, 2004, is when the past 3½ years of hard work is expected to begin to bear fruit and there are many an alumni and supporter who at this very moment is rehearsing his or her revenge around the water cooler next Tuesday.

The excitement of this game have been heightened by a convincing win over Syracuse to end last season, a stellar recruiting class and closed practices which have leaked out word of a team that is poised to surprise the college football world. The expectation is that this is the year that the Rutgers football program turns the corner from pretender to contender. For some, this means 6 victories, while for others nothing short of 7 or 8 wins will do.

As of Tuesday morning, over 29,000 tickets were sold, including 1,000 tickets to Michigan State fans. This does not include Rutgers students, which are expected to number at least 5,000. According to Kevin MacConnell---Rutgers Associate Athletic Director, there are still seats available although he is cautiously optimistic that Saturday's game will be a sellout.

Since the day that the 2004 schedule was released, the die-hards, the media, the recruits and the casual fan have pointed to this game as a barometer for measuring the progress of this football program. And while a Rutgers loss this Saturday would not be the end of the world, winning this game holds implications for both a successful season and the long-term development of the program.

After the Michigan State game, Rutgers is home to New Hampshire and Kent State. Assuming these two games can safely be put in the win column, the following week Rutgers travels up to the Carrier Dome to play Syracuse at either 2-1 or 3-0. Syracuse leads the series that began in 1914, 27-6-1 and the last time Rutgers won at the Carrier Dome was 1986. The combined scores of the last three games played at the Carrier Dome were 164-45 and for the uninformed we are the ones with the 45. So, despite the season-ending 24-7 win at home last year and a Syracuse team with its share of problems, this will still be a difficult game to win. If Rutgers goes into this game at 2-1 and loses, they would be at 500, heading down to Nashville the next weekend to face a tough Vanderbilt team in a hostile environment. The following week is Temple with Pitt, WVU and Boston College to follow. Compounding this scenario is that only Temple and WVU are home games. A loss to MSU, makes winning up in the Carrier Dome, incrementally more difficult. Traveling to Syracuse at 3-0 increases the chances for a victory. Traveling down to Nashville at 4-0 equally increases the chances for coming away with a win. It all starts with MSU and this is one reason why this game is so crucial.

The MSU game also holds tremendous importance because of the large number of recruits that will be attending the game. To move to the rarefied air of BCS land, Greg Schiano must secure the services of top-tier high school players with greater frequency. While Schiano and his staff have showed an innate ability for discovering hidden gems in the rough, to move to the next level, the next few recruiting classes must be littered with 3 and 4-star recruits. Until now, this has happened sporadically, as players such as Berkeley Hutchinson, Nate Robinson, Brian Leonard, Jeremy Zuttah, Mike Teel and Brian Roche have chosen to spend their college careers on the Banks. The next step needs to be moving towards replacing recruiting classes where the 2-star recruit is the majority; with recruiting classes where the 3 and 4-star recruit is the norm. Greg Schiano at camps this summer and in unofficial visits by recruits has asked both New Jersey and Florida's best recruits, "What will it take to get you to come to Rutgers?" The answer has been simple and universal. "Start winning."

There has never been a game where so many recruits will be on hand to have this question answered. It is widely believed that a number of recruits are looking at this game as tangible evidence that the Rutgers football program is moving in the right direction and although it is unlikely that a win will result in a large number of recruits committing on the spot, a loss may have many of these recruits walking away muttering, "same old Rutgers." Many of the high profile recruits are sold on Greg Schiano and his ability to recruit, they are also sold on the facilities and a Rutgers education, what they are not sold on is Rutgers' ability to win and win consistently. The unofficial list of recruits attending the game was supposed to have been peppered with an exceptional combination of Florida and New Jersey talent. However, due to the impending hurricane, the Florida recruits will not be able to make it. From Florida, the list was to include Robin Lindor (OL), Elijah Hodge (LB), Chris McClover (WR), Chris Chancellor (DB) and his brother Demerick Chancellor (WR), Derrick Smith (Ath), and Chris Dirksz (DE/LB). From New Jersey, the list is impressive and expected to attend are Brian Roche (OL), Michael Ray Garvin (DB), Kevin Hughes (OL), Chris Quaye (RB/LB), Jerome Hayes (LB/RB), Danny Oquendo (WR), Rashawn Jackson (RB), Dennis Landolt (OL), and Davon Smart (RB), in addition to some three thousand high school players from around the Garden State. Many of the players mentioned are 3 and 4-star recruits and are all looking for a reason to say to Greg Schiano, "Yes I will play my football at Rutgers."

Many in the stands Saturday will also be looking to have another question answered that is whispered in certain quarters, "Can Greg Schiano coach as well as he recruits?" Last year there were two games there for the taking, Connecticut and Boston College. While there are reasons why Rutgers lost theses games, penalties, poor special team play, lack of coaching adjustments etc., and while these all bear merit, all of these issues in the end come back to coaching and teaching your team how to win. Mistakes on special teams coverage, breakdowns in the secondary, the ability to make half-time adjustments must all improve for Rutgers to take the next step.

In the final analysis, the Michigan State game presents an opportunity for the Rutgers football program to move to the next level, in the win/loss column, with recruits, with the media and national press, but probably as importantly in the hearts and minds of the people of New Jersey. It is not unreasonable to believe that a victory this Saturday coupled with a bowl game appearance will bring in a top-25 recruiting class.

By 7:00 PM, this Saturday, we will have answers to a lot of these questions. The feeling here is that people will be driving up and down New Jersey's interstates extremely happy.

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