Rutgers evaluates progress in Big Ten after facing top programs
One visit to Ann Arbor is all it takes to see the massive margin between the Rutgers and the University of Michigan, beginning with the structure in which each team plays.
The Wolverines' stadium is named for the school, seating nearly 110,000 in the center of town. The Rutgers football team's stomping grounds are named for a corporate sponsor, seat 52,000-plus and sit across the river from the downtown campus, in another town, nearly three miles away.
"The Big House" was built in 1927, but appears immaculate, with gates to hide its hallowed grounds. Enclosed in brick, the stones build up the character of the largest stadium in the United States and the third-largest in the world, according to Business Insider.
The University first erected its venue as Rutgers Stadium in 1938, but was dramatically refurbished and reintroduced as High Point Solutions Stadium in 2009. The grounds are guarded by a parking lot on one side, a four-way intersection to its north, a street to its south and another parking lot on the other side.
Both the program and the stadium in Ann Arbor represent the goal for the Knights, not only in football but as a university. Schools like Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State serve as pillars of both the academic and athletic community in the Big Ten.
In order for Rutgers to raise its national profile, the Birthplace of College Football joined the league last fall as the power-five conferences began to monopolize the sport.
After the Wolverines walkover win of the Knights last Saturday, head coach Kyle Flood’s opening statement at his postgame press conference all but confirmed Michigan as a model for Rutgers' ascension in the Big Ten.
“For us as a program, I think it’s a great vision of where we wanna go,” Flood said. “And I think this Michigan football team this year is a great example of how quick you can get there.”
For players like junior Julian Pinnix-Odrick, the opportunity to play in historic venues like Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin and “The Big House” in Michigan are the reason recruits want to play at the collegiate level.
“I mean, that’s what you love. Man, that’s what you would love to do,” Pinnix-Odrick said of playing in front of 109,789 fans clad mostly in maize and blue. “Obviously we have a lot of respect for those types of programs who are at that level. We still have to understand what we have to do to get there.”
The program in Piscataway has shown marked improvement since the arrival of former head coach Greg Schiano in 2002. The Knights have played in eight bowl games in nine years, including five straight bowl appearances. Flood arrived on the Banks in 2005 as an assistant on Schiano's staff.
Now serving in his fourth season as head coach, Flood has been subject to scrutiny throughout the 2015 campaign after a slew of controversies swirled around the program since the season opener when five former players were arrested.
Flood’s seat grew warmer when he was suspended as a result of a scandal he started by contacting a faculty member in the hope of altering a player’s grade back in August.
University President Robert L. Barchi handed down Flood’s punishment on Sept. 17 and the Knights' head coach served a three-game suspension before returning to the sidelines on Oct. 17 at Indiana. The play on the field has been only a minor improvement over the distraction off of it.
Flood’s postgame comments after the loss to Michigan almost insinuated that a coaching change could be the driving factor in turning around a program, since his coaching seat has nearly caught fire.
Asked directly if he believes his team can mimic the success displayed by Michigan, Flood did not offer a direct answer.
“Those are big picture questions that are always tough to answer in the heat of the season,” he said. “I just know that our eyes need to be focused on Nebraska.”
The Cornhuskers should be the focus.
A loss at home Saturday would quell any possibility of positive feelings toward the 2015 season. It could also mean the end of the Kyle Flood's tenure.
But Pinnix-Odrick thinks the game looms larger than the job security of his head coach, a streak of bowl appearances or the quieting of Rutgers’ critics. The junior feels the only motivation for victory should be the name on the front of their jerseys, not the names on the back.
A loss Saturday could affect the program, past, present and future. A loss could render the program's progress obsolete.
“It’s so much bigger than just us,” he said. “You gotta play for the ‘R.' You gotta understand that so many people came before us and so many are gonna come after us. Our mark is so small but it’s so significant. We have to understand where we are on that timeline and we have to pass the torch. We have to keep it up.”
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