Rutgers welcomes big moment at Big House
Nearly 13 months after its first conference game against Penn State last October at High Point Solutions Stadium, the Rutgers football team will truly find out what it means to be a member of the Big Ten Conference on Saturday when the Scarlet Knights (3-5, 1-4) travel to Michigan Stadium to take on Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Both the Wolverines (6-2, 3-1) and their stadium represent the goal Rutgers is striving for as a program. Michigan serves as a model institution for the State University of New Jersey to emulate, not only in terms of athletics, but academics as well.
"I've been thinking about that all (Sunday) and (Monday)," said junior tight end Nick Arcidiacono. "Obviously going into the Big House is going to be huge and it'd be awesome just to go in there and silence that crowd."
It’s a moniker as renowned as it is representative of the sheer size of the building. Erected in 1927, the Big House is the largest stadium in the United States and third-largest in the world behind Salt Lake Stadium in India (seats 120,000) and May Day Stadium in North Korea (150,000).
The crowd will likely be the largest the Knights have played in front of in their history, poised to break the school's mark set last October when Rutgers traveled to the Horseshoe in Columbus against Ohio State, in front of 106,795 fans.
But Saturday will be a whole different ball of wax as the Big House is expected to be packed close to its capacity, leaving 109,901 fans shouting “Go Blue” for the Wolverines on the field.
Head coach Kyle Flood is doing his best to downplay the atmosphere.
“Every time we go on the road, we're going to prepare with crowd noise during the week. We'll have all our silent cadences ready to go if we need them,” Flood said. “There's a line of demarcation somewhere. I couldn't tell you exactly where it is, but once you get over 50 (or) 60,000, if they want to be rowdy and loud, then you're going to need silent cadence. So I don't know if it's more of a challenge than last week."
Rutgers sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano has been more than challenged in his last two times out on the field. The Glen Head, New York, native has been mired in a two-game slump, congruent to the Knights consecutive blowout losses — 49-7 at home to the No. 1 Buckeyes and on the road against Wisconsin at Camp Randall, 48-10, last Saturday.
But the sophomore signal-caller is taking cues from his head coach, unwilling to appear overwhelmed, as the biggest game of his young career approaches at Michigan.
"We've played at some pretty big places already this year,” Laviano said. “It's just another good opportunity to go to an away, big stadium and be 1-0."
Laviano’s last trip to a big stadium — just a week ago in Madison — was far from how the Knights and their first-year starter drew it up.
The Long Islander struggled to grasp the scheme the Badgers executed on defense, sputtering to a paltry performance on 4-for-14 passing for 31 yards.
But Laviano and company have an opportunity to prove that last season’s win over the Wolverines — the first Big Ten win in school history — was not a fluke.
It’s a matchup that motivates prospective recruits of the two schools to pick a side — and that is the Big Ten Rutgers remembers getting excited about being involved in.
Junior right guard Chris Muller will likely have some extra juice entering Michigan week, having been recruited by former "Big Blue" head coach Brady Hoke out of high school in Berks County, Pennsylvania.
"You know, I'm glad I picked this school,” Muller said of Rutgers. “I'm glad I didn't go anywhere else, so it's going to be nice to showcase that."
Muller was courted by three big-time programs coming out of Boyertown High School (Pennsylvania), but chose the Scarlet and White of the Knights over conference foes Michigan State and the maize and blue of Michigan.
Ann Arbor stands as a veritable mecca of college football, second only perhaps to Notre Dame Stadium, home of the Fighting Irish. The Irish were in the mix for Muller’s services as well, but when it came time to make a decision, the 6-foot-6, 310-pounder chose the buzz of the Banks over the allure of South Bend, Indiana.
"I did visit Michigan,” Muller said. “I visited when I went out there to visit Notre Dame and Michigan State.”
Just when Muller thought he had his mind made up, then-head coach Greg Schiano bolted from New Brunswick for Tampa Bay to serve as head coach of the Buccaneers. Muller admits he mulled over the idea of reconsidering, but chose to stay true to his commitment.
“I was thinking about visiting (Michigan again) when the whole Schiano thing (happened), but I stayed strong to Rutgers," Muller said.
Starting free safety Anthony Cioffi recalls the win over Michigan last year as especially sweet. Cioffi’s aunt is a Michigan alumna and was on hand to witness the blocked field goal by sophomore Kemoko Turay that sealed the historic 26-24 win over the Wolverines.
"She was mostly on our side, but she had a little accent with Michigan,” Cioffi said, a reference to the Rutgers jersey his aunt wore for the win, offset by Michigan’s Block "M" on her ball cap.
Saturday stands as landmark moment for the Rutgers football program, but it will be even more memorable for the players. Most of the roster grew up watching teams like Michigan, dreaming of one day being granted the opportunity to play in such a game.
“Sometimes you just think about all the different great atmospheres and, 'Oh, I wish I could play there and it would be a blessing to play there,'” Cioffi said.
It will be difficult for the Knights to contain their nerves with the excitement of nearly 110,000 fans roaring in unison. But the leader of Rutgers' secondary plans to soak up every moment and walk out with a win.
“Michigan is a great program and a great team,” Cioffi said. “We just have to go out there and treat it like it's our house."
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