Rutgers aspires to add to list of historic night game wins in battle against No. 4 Michigan
No. 3 Louisville in 2006.
No. 2 South Florida in 2007.
These three games, arguably the biggest victories in the history of the Rutgers football program, are all loosely connected by a single thread — they were all played under the bright lights of High Point Solutions Stadium in a primetime broadcast in front of a national audience.
The Scarlet Knights have a chance to add to the list this Saturday against the No. 4 Wolverines in what will be the first annual "Stripe the Birthplace" game, a promotion run by the athletic department in which fans will alternate between black and red attire to literally stripe the stands of the Birthplace of College Football.
“Hopefully it's a great atmosphere and a lot of fans show up,” said head coach Chris Ash of his first night game at the helm in Piscataway. “It will be cool if we Stripe the Birthplace the way we want it to be done. The administration has worked hard to make this a really cool atmosphere and I'm excited to see what turns out.”
The crowds tend to be higher at High Point Solutions Stadium at night than during noon kick-offs, which Rutgers has dealt with exclusively in its first three home games this season.
Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, the Knights average just over 5,000 more fans per game at night contests (52,646 average in 4 games) than earlier games (47,320 in 12 games).
The number may not seem astronomical, but it can make all the difference, said a Knight who spent a night at High Point as an opponent.
“The third downs got pretty loud,” said junior cornerback Ross Douglas, who played for Michigan in 2014, when they were the victims of Rutgers’ first Big Ten win. “I just remember it being a great atmosphere and I expect the same thing come Saturday night.”
A likely factor for increased attendance is the game being at the tailend of the day rather than right in the beginning, allowing students and fans to sleep in on a Saturday and still be able to make it to the stadium in time for the game.
But those in the stands aren’t the only ones taking advantage of some extra shuteye.
“It’s nice, I’ll get to sleep in a little more,” said senior right guard Chris Muller. “Night games are always the best, always a lot more energy, anything can always happen and both teams always come ready to play in the night game, so it’s always a lot more exciting.”
Historic wins aren’t the only things that happen after dusk for the Knights, though, as they’ve been the wrong end of another pair of night games in the past 10 years.
Rutgers is 21-19 in night games in the past 10 years, losing almost as many heartbreakers as they’ve won all-timers.
No loss hurt more than the 20-17 loss to the Cardinals in 2012, a game in which the Knights blew a chance at a Big East Championship and Louisville got revenge six years and 20 days after the famous "Pandemonium in Piscataway" game.
A pair of close seconds nearly came back-to-back immediately after the Knights’ win over the No. 3 Cardinals in 2006, though not at High Point Solutions Stadium.
Ranked No. 7 and looking forward to facing West Virginia in a game that seemed destined to decide the Big East title, Rutgers crumbled to Cincinnati, falling 30-11 to the Bearcats as the highest of highs was dragged to the lowest of lows.
The Knights were taken down further a couple of weeks later when they ended up losing to the Mountaineers in a 41-39 triple-overtime classic in Morgantown.
The fans making the trek to High Point Solutions Stadium this Saturday are hoping for an evening resembling the electric atmosphere and euphoric feeling of the "Pandemonium in Piscataway," but they could very well feel the dread and hopelessness they had just a week ago, when they watched the Knights get steamrolled by No. 2 Ohio State in a 58-0 loss, the biggest blowout in a Big Ten regular-season game since 1981.
The Wolverines present a pass defense even more stout than the Buckeyes’ group that held Rutgers to three total completions, all coming in the first quarter and 116 total yards.
While its offense isn’t as potent as Ohio State’s, if Michigan can replicate what the Buckeyes did last week, one score will be enough to silence the first sold-out student section of the season.
No matter how loud that bunch gets on the sidelines, it won’t mean anything if the Knights can’t execute inside the lines.
“Ultimately, you gotta do what you gotta do on the field,” said junior quarterback Chris Laviano, who went 11-for-27, throwing for 97 yards and an interception in last year’s meeting with Michigan, a 49-16 rout at the Big House. “It’s not magically gonna happen because the all the fans are there.”
Regardless of the size of the crowd, the time of day or the weather surrounding the game, Ash expects the same out of his team — execution in all three facets of the game.
If Rutgers don’t do that, it'll be in for a long one Saturday.
“Sometimes night games, you maybe give the players a little extra incentive or adrenaline when the game starts but at the end of the day, whether it's an afternoon game, at noon or a night game, we have to go out and execute our offense, defense and special teams,” Ash said. “I'm more worried about our football team and our ability to go out and execute on offense, defense and special teams (than) when the game is kicked off … I don't really care when the ball is kicked off, but we have to play better.”