Seniors prepare for final home game of career
Storylines surrounding the Rutgers football team’s final home game of the season are abundant. With their postseason aspirations done and dusted, the Scarlet Knights host No. 8 Penn State, a fringe rival on the edge of returning to the level of glory it hasn’t had since the Jerry Sandusky scandal shook the program to its core.
With a bit of luck, the Nittany Lions (8-2, 6-1) could become another unlikely champion in a year full of them, winning the Big Ten East and reaching the conference title game if they beat Rutgers and Michigan State and have Ohio State defeat Michigan in "The Game."
The Knights (2-8, 0-7) have no possibility of playing after their regular season ends against Maryland Nov. 26, so they could take the opportunity to ruin Penn State’s aspirations as a bowl game of sorts.
But they won’t. They’ve got other things to play for in their final home game of the year.
“It's playing for the seniors. That's it,” said head coach Chris Ash. “We're not talking about spoilers. We're playing for ourselves and we're playing for our seniors ... A lot of them that have done a tremendous amount positive things here at Rutgers, and that's what our focus is and we want to go out and play our best for them.”
Saturday night will be the last time 17 seniors will have a chance to take the turf at High Point Solutions Stadium donning the block "R" on their chests.
Those include all four team captains — offensive lineman Chris Muller and Derrick Nelson and their counterparts on the other side of the line Darius Hamilton and Julian Pinnix-Odrick — as well as significant contributors in running back Justin Goodwin, safety Anthony Cioffi, wide receivers Carlton Agudosi and Andre Patton, right tackle J.J. Denman and tight end Nick Arcidiacono.
They’ll all go full circle against the Nittany Lions, the first Big Ten opponent that they faced after joining the conference in 2014 and now the last they’ll host in their collegiate careers. In a season without much charm, they’ll hope the third meeting with Penn State will be the one.
“It’s going to be an emotional week, obviously. Last time getting to play at High Point Solution (Stadium) with a lot of the guys I came in with,” Hamilton said. “I don’t know how much of a rivalry we have. Obviously we haven’t won any of the battles against them yet, but Saturday’s a new day, so we’re gonna go out and give it all we got. Obviously they’re playing for a lot, we’re playing for a lot too.”
The second meeting between the teams as conference opponents last season wasn’t as close or significant as the first. The Nittany Lions crushed the Knights 28-3, but it was a game in which Hamilton had the ultimate display of respect for the program he came to Piscataway to build.
After missing all of training camp and the first two games of the season with a knee injury, he was cleared to play in Happy Valley and started the game despite not being in game shape. He didn’t factor a single tackle in the game, but he did show what kind of teammate he is.
“I love this place, I love the relationships and people I’ve met here, the football I’ve played here,” Hamilton said. “It’s been a great time and it’s honestly flown by.”
Pinnix-Odrick, who Hamilton called one of his best friends earlier this week, expressed his love for Rutgers vocally this week. He said that he loves what the "R" on his helmet stands for and hopes his enthusiasm for the program becomes contagious to the young players he’s leaving behind when his time in Piscataway ends in a pair of weeks.
The Montclair, New Jersey, native is dedicating this game not only to the senior class he’s leaving the program with, but to the one before him who he feels didn’t have a proper ending to their careers on the Banks.
“The way they had to go out, they went out with a loss,” Pinnix-Odrick said. “We ended up not having a team banquet. Coach Flood was gone the next day. It was just a lot of turmoil at that point, and I don’t think they went out the way they should have. That’s something I still really think about … It’s not just about us. It’s about all the seniors before us.”
Looking at their final season on the Banks, Pinnix-Odrick and 17 of his teammates likely wish things had gone differently. The Knights are 2-8, winless in Big Ten play and a weekly pun of jokes made by national media members. They rank in the bottom third of the conference in nearly every statistical category and have been outscored 185-0 in three games against two of the nation’s top programs and a team having a meltdown of a down year.
With one last chance to suit up at home, one last time to run out of the tunnel at High Point Solutions Stadium and see their families in the stands, one final time to hear the home crowd, they’ll be looking to channel all the frustrations of weeks gone by to have one last night to remember in a five-year stretch full of them.
“I’m gonna enjoy every bit of it,” Pinnix-Odrick said of his final 60 minutes of action at High Point Solutions Stadium. “It’s gonna be real violent. When you sit back in retrospect and think about all the things and all the emotions that build up inside of you, all the things that you felt should’ve went better and the all the things you know went right, you get after it. That’s what I’m thinking about.”