Rutgers, Maryland share in rebuilding process as season progresses
If you ask fans and students, most would say the Rutgers football team's biggest rival is Penn State — the chants, the proximity, that New Jersey-Pennsylvania divide.
Very rarely will someone say the same of Maryland, a team that has had a similar trajectory to the Scarlet Knights over the past several years.
Both programs came into the Big Ten in 2014 with relatively successful seasons — Rutgers had its best campaign so far in the Big Ten with a Quick Lane Bowl win over North Carolina, and the Terrapins finished with their first and only winning record to date since joining the conference.
Maryland makes sense as a rival if the Knights even have one. For some on this team, labels like those aren't important.
"I'm not worried about rivalry games," said head coach Chris Ash. "You've got to go win some games, and they're created a lot of times off the field through recruiting and things like that. And then when you play competitive games on the field and they go back to back or back and forth, a lot of times fans create rivalry games for you."
But on the eve of the second ever Rutgers wrestling-football doubleheader — an event that was supposed to take place at Yankee Stadium before the move back to High Point Solutions Stadium — it's hard to leave this as a standard Saturday.
Before this year, it was a ritual for both teams to close the season against each other, doing so every year since joining the conference.
At all of those points, Rutgers and Maryland found themselves in roughly similar situations. At first, they found success in the Big Ten, each finishing in the top four of the East Division. In the years following and continuing into this campaign, it's been a battle in adjusting to the demands of the Big Ten.
Coupling that steep climb with the sheer strength of the East, the Knights and the Terps have carved out spots toward the bottom half of the standings the past two years, and halfway through the 2017 season, it's a pattern likely to repeat.
After improving by three wins from 2015 to 2016, Maryland strolls into Saturday with four games remaining — after Rutgers, it's Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. With four wins to their name, the Terps are not far from a possible bowl game in terms of wins, but will be heavy underdogs in each game after Saturday's.
As the Knights have shown, their adjustment to the conference has seen a jolt from last year, already surpassing last year's win total with four games to go. That search for a bowl game proves just as elusive as Maryland's, but there's a strong belief among the players that it's possible.
"There's always belief," said junior linebacker Trevor Morris. "That's the one thing that you can never give up on, what you as a team have a goal in and something set in mind. So that's one thing we're still gonna push for, still gonna try our best to get."
Morris's energy reflects a rebuilding process starting to gain some traction. The Rutgers hopeful has taken to the mantra adopted by Philadelphia 76ers fans and players — "Trust the Process."
It absolutely is a process, and not many envy the jobs Ash and Maryland head coach DJ Durkin have in reconstructing programs in the Big Ten — in the East Division, no less.
But no matter how similar the paths turn out to be for the two sides, Ash is adamant that he pays no mind to anything outside of Piscataway. A team like Rutgers, in the position it is in, can't afford distractions.
"I'm into preparing our football team, coaching our guys, developing our guys, recruiting to our University, our program," he said. "Everybody's situation is different ... I'm focused on our football team."
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