There is more on the line for Rutgers this Saturday night when they host Penn State than just their first conference game in the Big Ten.
A matchup against Penn State and a burgeoning rivalry between the two programs can set the tone for both teams for the rest of the year and perhaps extend to the recruiting trail.
High school football recruiting website Rivals.com last week named New Jersey as having the best high school football in the Atlantic East region, a slate of states which includes Pennsylvania. Penn State boasts seven players from New Jersey in their current recruiting class, which includes five rated as four-star prospects. Rutgers could re-establish the state's recruiting pipeline and make a statement they aren't the whipping boys to Penn State.
It is the biggest game in the career of third-year Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood, who is anticipating a “tremendous amount of energy” at High Point Solutions Stadium.
“The meaning of the game, to me, is that first impressions in life count. And this is our opportunity to make our first impression in the Big Ten Conference,” Flood, who just received a contract extension through 2018, said on Monday. “Ultimately the meaning of the game is an opportunity to be ... 1-0 in conference play. ... But I do understand the interest this game has generated because it is the first.”
Rutgers can begin to recapture some of the luster lost from the scandals of the past year, including the firing of athletic director Tim Pernetti in the wake of basketball coach Mike Rice's dismissal. The allure of Rutgers football was at a low point last year and while a season opening win at Washington State helps, the program needs a jolt.
A win over Penn State, would be that injection of excitement.
A number of players on these teams have played with or against each other in high school or competed at the same combine events and camps. Some wanted a Penn State offer perhaps or were recruited by the Nittany Lions.
“It adds to the opportunity to ultimately create a rivalry. I think the familiarity helps. Now you have to have great football games also — that has to help as well,” Flood said. “This will be the first one and I expect it to be a great one. But the fact that a lot of these players played against each other in high school, knew about each other, traveled in the same recruiting circles — it will ultimately add to the opportunity to have a rivalry.
“I want them to be excited about this game. They should be excited about this game. Games like this are the reason why you play college football at a place like Rutgers. I don't want to temper that in any way, but there is a process that we go through every week to get ready for the week. That needs to be our focus day-in, day-out.”
Despite Monday being an off day, a number of Rutgers players went into the team's facility to pick up the game plan. Flood cautioned he “doesn't want to temper the excitement” of his players but he hopes to focus his team as the buzz around the game builds.
Follow Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.