Can a rivalry be organic when two teams have played 24 times in 127 years of mutual football history, haven’t played since 1995 and the results are unquestionably one-sided?
By Mary Cunningham
The Penn State-Rutgers game this Saturday night has all the trappings of a Big Game.
Bowl reps from the Rose, Orange, Capital One and TaxSlayer Bowls will attend. Commissioner Jim Delany will be in the house.
All of this is suitable for the Scarlet Knights’ debut in conference play as a member of the Big Ten.
But Rutgers is trying to squeeze more out of this night. The Scarlet Knights want a rivalry — and they want it with Penn State, which is a 3 1/2-point favorite on the road.
Rutgers has a Penn State countdown clock in the facility and coach Kyle Flood has referred to PSU as “the team from Pennsylvania.”
Rutgers’ efforts are noble but this question persists: Can a rivalry be organic when two teams have played 24 times in 127 years of mutual football history, haven’t played since 1995 and the results are unquestionably one-sided?
Penn State is 22-2 against Rutgers, a statistic James Franklin must’ve known back in May when he told fans at a Coaches Caravan that Rutgers and fellow first-year Big Ten member Maryland “don’t have a chance,” comments he seemed to regret at a public appearance two months later.
With 25 years in the league, Delany has seen a ton of rivalries. True rivalries often include teams with at least some level of shared success and geographical/cultural unity, Delany said. And since 1990, Rutgers has had 13 losing seasons to Penn State’s four.
Delany’s hesitant to brand Rutgers-Penn State a surefire rivalry right now. But give it a few, or 50, years.
“My view is there’s potential there for a rivalry,” Delany said. “Penn State has dominated the competition but the world has really changed. I expect over the next 50 years it will be a lot more competitive. Both schools would have resources generated through the Big Ten, both will anchor eastern aspects of big ten. It’s kind of a new game in many, many ways.”
The Big Ten Network would like to see that. With a new office in Manhattan, the Big Ten aims to cultivate East Coast reverence after the addition of Maryland and Rutgers in late 2012.
Big Ten Network president Mark Silverman says he’s hoping to find “the next generation of sports fans to grow up Big Ten fans” on the East Coast. “We have this unique opportunity to do that by having the Network that’s going to be focused on those schools,” he said.
Fan interest has been encouraging. Saturday’s game is Rutgers’ first preseason sellout in the 20-year history of High Point Solutions Stadium (formerly Rutgers Stadium), which has a capacity of 52,454.
“I’m not really trying to force anything… You can’t underestimate there’s real excitement about the game,” Delany said. “It’s sold out.”
Despite the 236-mile distance between PIscataway, N.J., and State College, Pa., you could argue Ohio State is a more natural rivalry for Penn State because the two recruit at a high level and should chase conference titles more often than Rutgers (in theory).
The way Flood sees it, however, that’s way games like these are for — a chance to change perception.
A 2-0 start helps. So does the hiring of offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, whose offense is second in the Big Ten at 39.5 points per game thus far.
“I do think first impressions matter,” Flood told reporters this week. “For our program over time, I think we’ll be judged more by consistency and play at a high level than we will any one game.”
Conference realignment has crushed some long-standing rivalries, but the Big Ten can cast a wider net with 14 teams — if Saturday’s game has a wild finish, fans can savor that moment.
The three-team East Coast branch has three different potential rivalry combos. If one doesn’t work, try another.
“Rivalries can’t be created on a whole cloth,” Delany said. “I could see how one could develop with Maryland and Penn State, Rutgers and Penn State, Maryland and Indiana, Michigan and Maryland, Michigan and Northwestern.”
Winning big non-conference games will only enhance those conference matchups, but the Big Ten finished 0-4 in its biggest games of the first two weeks.
Maybe Rutgers-Penn State can help ease the pain.
“We haven’t won ours so it hasn’t been good for us,” Delany said. “We’re trying to play up. I think that’s what everybody wanted. It will be good when everybody is playing these games. Then you’ll have more things that are comparable.”