Rutgers wideout Leonte Carroo knows there’s no denying the importance of Saturday’s game.
The Scarlet Knights’ first-ever Big Ten contest sold out in record time, and Carroo said the topic of “Penn State-Rutgers” has dominated classroom chatter this week. This isn’t just a regular game for the Knights -- even if they’re still trying to approach it like one -- so there’s no sense in pretending. This is a chance for Rutgers to make a statement; it’s an opportunity for Rutgers to prove it belongs.
“During the offseason and pretty much up until now, no team has respected us. No team still respects us,” Carroo told ESPN.com. “We have nothing to lose here. Penn State is Penn State, and they’ve been disrespecting us in the media -- so this is a good chance to show what kind of Rutgers team we have here.
“We’re going to show we’re not just some team people can step over.”
The Scarlet Knights received a lukewarm reception when they joined their new conference. And the players aren’t deaf to all that criticism: Maybe RU didn’t deserve an invitation, maybe RU isn’t ready for the competition, maybe RU will go all season without winning a conference game.
Carroo knows all that chatter. He played against a handful of current Penn State players and New Jersey natives in high school, and it’s impossible to miss all the social-media banter from those who follow the team from Pennsylvania. And he’s right; Penn State fans don’t respect Rutgers. One student publication penned a sarcastic love letter to RU on Thursday, poking fun of its academics and inferiority complex. A two-month old quote from PSU tailback Bill Belton was also dug up this week, when the New Jersey native implied RU wasn’t a “big-time” program during Big Ten media days.
“People probably felt like Rutgers didn’t deserve to be in the Big Ten,” Carroo added, “but we’re setting a tone and standard and, come Saturday, everyone will see that.”
Few people even gave Rutgers a chance in its opener against Washington State. On this blog, five writers picked against the Knights. But they came out on top, 41-38, while running back Paul James turned heads with a 173-yard, three-TD performance.
Rutgers isn’t a pushover -- but some players believe it must accomplish more to earn that respect.
“I don’t think so far we’ve really changed anybody’s minds, per se,” linebacker Kevin Snyder said. “But I know a win in our first Big Ten game, it would make people look and know that we’re here to play. I know that we have a team that’s capable of beating a lot of people.”
Head coach Kyle Flood didn’t try to pretend otherwise earlier this week. He cautioned that the team will still go through the same process, that this game will be treated like any other.
But that doesn’t mean this game is just like any other.
"The meaning of the game, to me, is that first impressions in life count," Flood said. "And this is our opportunity to make our first impression in the Big Ten conference."
The Knights’ schedule won’t get any easier as the season progresses. With Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin on the schedule, it’s rated as the toughest slate in the Big Ten. Even Huskers wideout Kenny Bell chimed in a month ago and said the conference disrespected RU with that setup.
A win shows Rutgers can be a force in this conference, that a bowl game isn’t just a pipe dream. A loss means that offseason chatter is only going to grow. And these players know that.
“I think a win this week would kind of cement that we’re in the Big Ten, and we’re not just here to play football,” Snyder said. “We’re here to win games.”