Rutgers sophomore Aaron Lewis had a message for fans last week after the Scarlet Knights eked out a win against Temple. The defensive lineman, coming off the best performance of his young career, just wanted to say thank you to a fan base that made Lincoln Financial Field feel like a bit more like home.
“I want the fans to know they do an amazing job for us,” he said after a sizable pro-Rutgers contingency made the trip to Philadelphia. “We all came out, we looked to our right, we saw not cherry red, but we saw scarlet red out there, and it was an amazing sight to see.”
This week, Lewis and his teammates expect to see nothing but scarlet.
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According to a Rutgers official, Saturday’s Big Ten opener against Iowa — dubbed a “Scarlet Out” by head coach Greg Schiano — is nearing a sellout. It will be the first time night game with fans in the stands at SHI Stadium since 2017 and potentially the best home atmosphere since the Scarlet Knights produced their first Big Ten win against Michigan in 2014.
Rutgers, who is off to a 3-0 start for the second season in a row, has the chance to pick up one of its most important wins of Schiano’s second stint Saturday. Iowa (2-1) was one of the preseason favorites to win the Big Ten West and has looked as stout defensively as any team in the nation. Still, the Hawkeyes — like the Scarlet Knights — have struggled offensively, making this a potential low-scoring game, where defense can feed off the crowd’s energy.
“Growing up, you always dream of games like this,” senior linebacker Deion Jennings said. “This is what we play the game for … night’s like it’s going to be Saturday. I can’t wait for it.”
That buzz was what Schiano and then athletic director Bob Mulcahy envisioned when they expanded Rutgers Stadium, bringing its capacity upwards of 50,000. Nights like Saturday — bringing big-time college football back to New Jersey — was part of what drew Schiano back.
“That’s why you do this,” Schiano said. “That’s why I came back to put us in position to win these games. Are we ready? Who knows. We’re going to find out.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz knows what a big-time night game can be like in Piscataway. The long-time Big Ten veteran joked he was old enough to remember “pandemonium in Piscataway” — the night No. 15 Rutgers upset no. 3Louisville in 2006.
“We expect the place to be packed and loud,” Ferentz told reporters in Iowa earlier this week. “It’s just going to really test our ability to concentrate, and more younger guys you have out there, the more that’s a challenge.”
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Punter Adam Korsak, who had one of his best games against Iowa in 2019, said there’s a noticeable buzz around campus.
“You can feel it being on campus, after football, just walking around,” Korsak said Wednesday. “I’m just excited for what Saturday is going to bring. Obviously, we’re taking it one day at a time, but you can feel the buzz.”
That’s not lost on the team’s younger players either. Defensive lineman Wesley Bailey said it’s important to feed off the energy but not get lost in it.
“I don’t want guys to be too excited to the point where they’re not focused on what their job is supposed to be,” Bailey said. “Embrace the crowd, feed off the energy but don’t let it control you. Just keep going.”
Still, the sophomore from Ottawa, said he couldn’t be more excited for the atmosphere.
“It’s going to be amazing,” Bailey said. “I’m beyond excited. Sometimes I can’t even sleep thinking about it. It’s going to be the first night game since I’ve been here, so seeing what Rutgers football is all about: the lights, 50,000 people here just going crazy and us playing Rutgers football.”
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Patrick Lanni may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.