By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Rutgers is known as the birthplace for college football for hosting the first ever intercollegiate football game on November 6, 1869 in which Rutgers defeated a team from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) six goals to four.
The Scarlet Knights have also played in 10 bowl games and are 6-4 in those games, including winning five bowls games in a row from 2006 to 2011 under former head coach Greg Schiano.
Rutgers also finished 11-0 in 1976 season and 11-2 in 2006.
The problem with those milestones and achievements is that they have nothing to do with what is happening at Rutgers right now on the football field.
Recruits don’t care that Rutgers hosted the first college game or that Rutgers finished undefeated during the bi-centennial over 40 years ago.
Fans don’t, either.
Rutgers is proof that being first at doing something doesn’t mean that much over time.
Rutgers is also proof that television revenue is now the driving force in big-time college athletics because how else do you explain its addition to the Big Ten Conference in 2014?
With the addition of Rutgers, the Big Ten tapped into the vast East Coast television markets, and to all the trimmings that come with that.
But there is also a downside to Rutgers being in the Big Ten in that its football program has mostly been woeful since joining the conference.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Iowa will coast to an easy win over Rutgers in Saturday’s Big Ten opener at Kinnick Stadium.
You never say never when two Big Ten teams collide, except for maybe against Northwestern in the 1970s and 1980s.
But Rutgers is about as close as its gets to expecting victory, and maybe that helps to explain the lack of a buzz surrounding Saturday’s game, which will start at 11:05 a.m. and television by Fox Sports 1.
There still were roughly 6,000 tickets remaining for Saturday's game as of Tuesday afternoon.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a Hawkeye fan who thinks that Iowa is at risk of losing on Saturday, and the Scarlet Knights only have themselves to blame for that after having combined for an 11-37 record over the previous four seasons, including 1-11 last season.
Rutgers has yet to show that it belongs in the Big Ten from a football competitive standpoint.
A victory over Iowa on Saturday would be a major step in fixing that, but it’s hard to see a scenario beyond Iowa unraveling due to committing multiple turnovers in which Rutgers would prevail.
Rutgers is certainly not without talent, especially at the skill positions.
But most football games are won from the inside-out and that is where Iowa is, or should be, vastly superior to Rutgers, even without injured left tackle Alaric Jackson.
Saturday’s game will mark the first time that Rutgers has played in Iowa City and is just the second game in the series. Iowa hung on to edge Rutgers 14-7 in the 2016 Big Ten opener in Piscataway, N.J.
“I think the biggest thing right now, it's the first time we've hosted them, and earliest Big Ten game we've played in the last 20 years, so it's going to be a little bit different, and the biggest thing is they're playing well right now,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Rutgers, which defeated Massachusetts 48-21 in its season opener last Saturday at home. “I think if you look back last year, they really finished strong. They played four of their five opponents at the end of season, all five of the last opponents were really good football teams, and four of those games really they played very well.”
Ferentz made those comments to the media this past Tuesday at his weekly press conference. It was probably similar to the message that he has been preaching all week to his players.
And that message is that every opponent, especially every Big Ten opponent, deserves respect.
Rutgers has some talented players, led by running back Isaih Pacheco, who was the only player to rush for four touchdowns in the first full week of college games. Pacheco shredded Massachusetts for 156 rushing yards, while new starting quarterback McLane Carter passed for 340 yards and two touchdowns.
"They love to run the ball, they love to run the ball, between the tackles and they love to run outside," said Iowa starting free safety Kaevon Merriweather. "But after a while with running, they're going hit you with the deep ball, eventually.
"So we're just making sure that we stay on our keys and making sure that we read run and pass, and making sure that nobody gets on top of us."
Carter is a 6-foot-3, 225-pound graduate transfer from Texas Tech.
“They clearly made progress last year,” Ferentz said. “I think that carried over into this season. And now as you look at their football team, they're a little bit different in some regards with the new quarterback that transferred. He played a good game the other night, threw the ball all over the place and threw the ball really well.
“They've got two skilled running backs that I think are as good as anybody has got in the conference, but those guys are really dangerous players, and they've got good skill guys outside, as well.”
Iowa, on the other hand, is coming off a 9-4 season and is considered a legitimate contender for the Big Ten West Division title.
The Hawkeyes are led by a three-year starting quarterback in senior Nate Stanley, and by one of the nation’s top players regardless of position in junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa.
Junior Tristan Wirfs is also an emerging star at either offensive tackle position. Wirfs usually starts at right tackle, but moved to left tackle after Jackson was injured in the first quarter against Miami of Ohio.
Wirfs handled the quick switch quite well, according to his head coach's evaluation.
"I thought he clearly played his best game since he's been here," Kirk Ferentz said of the 6-5, 322-pound Wirfs.
But Iowa’s schedule is brutal, especially the road schedule, so that makes winning on Saturday even more important.
If Iowa is as good as some have suggested, then it should beat Rutgers at home, or anywhere for that matter.
That isn’t meant as disrespect to Rutgers, but facts and records don’t lie.
Rutgers head coach Chris Ash grew up in Iowa and played football for Drake University under his father. But that probably isn’t enough to give his players an emotional boost because why would they really care that their head coach grew up in the same state where their opponent is located?
Maybe if Ash had played football at Iowa it would be different.
Ash, in his fourth season as head coach, is running out of time to rebuild the Rutgers program. But a win on Saturday would certainly slow the sand from rushing through the hour glass.
It just seems so unlikely based on a number of factors, including that Iowa is just better.
Prediction: Iowa 34, Rutgers 14