Sports

Rutgers nearing Iowa sellout as players prepare for ‘dream’ atmosphere

Rutgers sophomore Aaron Lewis had a message for fans last week after the Scarlet Knights took a win against Temple. Having had the best performance of his young career, the defensive lineman just wanted to say thank you to a fan base that made Lincoln Financial Field feel a little more like home.

“I want the fans to know that they are doing a great job for us,” he said after a large pro-Rutgers contingent made the trip to Philadelphia. “We all came out, we looked to the right, we didn’t see a cherry red, but we saw scarlet 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 nearly sold out. It will be the first evening game with fans in the stands at SHI Stadium since 2017 and possibly the best home atmosphere since the Scarlet Knights took their first Big Ten win against Michigan in 2014.

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Rutgers, who starts 3-0 for the second season in a row, has the chance to take one of the most important wins of Schiano’s second stint on Saturday. Iowa (2-1) was one of the preseason favorites to win the Big Ten West and has looked as solid defensively as any other team in the nation. Still, like the Scarlet Knights, the Hawkeyes have struggled offensively, making this a potentially low-scoring game, where the defense can feed off the crowd’s energy.

“Growing up, you always dream about these kinds of games,” said senior linebacker Deion Jennings. “This is what we play the game for… nights like it’s Saturday. I can’t wait for it.”

That buzz was what Schiano and then-athletic director Bob Mulcahy had in mind when they expanded Rutgers Stadium, bringing its capacity to over 50,000. Nights like Saturday—bringing the big college football back to New Jersey—were part of what pulled Schiano back.

“That’s why you’re doing this,” Schiano said. “That’s why I came back to put us in a position to win these games. Are we ready? Who knows. We’re going to find out.”

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Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz knows what a big night game can look like in Piscataway. The longtime Big Ten veteran joked that he was old enough to remember “pandemonium in Piscataway” — the night number 15 upset number 3 Louisville in 2006.

“We expect it to be crowded and noisy,” Ferentz told reporters in Iowa earlier this week. “It’s just going to test our ability to concentrate, and the more younger guys you have, the more challenging that is.”

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Punter Adam Korsak, who played one of his best games against Iowa in 2019, said there is a noticeable buzz around campus.

“You can feel that you are on campus, after football, just walking around,” Korsak said on Wednesday. “I’m just excited for what Saturday will bring. We look at it day by day, of course, but you feel the buzz.”

This is not lost on the younger players of the team. Defense lineman Wesley Bailey said it’s important to feed on the energy, but not get lost in it.

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“I don’t want guys to get so excited that they’re not focused on what their job should be,” Bailey said. “Embrace the crowd, feed on the energy, but don’t let it control you. Just keep going.”

Still, the sophomore from Ottawa said he couldn’t be more excited about the atmosphere.

“It’s going to be great,” Bailey said. “I am 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 to see what Rutgers football is all about: the lights, 50,000 people here going crazy and we’re playing Rutgers football.”

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Patrick Lanni can be reached at: [email protected].

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