PISCATAWAY— Amid the bitter chill and dozens of devoted (or delusional) fans, the clock slowly winds Saturday’s game to a close. The scoreboard reads: “Michigan, 42. Rutgers, 7”.
As the Scarlet Knights scamper for a first down, the PA announcer chimes in with a hearty “That’s a Rutgers… FIRST DOWN!” Two plays later, Wolverines sophomore cornerback Ambry Thomas intercepts a pass from Scarlet Knights quarterback Artur Sitkowski.
“We can still win!” yells a member of the Rutgers band. The last two remaining brave souls in the front row donning scarlet hold up three fingers. They boast ironic smiles as a Michigan third down approaches with under a minute left in the game.
Devotion, delusion, what’s really the difference? Fandom requires plenty of both.
The game comes to a merciful close, Rutgers notching its 33rd conference loss since joining the Big Ten in 2014. Players share pleasantries. Some search for their families.
Then the two programs walk down the tunnel at the same time, diverting into polar opposite paths.
On one side of the locker room is a program blossoming into a national juggernaut. With the win, the Wolverines marched one week closer to a potential Big Ten title and College Football Playoff appearance.
“It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine right now,” said junior defensive end Rashan Gary “That’s all I got to say.”
On the other, a team slowly crawling toward season’s end. The Rutgers team meeting room is littered with motivational quotes and checklists, as if offering a plea rather than encouragement.
One — posted in between the meeting rooms, covering a full wall — lists special teams goals that have been met or failed to have been met in each game. Another includes a four-step “plan to win.”
Rutgers coach Chris Ash starts his press conference by thanking reporters for coming, and you truly believe him.
“Coming into the game (Michigan was) playing as good as anybody in the country,” Ash said. “Playing a team like that, you’ve got to play almost perfect football. We made some mistakes in all three phases of the game to let that score get the way it did.”
He laments many of those mistakes. His team threw for just 59 yards — 19 of which came via a running back. His defense stopped just four of Michigan’s 12 third down attempts. In the end, what was a 7-7 game after the first quarter spiraled into the 42-7 blowout everyone expected.
He also lists achievements. He was proud to have been able to run for 193 yards against a stout Wolverines front. He thinks his team held up well in the trenches.
There was a moment late in the first quarter, when Scarlet Knights running back Isaih Pacheco scampered 80 yards to tie the game at seven, and cast just a shadow of doubt on this forgone conclusion.
The crowd was giddy. The players jumped around. Positivity — a foreign feeling to many — spread around the stadium.
“I felt like we’ve been there before,” Pacheco said, on the feeling around the team after the score. “This is a play we could do to any team. We’ve just gotta all play together.”
Sitkowski felt a heightened belief, too. Maybe, just maybe, this one-win football team could pull off the unthinkable.
“We believed as soon as we stepped foot on that field, man. We believed. We all believed. We’ve believed since we saw Michigan on our schedule,” Sitkowski said. “No matter what was going to happen we all believed in each other. It never crossed our mind. When Isaih hit that run, I tell ya, we were all excited. It shows that we can do it, man. We can do anything we put our minds to in life.”
The Wolverines rattled off 35 unanswered the rest of the game — and Rutgers returned to its interminable stasis of misery. Michigan junior quarterback Shea Patterson largely did as he pleased, completing 18-of-27 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns in three tidy quarters of work. Sitkowski finished a beleaguered 8-of-19 for 40 yards and an interception. This is nothing new for Rutgers. This was just Saturday.
After being asked a generic question about his team’s performance, Sitkowski responds with a 15-second answer that includes the phrase “we played hard” five times.
In fairness, what is there left to say? His team hasn’t won a conference game in over a full calendar year. Since joining the conference in 2014, Rutgers has routinely served as the doormat of the Big Ten. Saturday evening was just the next in line of beatdowns and humiliations.
Sophomore center Cesar Ruiz emerges from the scrum of players after the game and walks up to Rutgers offensive lineman Micah Clark.
Clark lets out a sigh and a smile. He needs not say more.