PISCATAWAY — A cannon fired to celebrate a touchdown that ended up being overturned.
A train horn sounded after halftime to welcome a team that had picked up exactly zero first downs — a performance so embarrassing that even that team’s official Twitter account stopped tweeting after 10 minutes of game time.
The loudest reaction from the home crowd in the first half didn’t come from a home team touchdown, but from the stadium D.J.’s choice of The Chainsmokers’ smash hit and tailgating anthem, “Closer.”
In the fourth quarter, a group of marching band members stood near opposing fans and started playing the visiting team’s fight song, as they have done in the past. To that point in the game, they barely had reason to play their own.
It was a bizarre scene at High Point Solutions Stadium, where Rutgers fans witnessed their team return home from a 58-0 loss to No. 2 Ohio State last week to fall victim to an almost-surreal 78-0 drubbing at the hands of No. 4 Michigan on Saturday.
It was supposed to be a “#StripeTheBirthplace” night for the Scarlet Knights, where the sections of the stadium alternated red and black in a sign of unity. It started out promising, with the crowd of 53,292 standing as the fourth-highest mark in school history. But by the second half, that movement suffered a sudden death.
“The second quarter, we went up to get food, and when we came back, everyone had left,” said a Rutgers student named Kasia, a junior sociology major who was one of the few people left standing in the student section as Michigan pushed past the 70-point mark in the fourth quarter.
Those fans obviously weren’t expecting a comeback, and they weren’t exactly optimistic beacons of school spirit, either.
If anything, the Scarlet Knight fans of 2016 are a group so filled with apathy that they were numb to what was happening to their team Saturday night.
Brendan Francy is a mechanical engineering student who has already experienced plenty of football-related disappointment in just his sophomore year. Late in the fourth quarter Saturday, Francy pulled out his phone to show evidence of the time national television cameras caught him with a blank, defeated stare last season when the Scarlet Knights lost a 42-point home game to the Buckeyes.
Francy reminisced about the time Rutgers beat then-No. 3 Louisville in 2006 and upset the Wolverines two years ago. He showed a little optimism by citing the team’s improving recruiting classes, new coach Chris Ash’s extensive background and a belief that the team would eventually be able to compete for talented recruits in its home state.
Still, Francy said he found himself pulling for Michigan most of Saturday’s game — especially after the score got out of hand in the first quarter. (He’s from New Jersey, but his dad’s best friend went to Michigan, he said, so his family became fans.) He even wore a T-shirt with both team’s logos on it to claim neutrality.
“I’ll root for Michigan or Rutgers,” he said. “(But) since Rutgers has no chance of going anywhere, I’ll root for Michigan.”
Not all of them were so quick to jump ship, though. A student named Waleed, a sophomore civil engineering major and one of Brendan and Kasia’s friends, showed some passion when he mentioned how disappointed in he was in the players’ performance as a negative representation of “our school.”
Still, he wasn’t even mad when Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh opted to go for two with a 27-0 lead. Nor did he seem to care that the team’s home stadium had been effectively hijacked by fans in maize and blue. (“If I was up 77-0, I’d be doing the same thing,” he said.)
Waleed did cling to one silver lining, though, that might make it seem like the Scarlet Knights’ latest loss wasn’t for nothing. Maybe the Wolverines were just a great team, and maybe demolishing Rutgers might be enough to boost Michigan higher in the rankings.
“I get that we’re bad, but it’s 71-0,” he said. “They’ve gotta move up one slot. At least one.”
When that’s all they had to look forward to, though, why did these fans even stay?
Largely, because they just didn’t care anymore. In fact, they’ve grown so used to the losing that they’ve started deciding to stay around just in case one positive thing happens by accident.
“I like these kinds of games where we’re losing by a lot,” Kasia said, “because if we get a touchdown in the last four minutes, everyone is so happy to have anything that it’s really exciting.”
Sometimes that excitement comes from just seeing a knight ride out on a live horse after an extra point. Other times, it comes from getting a wave from the mascot as he walks around the sideline, which Waleed did near the end of the game.
And sometimes, it even comes from a cannon being fired for no reason at all. Waleed joked that they should start shooting it off after first downs (Rutgers picked up two in the entire game).
“It’s better than nothing,” he said. “It’s all we have.”
But when the cannon finally sounded a few minutes later, it did actually have some meaning: Everyone could go home.
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously implied that the marching band playing the visiting team’s fight song was a practice unique to Saturday’s game. It is not, and that sentence has been altered.