PISCATAWAY — On Monday of last week, the Rutgers football program sent out a release reminding fans of an announcement it had made last spring. For Saturday’s primetime kickoff against No. 4 Michigan, the Scarlet Knights planned on “Striping the Birthplace,” asking fans in odd-numbered sections to wear black and those in even-numbered sections to wear red to create a striped effect.
The idea was to foster a special atmosphere in Piscataway (which Rutgers markets as the birthplace of college football because the school played the first-ever college football game in 1869). That environment also included a cannon in the corner of the end zone, a loud horn, fireworks, flames and a scarlet-clad knight on a white horse.
There was only one problem with that plan. A decent chunk of Michigan’s East Coast alumni in the New York area made the trip to High Point Solutions Stadium wearing maize and blue. So while the Scarlet Knights sought a “Striped Birthplace” with the fourth-largest crowd in stadium history at 53,292, the visitors dotted it.
Rutgers’ other effort to garner attention in one of the most valuable recruiting grounds in college football today goes back much further. In January, shortly after the Scarlet Knights introduced former Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash as their new head coach, they coined the term “Fence the Garden.” This catchphrase referred to an effort to keep the best high school football players in New Jersey (“The Garden State”) for college.
As it turned out, that plan hasn’t gone well, either. A few weeks after the advent of “Fence the Garden,” the top-ranked recruit in the country — Plainfield, N.J., native Rashan Gary — committed to Michigan. Saturday, he played his first game in his home state since high school and made two tackles with half a sack. East Orange, N.J., native Jabrill Peppers, of whom you may have heard, rushed for two touchdowns as a wildcat quarterback. One student in the crowd held a sign that read, in all capital letters, “Peppers Grew in the Garden.”
And, of course, the Scarlet Knights hoped to win the game. That goal went worse than the first two. It resulted in a 78-0 massacre, one of the most lopsided games in Big Ten history. That, more than any recruit or fan presence, showed how far Rutgers is from being able to fence the garden.
Taking control of one of the sport’s hottest areas isn’t as easy as it seems — not with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer recruiting the area constantly, not with those two coaches setting up a stranglehold on the Big Ten’s East Division, not with such a heavy Michigan alumni presence in the area already.
In fact, growing up in New Jersey years ago, Michigan alum Anthony Wilson remembers seeing only Michigan and Penn State games on local TV. He graduated from the University in 1985 before returning to the Garden State and rooting for the Wolverines from afar. Saturday, his team came to him for the second time in three years, and the University’s Alumni Association hosted a pregame tailgate outside the stadium for area alumni such as Wilson.
“It’s great getting to see them every year,” Wilson said at the tailgate. “It’s a dream come true — even though it’s not going to be as competitive as it should be.”
Until Rutgers and Maryland joined the Big Ten two years ago, Michigan had visited the East Coast for games just two times since 1969. The Wolverines won at Boston College in 1991 and Connecticut in 2013, traveling only as far as Penn State outside of those games. But conference expansion now makes a trip to the East Coast a yearly occurrence.
The growth of the Big Ten base to the New York area was one of the draws for Rutgers to the conference — though it was secondary to the TV revenue from Big Ten Network — and the Alumni Association has taken advantage. The organization schedules one big road tailgate every year, choosing Maryland last year before a hurricane postponed it. Saturday’s event at Rutgers also wasn’t in ideal weather, but for fans like Wilson, it was a rare chance.
“They don’t always get to come back for these games,” said Dan Arment, the marketing coordinator for the Alumni Association, “so we like to try to bring some Michigan flavor out to them.”
Of course, not everyone welcomes the spread of the Midwest to the East. Frank Wrublevski, a 1979 Rutgers graduate, sported a particularly incendiary sign before the game.
“Wanted for poaching,” it read, with pictures of Harbaugh, Meyer and Penn State coach James Franklin. “There is no honor among some Big 10 coaches. Beware: There is a new sheriff in town and it could be time for a good old fashioned Ash Woopin’.”
Wrublevski, who lives a few miles from the stadium in South Plainfield, N.J., acknowledged that Rutgers’ rebuilding process would be slow, and the blowout the Scarlet Knights suffered a few hours later verified that statement. But Wrublevski arrived at 5:30 a.m. Saturday anyway, the first tailgater in the lot, to prepare for what he hopes will be a burgeoning rivalry.
“It’s sad to see all these kids go,” Wrublevski said. “But we’ll get some coming sooner or later. And once a couple stick and they start winning, they’ll get more.”
Harbaugh isn’t going to make it easy, though. He never shies away from a war of words with other coaches or schools. Saturday was no exception, as Michigan went for two up 27-0 in the first half.
That piling-on won’t stop with this weekend. Harbaugh has come after New Jersey and will continue to do so, and Rutgers is in the way.
The garden is up for grabs, and it’s going to take more than a fence to protect it.
Lourim can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @jakelourim.