Scarlet Knights aiming high in 2004
Rutgers strong safety Jarvis Johnson stole the show at the Big East Conference media day in late July, sporting a fire-engine red, double-breasted suit with pinstripes. His teeth sparkled in gold and his shoes were spit-shined to perfection.
"Got to look the part," said Johnson, the Scarlet Knights' leading returning tackler. "You want people to notice."
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Hard as it might be to believe, expectations are high in New Brunswick -- and not just by Rutgers standards. People really think these guys can win. Maybe even a lot.
"This ain't the same old Rutgers," said Johnson, one of 27 players from Florida on the roster. "Get ready."
If this is to be a breakthrough season for the Scarlet Knights, they'll need to pass an early test on Saturday when they play host to Michigan State (ABC, 3:30 ET) in the season opener at Rutgers Stadium. The national cameras will catch every minute of it.
This is a game fourth-year coach Greg Schiano needs for a number of reasons, not the least of which is putting a stamp on the legitimacy of a program that was left for dead when he left a cushy defensive coordinator's job at Miami to take over in 2001.
Michigan State has some talent back from last year's 8-5 Alamo Bowl team, but is beatable.
"It's certainly a great opportunity for the nation to see us," said Schiano, the youngest coach in Division I-A at 38. "It's a great opportunity to show what we've been doing with our program. But it's one of 11."
Junior quarterback Ryan Hart set school marks for completions, attempts and yards (234-of-398 for 2,714 yards with 15 touchdowns). He is the centerpiece of a program that hasn't had a winning season since 1992, a program that's been to just one bowl game all-time, a program that's reaping the benefits of a $13 million upgrade to its practice facilities.
Schiano has successfully built a fence around New Jersey that's kept the local products in state, as evidenced by 13 all-state signees in 2001 and a total of 70 Jersey kids on the current roster. Billboards plugging "The State University" are everywhere. The Rutgers name even appears on billboards in Florida.
On Saturday, Schiano's team gets a three-hour infomercial in front of the nation.
"It'll be just another effort to show the young men of our state and nationally that Rutgers is a viable choice," Schiano said. "I'm not na´ve. I know we won't keep all of them, but we have to keep the right Jersey players at home, the ones who can help us win a championship."
Joe Bendel covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.