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At Rutgers, where things won't always look this bad

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Rutgers Homecoming was a pathetic sight Saturday, but don't think that somehow discredits its B1G bona fides.

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Saturday's weather was determined to make a caricature out of Rutgers. The New Brunswick campus is a pretty place, and it went through great lengths to make itself ready for Homecoming and a potential season-saving win. Then the cold and the wind and the rain ruined everything.

If you were unsure whether a New Jersey university could fit in the Big Ten, you weren't convinced by a gloomy hour-long train ride from New York City, and certainly not by the crowd or anything that happened on the field.

The announced attendance of 52,727 did not describe the scene inside a stadium that holds 52,454.

To be fair to Gary Nova and Chris Laviano, few quarterbacks on the East Coast had a good day Saturday. (And to be fair again, that's still not much of an excuse for a 37-0 loss.) Wisconsin's Joel Stave went 7-for-16 for 81 yards and was the game's best quarterback with a 24.8 passer rating. Nova and Laviano had 2.1 and 2.6 ratings, respectively, combining to go 7-for-27 for 63 yards and an interception.

Nova was a game-time start due to a knee injury. In hindsight, the decision was poor. Not just because of the weather or the injury, but because it became clear soon after kickoff that nothing would be going right against Wisconsin's defense that day. Head coach Kyle Flood admitted that he pulled Nova in the third quarter because he saw that his offensive line was overmatched.

You could say fans saw the same thing. The crowd thinned considerably after halftime. It hadn't been close to filling capacity at High Point Solutions Stadium prior to the break. The announced attendance of 52,727 did not describe the scene inside a stadium that holds 52,454. By the end of the game, the crowd was probably more Wisconsin than Rutgers, though it was difficult to tell with so many neutral-colored ponchos in the stands. Whoever stayed until the final whistle did so to prove endurance.


The Rutgers student section six minutes into Saturday's game

It was no day for football, the proof being that Wisconsin-Rutgers might have been one of the more watchable games among the noon kickoffs, especially on a Big Ten slate featuring a similarly lopsided Iowa win and a Maryland-Penn State slog. The conference should have stayed in bed.

Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen's post-game press conference was a clinical game breakdown. It hit on line items like a first quarter punt block and Corey Clement's big day running the ball in his home state. Flood began his comments as if he heard Andersen's presser and was tired of the world talking about the Rutgers program like a formality.

"I'm going to tell you that that three‑game stretch [at Ohio State, at Nebraska, vs. Wisconsin] is going to be something we're going to look back on at the end of the year as one of the points in the history of this program that is going to propel us to great things," Flood said. "There's frustration, but there never anything but love for each other. And I can't tell you how incredible that is, and I can't tell you how hard that is."


Homecoming festivities outside High Point Solutions Stadium

Rutgers is pure potential, tucked 30 miles south of an enormous city, in a recruiting hotbed, and now as an appendage of the best money-making conference in college athletics. It is supposed to be New York City's team, and if that's the case, it should understand what an enormous asset that could be and how much harder it needs to work. One of New York City's defining characteristics is that it can give you anything, but at a tremendous sacrifice of energy and decency.

A train from Penn Station will take you straight to New Brunswick, and a free shuttle right to the stadium. If you're a student, someone will hand you a free ticket to a game at a lovely facility. But though it's easy to go, you still need a reason. Multiple fans used air quotes when they said, "We're a football school," which really means, "We're sure as hell not a basketball school." A man named Mike added, "I guess," when he said Syracuse was the school's biggest rival.

Conversely, Wisconsin is the school that consistently maxes its resources and has established itself as a regular contender for Big Ten titles and a 10-25 spot in the final polls. It has become the caricature of B1G football, with a big, passionate student body and a tradition of winning by simple means.

Whether Rutgers can fit that mold is unclear, but beside the point. Rutgers is B1G, and the onus should be on the rest of the conference to rework their conceptions. A dispirited crowd under dispiriting weather didn't give it much of a chance Saturday.

The biggest cheer of the day came in the third quarter, when Rutgers finally got a good punt off after shanking several. It was a Bronx cheer, sarcastic as hell, but at least it was some sign from the fanbase that it wants to be better. The good news for Rutgers is that later days can only be sunnier.