I'll put it very simply: I love New Jersey, and I really, really dislike Rutgers. It's why I fled the state in the fall of 2005 when it was time for my fancy book-learnin'.
Take every bad stereotype about this wonderful state, roll it into a ball, and you will have created Rutgers. And they even play football, too, though not very well as of late.
Tonight, when UConn plays Rutgers (7:30 p.m., ESPN) in Piscataway, it's about damn time the Huskies start meteing out some well-earned payback to our Scarlet tormentors.
UConn and Rutgers have been on similar trajectories since about 2001, when the Scarlet Knights were the first I-A team UConn ever defeated on the road. The two teams reached respectability near the middle of the decade, although UConn after 2004 appeared to be in a better position.
But it wasn't to be.
Rutgers' rise was swift, and by 2006, they won the only-in-Internet-message-board-fans-heads' race to become the Big East's formerly-dormant, now-up-and-coming program (i.e. the Anti-Syracuse). The win over Louisville in 2006 put Rutgers' name on the back page of the New York papers, and on the lips of national college football fans for the first time since ever.
Why them? Why not us? In my eyes, UConn should have had the obnoxious bandwagon fans. We should have gotten there first. UConn should have been the team hyped up by the media, the underdog story of a program lifted from nothingness to respectability. To be defeated by the Raritan interlopers in the race to respectability was discouraging.
That's the proto-version of UConn fans' dislike with Rutgers.
But the race is long, and the story has taken twists and turns since then. And fortunately for the sanity of college football fans along the northern I-95 corridor, the football gods are fickle, laughing gaily as Rutgers blew its chance at a BCS game with a missed two-point conversion in overtime at West Virginia. UConn kinda-sorta won a share of the Big East title the following year, and Rutgers dropped off the national radar after failing to live up to expectations in early 2007. With order restored to the universe, the two teams were more or less equal, though of course UConn hasn't really approached the somewhat dizzying heights of Rutgers in 2006-07.
And yet, that parity hasn't been apparent judging by the results on the field. Captain Helicopter has had an inexplicable hold over UConn over the past five years, winning four of five since the Huskies won in Jersey on Thanksgiving 2004:
UConn probably should have won in 2005, when Rutgers won a crazy game in which UConn was down to its third string quarterback. Rutgers 26, UConn 24.
UConn even could have won in 2006 against Rutgers' BEST TEAM EVAR with UConn's WORST TEAM EVAR, except the Scarlet Knights blocked a punt for a touchdown, and won in rather unimpressive fashion on a weird Sunday night game in Piscataway. Rutgers 24, UConn 13.
UConn would have won the 2008 game, also in Piscataway, except that kicker Tony Ciaravino went all TONY CIARAVINO and missed four field goals, including the game-winning 47-yarder (off the upright) in the final minute. Rutgers 12, UConn 10.
And of course, let's not revisit the trauma of 2009, when UConn erased a 21-10 second-half deficit, saw Randy Edsall nearly punch an official in the face after calling a 2-point conversion pass to an eligible offensive tackle(!), watched Jordan Todman score the go-ahead TD with under a minute left, and then...darkness.
Every year (except 2007), these two teams seem to play close games. The logical side of me tells me tonight will be a close game. The logical side tells me that UConn isn't nearly as good as it looked against a pair of overmatched, bad teams who will have difficulty sniffing .500. (The logical side also tells me that the best way to predict UConn's success in conference is by whether the opponent is under .500, to the tune of a 5-20 record vs. Big East teams with at least 7 wins since 2004. So tonight could be a litmus test for Scarlet Knights fans.)
But let's be frank: UConn should win this game tonight. I don't care about the matchups, the budding rivalry, the fact that it's a road conference game nationally televised at night. If UConn can't go in to the House That Schiano Flipped and do at least what Tulane did, then we need to slow this FBS train down and reconsider.
This will be the sixth consecutive UConn-Rutgers where I will be in attendance, and I am tired of coulda, shoulda and woulda. I want UConn to beat those gel-soaked flash-in-the-pans so bad, Richie from Metuchen will have flashbacks of Terry Shea.
Let's go Huskies.