From his family home in South Jersey, Brandon Bell’s trip north to Piscataway only took about an hour and a half.
Midway through his high school years, Bell had set out from his hometown of Mays Landing. He was headed toward the Rutgers campus where he would experience the pageantry and intensity of college football for the first time. Standing on the sideline as a recruit Rutgers coaches hoped to woo into a scarlet uniform, Bell was in awe of the gala and admittedly a bit intimidated by the violence of the sport.
“That was the first college game I had ever been to, honestly,” Bell said. “So I was amazed by everything, seeing all the big players and stuff like that, just wondering if I could play at this level.”
Two years later, Bell has found the answer to that question.
He’ll make his fourth-straight start, albeit as one of the bad guys — a Penn State linebacker who’ll line up across from players clad in scarlet and amidst a sea of it when the Nittany Lions (2-0) take on the Scarlet Knights (2-0) at High Point Solutions Stadium on Saturday at 8 p.m.
“I think the atmosphere will be a lot bigger than it was back when I went,” Bell said.
Like Bell, a handful of his teammates have been begging and bartering the last few weeks to secure a few extra tickets for this game. The Nittany Lions have 15 New Jersey natives on their roster. Among them are starting running back Bill Belton, center Angelo Mangiro, guard Brendan Mahon, tackle Andrew Nelson and defensive tackle Austin Johnson who will have large cheering contingents in the stands.
But Mangiro and his teammates aren’t expecting to hear much positive rooting coming their way. Mangiro grew up about an hour southeast of the Rutgers campus in Roxbury. He knows how serious fans in the area take their football.
“It’s a big football town, and we sold out,” Mangiro said of nearby Roxbury. “Our bleachers were full every game under Friday night lights,” Mangiro said. “So in high school, having that experience, I cherished it and I didn’t take it for granted. New Jersey does have loyal football fans.
And they’ve been looking forward to this one for some time.
Every one of High Point Solutions Stadium’s 52,454 seats were sold by Aug. 28 and Rutgers issued 425 media credentials for the game, a Rutgers athletic department spokesman confirmed.
“Yeah, I expect it to be loud,” Mangiro said.
Anatomy of a rivalry
Every dictionary differentiates and has its own nuances for how to define a rivalry.
Every one, however, calls for a nearly equal level of competitiveness between two entities for a relationship to be considered a rivalry. In this case, consider the Penn State and Rutgers football programs. The two teams haven’t competed on the field since 1995. And the 24 previous meetings? Penn State holds a 22-2 advantage.
But with the reformation of the Big Ten wherein the Nittany Lions and Scarlet Knights find themselves in the East Division — obstacles for each other in the quest for conference championships — Saturday could mark the starting point for the two programs to wage regional battles that inspire surly feelings.
Maybe it was Belton who unknowingly fired the first shot.
Belton took part in nearly three hours worth of interviews at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago in the offseason. He was asked about being recruited by Rutgers, considering the school is about 75 miles north of Belton’s Sicklerville home. Belton didn’t mince any words:
“I wanted to play big-time college football, so I came to Penn State.”
Rutgers coaches didn’t miss the quote despite the fact Belton said it nearly two months ago.
Scarlet Knights wide receiver Leonte Carroo, from Edison, N.J., took offense, as did other Scarlet Knights players who chose to attend their state’s university.
“I wanted to stay home because I wanted to bring a championship back to New Jersey,” Carroo told NJ.com “You’ve got guys like Bill Belton, who’s quoted as saying he wanted to go to Penn State because he wanted to play ‘big-time football’ instead of staying home. Well, I guess we’re going to have to show him that he made that terrible decision.”
Belton was scheduled to speak with reporters on Wednesday. His conference call with beat writers was canceled three hours before it was set to begin. A Penn State spokesman said Belton had a class conflict.
The verbal sparring hasn’t been limited to players. While Penn State coach James Franklin and Rutgers coach Kyle Flood have both insisted they consider each other good friends, they’ve engaged in plenty of gamesmanship over the past few months.
Franklin famously declared that Rutgers and fellow Big Ten newcomer Maryland wouldn’t “stand a chance” in recruiting their own backyards due to Penn State’s plans to run exhaustive recruiting campaign in New Jersey, Maryland and Northern Virginia.
Flood hasn’t said the words “Penn State” this season, instead referring to the Nittany Lions as “the team from Pennsylvania or “our neighbor to the west.”
Franklin responded at his weekly press conference on Tuesday:
“First of all, I really, really like and respect Kyle Flood,” Franklin said. “Second of all, I think we are a school in Pennsylvania, I think.”
What’s on the line?
Franklin’s pledge to “dominate the state” — his attack plan for recruiting Pennsylvania — has extended to include all areas within reasonable driving distance of Penn State’s campus.
Flood says he and his assistants recruit “The State of Rutgers,” the capital of which is, of course, the Garden State. It hasn’t prevented Flood from looking west for prospects and it won’t stop him. But he’ll continue to put priority on the in-state pipeline that is bouyed by what Flood describes as dedicated high school coaching.
“We’ve got some of the best high school coaching going on here in New Jersey,” Flood said. “We’ve got some pretty good players. New Jersey’s been a very highly recruited area for a long time. There’s always going to be more than 25 Division I players in New Jersey.”
But Penn State has been luring them away at greater rate than Rutgers has enticed Pennsylvania’s top players to play for the Scarlet Knights.
Nothing has stopped Franklin, who has wrangled seven of the Top 10 Pennsylvania prospects in the current recruiting class and six of the Top 20 recruits from New Jersey according to 24/7Sports.com’s rankings. He also made an aggressive push to flip Saeed Blacknall, once Rutgers’ top commit in the 2014 class. Blacknall will suit up for Penn State on Saturday. Penn State coaches also got four-star running back Saquon Barkley to defect from Rutgers in February.
In the past three recruiting classes, Penn State has signed 11 New Jersey players ranked among the last three Top 20 lists and nine ranked in the last three Top 10 lists in the state. By comparison, Rutgers successfully recruited six players ranked in each of the last three Top 20 lists from its own state and just one over the last three Top 10s.
Many of Penn State’s New Jersey-born players were recruited by both schools. Some took official visits like Bell.
“I think it just comes with a comfortability standpoint,” Bell said. “Penn State, it’s not too far from home but it’s far enough. You can’t just run home whenever. Don’t have a lot of distractions back home. Honestly, just seeing Penn State, what it is, a beautiful university, a lot of guys fall in love with it on the first visit, you almost can’t beat it.”
Mangiro grew up primarily watching whatever the marquee college football matchup was on Saturdays. It rarely involved the nearby Scarlet Knights.
“A lot of people from my area do go to Rutgers,” Mangiro said. “But I was always a college football fan, and my friends were college football fans, so on Saturday, we always tried to watch the big game no matter what the matchup was. Penn State always seemed to be one of those games that we watched.”
Recruits from both Pennsylvania and Rutgers will be watching from the sidelines on Saturday.
Like Bell, it may be the first time they’ll have experienced college football. Like Mangiro, they may be more familiar with Penn State due to the Nittany Lions’ long stay in the national spotlight. Most importantly, they’ll get an up-close look at some of the players who lit up their high school fields before them. Rutgers and Penn State have a combined 69 players from New Jersey and 60 players from Pennsylvania high schools on their roster.
Both teams stand to gain plenty more.
A special bond
While the regional series between the Nittany Lions and Scarlet Knight will start anew with a possible rivalry ready to simmer, the Penn State and Rutgers communities already share a special bond through two New Jersey-born players with ties to both schools.
It’s one that’s been forged through trying times. It has evolved as former Nittany Lion defensive back Adam Taliaferro and former Scarlet Knight defensive tackle Eric LeGrand have made a lasting friendship in the wake of horrific spinal cord injuries each man suffered nearly a decade apart.
Both former players will serve as honorary captains for their former teams prior to Saturday’s kickoff in what Taliaferro is anticipating will be an emotional moment.
“A lot of my friends I went to high school with went to Rutgers and so when this game got put on the schedule, certainly it was real exciting being able to share it with Eric,” Taliaferro said.
In 2010, 10 years after Taliaferro was paralyzed making a tackle against Ohio State and nine years after a remarkable recovery that saw him jog out of the tunnel of Beaver Stadium, Taliaferro was working at a fundraiser for his Adam Taliaferro Foundation. Then-Penn State team doctor Wayne Sebastianelli was in attendance and had received a call from then-coach Joe Paterno who had talked to former player and then-Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano. The Rutgers coach had witnessed LeGrand fracture his C-3 and C-4 cervical vertebrae in a game against Army earlier that day.
Taliaferro reached out to LeGrand’s parents to see if he and his foundation could help. He waited until LeGrand was out of surgery and was able to receive visitors and paid the injured Rutgers player a visit. Taliaferro made a habit of checking in on LeGrand throughout his rehab.
“From the very first time I saw him he was just, really, really positive,” Taliaferro said. “That’s the thing that struck me was how positive he was.”
Taliaferro drew comparisons between his and LeGrand’s families, calling them “great support groups” that helped them stray from negative thoughts. LeGrand, who remains in a wheelchair but has regained movement in his shoulders and sensation in his fingers, credits Taliaferro with being a big part of his circle of support.
On Saturday, Taliaferro and LeGrand will meet up and undoubtedly inspire one another again — Taliaferro as an encouraging sign for LeGrand, who is determined to walk again, and LeGrand who is a constant reminder for Taliaferro of what he went through and why he continues to work to raise money for people who suffer similar injuries.
A handful of players who played in Taliaferro’s charity all-star game for his foundation, one of the foundation’s primary money-raising events, will then take the field to kick off what both men hope will be an intriguing and enduring gridiron affair for years to come.
At that point, Taliaferro and LeGrand will have opposite rooting interests, however.
Since his injury, Taliaferro earned a law degree from Rutgers and won a seat on Penn State’s board of trustees. Meanwhile, he’s helped oversee the growth of the Adam Taliaferro Foundation, which is nearing the million-dollar mark for money raised that’s gone to help people who have suffered similar spinal cord injuries.
“I think it’s going to be a great game for the state of New Jersey,” Taliaferro said. “With Rutgers and their football program, when I was in high school they were one of my first scholarship offers and you always thought about Rutgers but when I was coming up, Penn State was the school in this area. That was the school you wanted to go to and Rutgers wasn’t doing too hot back then. But it’s been a little bit better. I think it’s going to be an atmosphere unlike anything Rutgers has seen before.”