7:31 PM EDT, October 2, 2012
STORRS — Dwayne Gratz grew up in Piscataway, five minutes from Rutgers' football stadium. He needed five seconds to bare his feelings Tuesday about his state university.
"I don't like Rutgers," UConn's starting senior cornerback said. "I never have. I never will."
As the jukebox musical attests, Jersey Boys can sing. Evidently, Jersey Boys Scorned can sing even louder.
"He didn't get the memo," said senior captain Nick Williams, breaking into a laugh as he sat next to Gratz during lunch at the Burton Family Complex. "I've been listening to him. I was going to kick him in the leg a couple of times. Take it down a notch."
The rule of football thumb, of course, is never have your words end up on another team's bulletin board. Don't give the opponent any extra motivation, blah, blah, blah.
It's a little late for that with Rutgers and UConn football. And although much of the rivalry is based on nearby state universities battling on the Big East field of play — and maybe a place in the ACC — it's also about Jersey kids like Gratz and Williams who end up in Storrs after being snubbed by the Scarlet Knights.
Gratz (Exit 9, Jersey Turnpike) and starting defensive tackle Ryan Wirth, from Medford (Exit 4), share similar stories.
Asked if Rutgers gave him an offer, Wirth gave one of those looks that made you think his best answer would be to crunch Jawan Jamison for a 3-yard loss Saturday when the schools meet at High Point Stadium.
"I committed to UConn after prep school," Wirth said. "And you know what? Rutgers was in the door the next weekend. Since high school, it's always been that kind of deal for everybody on my team."
Rutgers would never admit this, but there long has been a feeling that the school would dawdle on what it considered a marginal Jersey recruit until an upstart conference foe like UConn made an offer. Then it would swoop in. Needless to say, being ignored when your family and all your high school friends are wondering if you'll go to State U can lead to a Jersey-sized chip on a kid's shoulder.
"I think everybody wants to let them know, 'I bet you wish you did [chase them hard with an offer],'" Wirth said. "But everybody here is happy to be where they are. I know I would never trade it for the world. It's just letting it be known — you know."
"The funny thing is, Rutgers didn't offer me until UConn did," Gratz said. "I kind of built a little hatred for them, because I always wanted to go there. It was kind of disappointing to know they only wanted you because another Big East school did."
"I wasn't even afforded that luxury," Williams said.
Rutgers didn't show up late with an offer for Williams. Rutgers didn't show up at all.
So why aren't you firing up like Gratz?
"I'm just internalizing it a little bit more," said Williams, from East Windsor (Exit 8). "It was disappointing for me. I wished things went differently a couple of years ago, but everything happens for a reason."
And there's a reason why there are 12 Jersey players on the UConn roster. Donald Brown, Kashif Moore, et al., Jersey has been a fertile area for UConn since it elevated to Division I-A. In the case of transfer Shakim Phillips, who chose Boston College as a highly recruited receiver out of Paterson, Rutgers was heavily involved. But more often, it's not the case.
"The Jersey guys on the team up here, it's definitely a game that's circled," Williams said. "That attitude spreads through the rest of the team, down to younger guys from Georgia who have no idea about the way we feel. You can see the Jersey guys set the tone this week and people feed off that energy or hatred and it builds into a focus."
Greg Schiano, who left Rutgers to become Tampa Bay Bucs coach, has gained notoriety recently with that nonsense about hitting opponents while in the victory formation. If Schiano wants to see a victory formation, he ought to watch the UConn players he snubbed line up for a yell if the Huskies beat No. 22 Rutgers.
"This game is an enormous opportunity," Gratz said.
The Huskies are 1-17, all since 2001, against teams ranked in the Top 25. They beat South Florida in 2007. That's it. They are an 8.5-point underdog at Rutgers, which won at Arkansas last game. Early-season rankings also are fluid and a victory would make an undeniable statement for a team that hasn't won two in a row since Paul Pasqualoni became coach.
"They're 4-0, Top 25, our first conference game," Williams said. "The stage is set. You couldn't ask for anything more as a player. I do wish it was a night game."
After learning that Rutgers will be unveiling its all-black uniforms and how the school had asked fans to wear black for a stadium "black-out," Williams had a cogent observation.
"I don't know how you have a black-out at noon," he said. "But, hey, it's Jersey."
In 2010, Rutgers' Chas Dodd hit Mark Harrison with a 52-yard pass with 3:53 left to tie the score and San San Te hit the winning field goal with 13 seconds left. In a breakout game, Williams had a 100-yard kickoff return.
"One day when I look back that will be one of the moments that stands out to me," Williams said. "I just wish we got the win."
"We've lost a couple of nail-biters to them. It was like a basketball game. We'd hit a buzzer-beater. They'd hit a half-court shot."
In 2009, after Jordan Todman gave UConn a last-minute lead, Rutgers' Tim Brown, who grew up with Jasper Howard in Miami, scored on a remarkable 81-yard touchdown reception with 22 seconds left. And in 2008, Tony Ciaravino's field goal attempt hit the upright with 69 seconds left as Rutgers escaped with a 12-10 win. UConn, 5-5 against Rutgers since 2001, gained a measure of revenge last year by destroying Rutgers' BCS hopes at Rentschler Field.
"Like the Maryland game [against former coach Randy Edsall], it's the next game," Wirth said. "You can't let it become a distraction. But there are a lot of guys on our team from New Jersey. They have friends on their team. They have family in the area. It's always a big deal to play Rutgers. It's always huge."
Gratz said he knows 10 Rutgers players. Counting camps, combines, high school All-Star games, Williams said he must know 40. Neither had been in contact with any of them in recent days, although Williams said he's sure he'll run across somebody on Facebook.
"I don't care to contact any of them before the game," he said sternly.
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