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Welcome to the Big Ten, Rutgers

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The game may have been played in Piscataway, but make no mistake: Penn State played host to Rutgers' first taste of big time college football.

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is not Kurt Vonnegut's best book. It's up there, but it's no Cat's Cradle, or Slaughterhouse-Five. Some would put Breakfast of Champions at the top of the list. Those are the classics. Mr. Rosewater is for his fans.

But it does have the best quote from one of the most eminently quotable novelists the world has ever seen:

"Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies-"God damn it, you've got to be kind."

With my apologies to Mr. Vonnegut, who didn't seem like the type to have cared anyway were he still alive, allow me a variation:

Hello, Rutgers. Welcome to the Big Ten. It's long on tradition and short on recent success. It's full of passion and punting and giant stadiums. On the outside, Rutgers, you've got ten wins here. There's only one rule that I know of, Rutgers-"God damn it, you've got to hate Ohio State."

Vonnegut, of course, was born in Indiana and taught at Iowa, and it was at the latter when he instructed his students to "[g]o to all the football games. They are great." And only someone with a mind as darkly comic, as delightfully perverse as his could have thoroughly enjoyed last night's game, from its excruciating start to its exhilirating finish.

* * * * *

It's no secret that Jim Delany invited Rutgers to the Big Ten primarily, if not solely, for the New York media market that it's a part of. Never mind that most in the city aren't clamoring for Time Warner Cable to add the Big Ten Network, or that Rutgers fans comprise maybe about 3% of the population here, the conference isn't even being particularly subtle about it.

Then, when Delany threw Rutgers into a division with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State, the message was clear: He was setting Rutgers up to fail, to be a doormat. Welcome to the Big Ten. Here's your $40 million in yearly TV revenues. Now roll over and die.

Rutgers is not Ohio State. It is not Penn State. It is not Michigan or Michigan State, either. But neither is it Northwestern or Illinois or Purdue. It will lose, but not of its own volition. It will disappoint its fans, but only because there are fans there to disappoint. And it will make for a beautiful scene on national television, a sea of red in an undersized stadium, under the lights in the labrynthine maze of highways and jughandles that is Central New Jersey.

That's their hope, at least. That's their goal. That's what last night was--though that record crowd was certainly padded with scores of white-clad Nittany Lion partisans. You see, one conference game into their Big Ten tenure, Rutgers stands at a crossroads.

At about 54,000, last night's was the largest crowd in the history of Rutgers football; it was only their fourth sellout, alltime. Last night was supposed to be a program-defining win--proof that they belonged, and could hang with the big dogs, even if those big dogs are still so young and still learning and still, of course, crippled by NCAA sanctions that were reversed two years too late. If anything, though, it only proved that Rutgers belongs in the middle of the Big Ten pack.

They are Iowa today, Michigan State three years ago. They let a 10-0 halftime lead, earned with a ferocious pass rush and dominant special teams play, slip away with offensive ineptitude and a defense that finally crumbled in the waning moments. Today, the fans blame the quarterback and the head coach and the offensive coordinator for the bitterness that still persists. In that sense, they are every program in this conference, in the country. But as all the energy in that stadium turned to nervous excitement and then to dust, I could only wonder: How many breakthrough opportunities will there be for Rutgers over the next few years? How many will have so much riding on it? How many Biggest Games in Program History can these fans stand to lose?

* * * * *

That's why this isn't a rivalry, not yet at least. A rivalry, at its core, is a recognition of equals. Had they beaten Penn State last night, Rutgers fans might have stormed the field. There are no stormings in rivalries.

Chuck Klosterman wrote on nemeses and archenemies, and a true college football rivalry is unquestionably the former. But a nemesis can not be born from thin air. A nemesis must arise after years and years of hard-fought battles and devastations and heartaches on both sides. A nemesis is a good thing, and Penn State still does not have one in the Big Ten. Perhaps they one day will. But if this whole week was any indication, it won't be Rutgers, until a humbled Rutgers program trades in its steadfast resentment for an unsteady respect, then earns ours.

Penn State doesn't have a real rival in the Big Ten, but Rutgers has never really had one in its history. It hasn't been relevant enough to build that tradition. So be patient, Penn State fans. They're still learning on the fly. They don't know that there's more to this than spite and bitterness.

You kind of like your nemesis, despite the fact that you despise him. If your nemesis invited you out for cocktails, you would accept the offer. If he died, you would attend his funeral and--privately--you might shed a tear over his passing. But you would never have drinks with your archenemy, unless you were attempting to spike his gin with hemlock. If you were to perish, your archenemy would dance on your grave, and then he'd burn down your house. You hate your archenemy so much that you try to keep your hatred secret, because you don't want your archenemy to have the satisfaction of being hated.

Rutgers fans hate Penn State; this is no longer debatable. From the despicable signs and flags and chants on gameday to six days--maybe three weeks, maybe an entire offseason--of buildup; from taking aggrieved offense, in that stereotypically New Jersey way, to insults, both real and perceived. Even with the game now over, with Penn State having won, Rutgers fans still seethe over the lack of respect, parsing through words said, and left unsaid, by coaches and players on a team whose name they dare not say. Woody Hayes could pull that shit off. Kyle Flood can't. Perhaps last night's result will encourage Rutgers, and its fans, to grow up, and stop pretending they're something they're not.

Anyway, by now it must be admitted that Penn State, and its fans, simply don't reciprocate those feelings. The players, to a man, insisted as much during the postgame media session, maintaining that there was no extra pressure riding on them, no more juice than what the other side had already started. In victory, especially in a victory like that, there was excitement, and last night's game is not one we will soon forget.

But this is not a rivalry because we do not feel as good at Rutgers fans feel bad--and, most of all, because, except when we succumb to our childish impulses, and enjoy their crash back down to earth, we are not deriving even more pleasure from their devastation. It was an incredible comeback, and a game we won't soon forget, but it was just another Christian Hackenberg Game-Winning Drive, like UCF this year and like Michigan before it. Penn State didn't need this win. Rutgers did. There is no room for asymmetry in rivalry.

* * * * *

But here's the thing, Rutgers: Even if last night didn't mark the onset of a rivalry, it was still one hell of a football game. And that's what you're in for, more and more, over the next few years. I know, you had 2006, and you had Louisville in Piscataway under the lights in a matchup of November unbeatens. But here, when we have two teams in the top 15, they're not playing on a Thursday night. And your stadium, clean and shiny though it is, is now one of the smallest in the conference, half the size of Ohio Stadium or Michigan Stadium or Beaver Stadium.

But there's good news, too: When you're playing a big game against a conference opponent, it doesn't need to be Ohio State and Michigan to capture eyeballs across the midwest, to be the center of national attention. This is the Big Ten, where big games matter and the opportunity to play in them is earned, not a birthright. You've got much to learn, and much to experience, and there will be more nights like last night. There are traditions to learn, and fight songs to mock, and--you'll learn--more interactions with more fans from more schools, until even you develop some mutual respect and admiration and inside jokes and begin to enjoy welcoming them to your campus rather than trying to scare them off. And there are more big games to lose, too: It tends to be the games against better teams that matter most for all of us. And more often than not, the better team will win.

But when you finally win one--whether it's at home, in front of a full house so loud the stadium actually shakes, or on the road, sucking all the noise out of a crowd just as packed? Man, there's nothing better. The heartbreak now will pay off down the road, when these games have a history behind them, when a win isn't just a win but a catharsis. And then, you will have arrived.

Welcome to the Big Ten, Rutgers. I think you're going to like it here.