Two years ago, before Rutgers played Penn State for the first time as a member of the Big Ten, then-head coach Kyle Flood tried to stir up some conversation by calling the opponent "that team from Pennsylvania."
However, with new coach Chris Ash now in charge, the Scarlet Knights are playing it straight. At his weekly media availability on Monday, Ash referred to the Nittany Lions as "Penn State" six times, saying nothing for fans to get excited about.
Given the arcs of the two teams entering Saturday night's game at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, N.J., there may not be a lot of excitement on the field, either.
The Nittany Lions (8-2, 6-1) are eighth in the latest College Football Playoff rankings and riding a six-game winning streak with a chance to qualify for the Big Ten championship game. The Scarlet Knights (2-8, 0-7) have lost seven in a row and were just shut out by a Big Ten opponent for the third time while yielding 49 or more points.
The subplot to this game is how many players on both sides were recruited by both schools. Fifteen players on this week's Penn State depth chart are from New Jersey, and the Rutgers depth chart includes eight Pennsylvanians.
Scarlet Knights guard Chris Muller said he hosted Brendan Mahon on his recruiting trip to Rutgers. Mahon chose Penn State and had been starting at offensive tackle before being injured against Iowa.
Penn State's players from the Garden State made an impact in the 2014 game at Rutgers. Bill Belton (Sicklerville), sprung by a block from center Angelo Mangiro (Roxbury), scored on a 5-yard run with 1 minute, 13 seconds to play to give the Lions a 13-10 win in a game the Scarlet Knights led for more than 40 minutes. Linebacker Brandon Bell (Mays Landing) had a key interception.
Bell and linebacker Jason Cabinda (Flemington) combined for 15 tackles in last year's 28-3 win for the Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium.
Bell, Cabinda, tight end Mike Gesicki (Manahawkin), and defensive end Garrett Sickels (Red Bank) will be among the starters Saturday night. Gesicki, who is second on the team in receptions with 37, called the return to New Jersey "a great opportunity for not only myself but for everybody."
"My dad texted me and said, 'If you can get a hundred tickets, I can get a hundred people to go,' " Gesicki said. "So I'm definitely scrapping for some tickets. I'm asking everybody, doing whatever it takes. I definitely have a bunch of friends and family and people back home that want to come up and support not only myself but this entire Penn State football family."
Gesicki said he remembered the game two years ago, which attracted a record crowd of 53,774.
"There were a lot of boos and all that kind of stuff," he said. "But as a competitor and a guy from there, you love that kind of stuff. You feed off of it. So it's great for us. It gets the juices flowing early. It means no harm. It's just the competitive nature and what the game means to both sides."
Saquon Barkley is one of 10 semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award presented to the nation's top running back. Barkley is 15th in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 1,113 rushing yards and tied for ninth with 13 TDs on the ground. . . . The Penn State chapter of Uplifting Athletes is holding a touchdown pledge drive for the Rutgers game. Chapter leaders are asking fans to pledge any amount to help them reach their goal of $1,000 per touchdown to fund rare disease research. More information is at pledgeit.org/psu16.