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Rutgers, Maryland on way to B1G statement

10/2/2014

Go on and doubt Rutgers. Say Maryland can’t stack up to the Big Ten’s best. Go on believing the conference's two newest additions were both mistakes.

Say whatever you want because, with identical 4-1 records, these teams don’t much care. Call them overrated and they’ll just use it as motivation. Call them underrated and they’ll note they still have a lot to prove.

“If people want to underestimate us, let them,” Rutgers defensive lineman Darius Hamilton said. “I’m sure we still have a lot of naysayers out there, but we still have a lot of football to play.”

Said Maryland offensive lineman Michael Dunn: “I think we’ve proved we’re not a team to think lightly of. But really, until we reach our goal of a Big Ten championship, I think we’re going to have to keep proving everybody wrong. Nobody believes we even have a shot to make anything special happen.”

Players are clamoring for respect, but sentiment is beginning to turn for the Big Ten’s two newest teams. They’re both playing above expectations right now, and those doubters are starting to thin out, at least a little.

Maryland is coming off an upset win over Indiana. Rutgers is favored this weekend over a Michigan team that most would’ve picked to win four weeks ago. In the preseason, the Terps were routinely picked to finish fifth or worst in the East, and they’re now the only 1-0 team in the division. Everyone -- Athlon, CBS, ESPN, Cleveland.com, BTN, to name a few -- picked the Scarlet Knights to finish last in the division, and now they’ve already reached as many wins as most figured they’d end the season with.

“When you start the way we have, it makes people who maybe didn’t believe what we said in the preseason take a second look,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said. “And the more people look at our football team, the more they’re going to like our team.”

Flood acknowledged his team’s performance has helped with recruiting and in exciting the New Jersey fan base, but he was reticent to discuss what this quick start means for his program's image. So was Maryland coach Randy Edsall. That’s not a surprise. They both know their current performances are starting to steer Big Ten conversations in the right direction, but that wave of opinion can just as easily crash down as the season progresses.

They’ve been here before. Edsall’s team started 4-0 last season before a mixture of injuries and other setbacks saw the Terps finish 3-6 in the final nine games. The year before, Maryland started 4-2 before dropping six straight games to close the season. Flood’s team followed a similar path. Rutgers started 4-1 last season but ended on a 2-6 run. In 2012, a seven-game win streak to open the season was followed up with a 2-4 disappointment down the stretch.

That’s why these teams know, despite both being a play away from perfect records, they still have a lot left to prove.

“I mean, 4-1, it’s a nice record to have -- but it’s only five games into the season,” Dunn said. “People still don’t believe in us; people still don’t think we’re a respectable team.”

Said Flood: “I’ve been part of enough 4-1 teams to know if we don’t put our focus on being 1-0 this week, we’re not going to be where we want to be by the end of the season.”

But players and coaches at these schools know they’re on the right track. Dunn said campus buzz is at an all-time high; he’s never seen so many football T-shirts and jerseys on his way to class. Hamilton called the Big Ten home opener against Penn State one of the craziest football atmospheres he’s ever witnessed; he said it’s not even fair to compare past years at Rutgers.

Rutgers isn’t the pushover most assumed it would be. After all, who would’ve guessed the Knights would lead the B1G in sacks (21) right now -- and by a half-dozen? Maryland appears better than its “average” preseason tag. And who would’ve anticipated the Terps would be lumped in the Big Ten Power Rankings with Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Nebraska?

But, go ahead, point to both teams’ pasts and say they’ll falter again. Doubt them. Say they have a lot left to prove. Rutgers and Maryland are used to it all -- but they’re looking forward to proving even more critics wrong.

“We definitely have a chip on our shoulder, but, at the end of the day, no one can prove people wrong besides us,” Hamilton said. “We still got a lot of work left to do.”

Added Dunn: “We hear what people say about us, and we don't let it get to us. We just use it as motivation. All year we've been hearing it -- and we've been responding to it."