Rutgers game is extra special for some Huskies
Opening Big East play on the road against a nationally-ranked opponent would get the members of the UConn football team raring to go under normal circumstances. But when you add in the fact that six New Jersey natives are expected to be members of the travel squad and get to play in front of friends and family at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, N.J. and clearly motivation is not going to be an issue.
UConn has three starters who hail from New Jersey led by senior cornerback Dwayne Gratz from Piscataway. Gratz did not pull any punches when talking about playing in his hometown for the final time.
“I get to play in my hometown,” Gratz said. “A lot of people come to see me every time I go to Rutgers. It is a special feeling to play in front of everybody who watched you grow up as a child. I hate Rutgers and that is all that really matters. It doesn’t matter if we are going back home, I am there to beat them. We are just going to go there and try to get this ‘W’.”
Gratz still recalls how Rutgers was indifferent towards him until the Huskies began to pursue him.
“The funny thing about that is they offered me a scholarship only because UConn did,” Gratz said. “I couldn’t respect that and hated them for that because I wanted to go to Rutgers so I am going to use that for motivation.
“(Rutgers) week is always heightened intensity. The team sees how much the guys from New Jersey hate Rutgers and it rubs off on them. Every time we play Rutgers the emotions are high.”
Although there are 10 New Jersey natives on the team, only six are expected to be on the travel squad including starting receiver Nick Williams and defensive tackle Ryan Wirth who were also recruited lightly or not at all by the Scarlet Knights.
“The stage is set,” Williams said. “They are ranked in the top 25, they are undefeated. They just went down to Arkansas in front of 90,000 people and beat a pretty good team. I know the Jersey guys on the team set the tone on the team early on this week and everybody kind of feeds off that energy and I am expecting that to happen this week.
“I think in Big East play everything turns up a little bit. I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish you could simulate that atmosphere for every single game but it is human nature, it is impossible to do that. If you are playing in the Super Bowl it is going to be different than if you are playing in week one. For us New Jersey guys this is kind of like our Super Bowl. The rest of the team sees that, the game is in New Jersey and we lost a couple nail biters to them. It is an important game for us.”
For Wirth, who was called the most pleasant surprise of the team by Paul Pasqualoni during Tuesday’s press conference, one of the highlights of the early portion of his career at UConn was a matchup against former high school teammate Ryan Blaszczyk back in 2009.
“Growing up a couple of my buddies from high school went to Rutgers,” Wirth said. “Ryan Blaszczyk was a center there so looking up to him; that was a place I wanted to go to first. My redshirt freshman year I actually got to play against Blaszczyk. I wanted to go to Rutgers and I landed here and playing Rutgers is going to be exciting.
“I have the same story as everybody else. I guess I wasn’t good enough for them. I am happy where I ended up.”
Other New Jersey products on the two-deep chart are reserve linebacker Ryan Donohue and backup offensive guard Tyler Samra while linebacker David Kenney is a key special teams' player for the Huskies.
Competition for tickets has been fierce among UConn's Jersey contingent.
"All the Jersey guys including this one next to me (Gratz) scooped up all the tickets," Williams said with a laugh. "I struggled to get tickets. I couldn’t meet the demand and couldn’t decide who gets these four tickets out of x amount (he is allotted) so I told everybody you are on your own for this one. I spoke to my mom, my aunts and my brother plus my friends and there will probably be over 100 people at the tailgate they are throwing."