As he thought about returning to take over the Rutgers football program last fall, Greg Schiano envisioned running out of the SHI Stadium tunnel to 50,000 screaming fans.
That dream will have to wait.
“You don’t envision running out to an empty stadium as a coach — that’s just not what goes through your head,” he said. “We miss our fans. I can tell you that. I’m sure every team does.”
Indeed, Schiano isn’t alone in yearning to see fans packing stadiums. While leagues such as the ACC, the Big 12 and the SEC allowed their teams to fill stadiums at 20 to 25 % capacity this season, the Big Ten mandated that only a limited number of family members of players and coaches will be permitted into stadiums because of the coronavirus pandemic and safety precautions.
At Rutgers, it meant a crowd totaling 500 fans for recent home games against Indiana and Illinois. And it meant the lack of a discernible home-field advantage.
The Scarlet Knights lost both games, extending their losing streak in Big Ten home games to 12 dating to the 2017 season. Rutgers will try to snap that streak Saturday when it hosts Michigan for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff in Piscataway.
“I think without a doubt the loss of fans affects home-field advantage,” Schiano said.
Rutgers isn’t alone in struggling to adapt to an unfamiliar home-field environment, one that includes artificial noise from crowd-noise audio tracks that are required to stay at 70 decibels during game play and permitted to increase to 90 decibels during celebration moments.
Anyone who has experienced the pageantry of college football Saturdays would be shell-shocked to see life in a Big Ten football stadium this fall.
“It’s funny (because) sometimes the crowd noise doesn’t match up with the play, it’s delayed or sometimes it’s inappropriate,” Schiano said. “It’s cheering and it really wasn’t that great a play to cheer so loud. It’s definitely weird. But what isn’t weird about 2020? If you can find a way to navigate through it, I think you can find a competitive advantage and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Through four weeks, Big Ten teams are 11-14 when playing at home. Last year in league play, Big Ten teams fared better, compiling a 33-30 mark in home games.
Here’s a look at the difference in home records between 2019 and 2020:
Last Saturday, Nebraska was the lone Big Ten team to win at home while Rutgers, Minnesota, Michigan and Purdue all lost in their respective buildings. Should the trend continue this season, it would mark the first time in six years that Big Ten teams combined to compile a losing record at home in conference play.
“It was a lot different atmosphere than we’re used to seeing this place,” Nebraska quarterback Luke McCaffrey said after the win over Penn State. “Heck yeah, I was nervous. But that goes away once you start playing.”
Without fans, all the advantages teams gain from having a packed stadium are gone. The momentum that’s created as a result of the crowd cheering on a big play … the struggle for the opposing team to operate its offense as fans produce deafening roars … the pressure that comes with blocking out all that noise … all of it is missing and it’s to the road team’s benefit.
Few Big Ten teams have benefitted more from their game-day environment than Michigan, which led the nation last season in average attendance (11,459). But the coronavirus pandemic has ended Michigan’s 45-year streak of 100,000-plus crowds at Michigan Stadium and has taken away one of the Wolverines’ annual advantages.
Under Jim Harbaugh, Michigan compiled a 17-5 record in Big Ten home games since 2015, including 5-0 marks in 2016 and 2018. This season, with 615 fans attending the Michigan State game and 605 fans in the Big House for the Wisconsin tilt, the Wolverines are 0-2 at home.
“You can do what you want with all the artificial noise but that human element and that energy that teams get off their home-field advantage, I think, is real,” Schiano said. “I’ve been in environments where it’s so loud that you go up to somebody and talk in their ear, and they can’t hear you. I mean, that changes the game a little bit. This is the year that we don’t get any of that.”
The absence of fans requires teams to create their own energy, according to Jeff Brohm. “Playing in a stadium where there’s not a lot of people is something you have to come prepared for and you have to understand you’ve got to bring your own juice,” the Purdue coach said.
The lack of a raucous home environment also requires teams to maintain their edge once they take the lead. Schiano conceded his team’s 20-10 lead in the second half against Illinois would’ve been easier to hold if the Illini were forced to block out the noise.
“Would I have loved to have our fans up 20-10? Yes, I think it would’ve meant a lot,” Schiano said.
While the game-day atmosphere is different, Schiano said pregame preparations are made easier by staying at home.
“Everything’s more comfortable — the hotel, (the bus ride) coming here, that’s all better in my opinion,” he said. “That’s part of the home-field advantage.”
Still, he said every Big Ten team is “learning how to do it with all the electronic noise and cheering.” While SHI Stadium’s speakers will reverberate any time the Scarlet Knights make a big play Saturday against Michigan, it’s not the same as the eruption of Rutgers’ student section or the R-U chant echoing throughout the stadium.
“Our fans are passionate,” Schiano said. “I do miss them for sure.”
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