The season is less than halfway over, but the buzz around Piscataway is building on the weekly basis. Rutgers stands at 5-0, its best start since 2006, and sits at No. 20 in the latest Associated Press poll, its highest ranking since 2007. The team will likely be favored to win its next four games, so notions of a BIG EAST title and a 9-0 start are beginning to enter the discussion amongst the fans and the media.
Meanwhile, Kyle Flood continues to insist none of these things are affecting the preparation of his team, and the Rutgers players have done their best in word and deed to prove their coach right, at least thus far.
According to Steve Beauharnais, one of the team's captains and senior leaders, the coaching staff has made it a point to steer their players away from complacency.
"Honestly, Coach Flood and Coach Smith do a great job, as far as me looking at it from the defense," Beauharnais said. "Coach Smith always says that there is room for improvement. He always points out the mistakes and why things happened, so everyone feels like 'We can do better, we can do better, we can do better.' We're trying to satisfy his standards and expectations.
"Coach Flood does a great job of motivating us every week. It's the BIG EAST championship; we don't have a BIG EAST championship game, everyone in the conference knows that. We have to come to work every game, and whoever our opponent is in the BIG EAST knows that too."
While Flood and Smith are unafraid to take a hands-on approach to make sure their players know what is at stake, they have wisely seen the benefits of allowing the veteran players on the defense to have a say in how the unit is run. It has worked through five games, as the group ranks second nationally in rushing defense, fifth in scoring defense and 15th in total defense.
"The defense, the players take care of ourselves," Beauharnais explained. "When you have one standard, one expectation, everything takes care of itself. So the players, we run the team. We don't need Coach Smith to get in our face, yell in our face like we had in the past. The players take care of everything. The captains take care of punishment, when there is punishment. The players are accountable to each other. When you see someone not running hard after the ball, even people that don't start run off the sidelines and say 'Run to the football, run to the football' because we know what's at stake."
Now in his third year as a full-time starter at middle linebacker, Beauharnais pointed out that this is a dynamic the team has never had up until this season.
"Honestly, that's brand new because that's never be done around here," he said. "The players have never took control like we're taking control now, so it's coming out in a positive way. Even sometimes I'm wrong, and a guy that's not even a captain, like Duron Harmon checks me, puts me back in place. That's just accountability. It's not, 'oh, I'm the captain, you shut up'. It's accountability and that's why we're stronger as a team."
It is not just a defensive thing, either. While Beauharnais admits he and his defensive counterparts don't have much contact with the offense during the week, when the two sides meet on the practice field, intensity and accountability are at a premium.
"When we're together and we're a team, oh yea. When we're together and we go 'good on good' we force them to play up to a level and they force us and cover and play up to a level. The offensive line forces us to pass rush to a level. It's the same thing back and forth and that's where teams become great teams."