By Tom Luicci
RUTGERS vs. WASHINGTON STATE
Kickoff at 10 p.m. EDT
WHERE: CenturyLink Field, Seattle, Wash.
TV: Fox Sports 1
RADIO: Rutgers IMG Sports Network
1450-WCTC, 970-WNYM, 88.7 FM WRSU
SERIES: First meeting
WHEN RUTGERS HAS THE BALL: Ralph Friedgen’s first game as offensive coordinator is a source of hope and intrigue. On paper, there are plenty of reasons to believe it will be a rousing success.
Even without two key receivers (Ruhann Peele and Andre Patton) due to injuries, Friedgen will have plenty at his disposal to work with, and has vowed to use all of the weapons he has. A healthy Paul James at running back, a rejuvenated Gary Nova at quarterback and two of college football’s best at their positions in wide receiver Leonte Carroo and tight end Tyler Kroft offer Friedgen a nice menu of options to choose from.
But will this be a run-dominated team behind James? Or will the Scarlet Knights call on the right arm of Nova, a senior with 28 games of starting experience, to keep pace in what could develop into an offensive shootout?
Those are choices Rutgers figures to have because of the struggles of Washington State’s defense a year ago. The Cougars ranked No. 102 nationally (out of 123 schools) in total defense, were No. 96 in scoring defense and No. 84 in rushing defense. It’s also a unit that allowed a staggering 5,954 yards last season.
Rutgers proved against Fresno State and SMU that it can hold its own in wild high-scoring games if it comes to that. “The Fridge,” regarded as one of the game’s top offensive minds, gets to match wits with Washington State coach Mike Leach, renowned for his team’s video game passing numbers throughout his coaching career. That alone is worth the price of admission (or the price of staying up well past midnight in the East).
WHEN WASHINGTON STATE HAS THE BALL: The Cougars make no secret of their intentions. They’re going to throw the ball. A lot. And they’re going to do it quickly.
No team in the country attempted more passes (756) or completed more (490) last year than Washington State. No team had a worse running game, either (the Cougars ranked last nationally in that category).
With Leach having an experienced triggerman in senior quarterback Connor Halliday it means the expectations for a unit that was No. 3 in the country in total passing yards in 2013 are even loftier. Halliday threw for 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns, with 22 interceptions, last year. Because of a reliance on three-step drops, WSU’s quarterbacks were sacked just 32 times.
With leading returning receiver Gabe Marks listed as doubtful for the Rutgers game due to an injury, Leach will simply reach down into a roster that features 17 wide receivers (and only one tight end) to pull up five returning wideouts in Kristoff Williams, River Cracraft, Vince Mayle, Dom Williams and Isiah Myers who all had at least 37 catches last year for at least 425 yards.
The unknown for now is whether the Cougars will even make the effort to establish the run to offset some of their pass-heavy ways. Though leading rusher Marcus Mason is back after rushing for 429 yards, the Cougars’ depth chart lists redshirt freshmen Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks as the top two backs.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A mixed bag here for Rutgers, which boasts one of the nation’s top kickoff and punt returners in Janarion Grant and returns junior placekicker Kyle Federico. Head coach Kyle Flood has said he will use Joey Roth and transfer Tim Gleeson at punter. Neither has kicked yet in a game for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers generally excels on special teams coverage and has more blocked kicks (35) than any school in the country since 2009.
Washington State will feature newcomers at placekicker, punter and on both kickoff and punt returns. Cougars special teams ranked in the top half of the Pac-12 last season – the kickoff coverage team tied Stanford as the league’s best – and there were two blocked punts by WSU after five years of going without one.
DID YOU KNOW?
Left guard Kaleb Johnson will start his 38th consecutive game for Rutgers, keeping him on track to set a school career record for consecutive starts.