At first glance it appears that two similar teams open their season at CenturyLink field in Seattle on Thursday. Rutgers University finished last season 6-7 and lost its bowl game. So did Washington State University.
Both teams have inexperienced defensive backfields and both have experienced quarterbacks who hope to take advantage of those young secondaries. And both teams could really use an early season win before attempting to navigate tough conference schedules — the Pac-12 for WSU and an inaugural run through the Big Ten for Rutgers.
But a closer examination reveals a dichotomy of strengths and weaknesses that separate the two teams, usually in WSU’s favor.
The Scarlet Knights boasted the No. 4 rushing defense among FBS teams last season. With stout defensive tackle Darius Hamilton back, Rutgers should again be difficult for teams to run on.
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“They’re one of the best in the country against the run — I just think toughness,” coach Mike Leach said.
But the ability to play well against rushing plays doesn’t mean much against an opponent that rarely runs it.
And while the Cougars expect their rushing game to be improved this season, they’ll certainly be happy to take what they’re given by a Scarlet Knights defense that was one of the country’s worst at defending the pass a season ago.
Getting quarterback Connor Halliday off to a good start is particularly important.
The Cougars need him to be the productive Air Raid general he was as the end of last season, and not the inconsistent, interception-prone quarterback he was at the beginning.
“It’s important (for Halliday to have a good start),” Leach said. “The rest of the offense and team in general draws from it. The biggest thing he just needs to worry about is going through routine plays and doing what he always does.”
WSU’s relative strength of defending the run offsets Rutgers’ potent rushing attack. The Cougars have experienced depth along the defensive line and at linebacker.
Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova is then the most likely candidate to hurt the Cougars on either side of the ball.
Nova has started 28 games the past three seasons and ranks near the top on most of the school’s passing-record lists.
“He started some (games) his first year, so I mean he’s been king of the hill there for a long time,” Leach said. “I think he really is key to their offensive effort.”
Nova did lose his starting gig at the end of last season and had to earn it back in fall camp. Who he’ll be throwing to is also no sure thing.
Receiver Leonte Carroo is a big play waiting to happen. He had nine touchdowns last season on just 28 receptions, and they came in bunches: three in the season-opener at Fresno State, and two against Arkansas, Southern Methodist and Temple.
But Nova’s second and third options, Ruhann Peele and Andre Patton, have both been ruled out for the game because of injuries.
The uncertainty of whether Rutgers offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen will play to his team’s strengths or attack WSU’s weaknesses has defensive coordinator Mike Breske taking a wait-and-see approach.
“That’s what the first quarter’s all going to be about,” Breske said. “Just kind of seeing personnel groups, formations, plays off of first down, second down, third down, whatever it may be and see if there’s a pattern.”