University of Washington

Huskies look at revamped Rutgers offense as big ‘unknown’

phaley@thenewstribune.com

Last season, the University of Washington was on a football field for nearly five consecutive months, with the final 18 weeks preparing for 14 games.

Total, the Huskies were part of 1,900 plays from scrimmage.

So when asked this week what he remembered about the Huskies’ first opponent nearly a year ago – out-manned Rutgers – UW linebacker Keishawn Bierria’s recollection came in bits and pieces.

“It was a long season last year,” Bierria said.

That might be a blessing in disguise come Friday as the two teams meet again in the season opener, this time at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey.

Last season, the Rutgers offense was a plodding mess, finishing last out of 128 FBS schools in total offense (283.5 yards per game). It scored 19 touchdowns in 12 games, a big factor in why they finished 2-10.

During the offseason, the Scarlet Knights hired a new offensive coordinator (Jerry Kill), running backs coach (Lester Erb) and saw a couple of key offensive players transfer in.

The one that has created the biggest buzz is quarterback Kyle Bolin, who was replaced last season at Louisville by Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.

“Louisville always has quarterbacks – (coach) Bobby Petrino and those guys know what they are doing there,” UW coach Chris Petersen said. “We’ve seen the tape. This guy can play … and (Rutgers coaches) wouldn’t be playing him if they didn’t think he made them better.”

Bierria, too, has been impressed by what he has seen of Bolin on tape.

“He has a good arm, and is very athletic,” Bierria said. “I expect them to hit on some stuff. I expect a lot of adversity going into the game. But we account for that.”

As far as how much Bolin will throw, or what type of offense exactly will the Scarlet Knights will run – nobody around Montlake seems entirely certain.

“It’s an unknown. You have an idea, but at the end of the day, guys have to have their eyes right, do their job and follow their rules,” Huskies co-defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski said. “We’ve got to adjust as coaches as the game evolves.”

If Kill’s history is any indicator, expect a heavy emphasis on the run game.

In his last coaching stint – nearly five seasons as the head coach at Minnesota before stepping down midway through 2015 because of health issues – Kill called nearly twice as many run plays as pass plays.

In Kill’s first season in 2011, his Golden Gophers averaged 39.2 rushing attempts per game. By his fourth year, it had increased to 46.1.

And Rutgers has three running backs who have averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry in their career – returning starter Robert Martin, Miami transfer Gus Edwards and Josh Hicks.

“They had a whole year to improve,” UW defensive tackle Vita Vea said. “They are definitely way better.”

No. 8 Washington at Rutgers

5 p.m. Friday, High Point Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.

The line: UW by 27.

TV: Fox Sports 1. Radio: 1000-AM, 97.7 FM

Outlook: UW, which defeated the Scarlet Knights, 48-13, in last year’s opener, won the Pac-12 title and advanced all the way to the College Football Playoff semifinals. On the other hand, Rutgers was shut out four times, and finished last in the Big Ten under new coach Chris Ash. The rematch still doesn’t seem like a fair fight, does it?

The eighth-ranked Huskies, led by third-year starting QB Jake Browning (3,430 yards, 43 passing TDs in 2016), are loaded despite losing three defensive backs from last year’s squad to the NFL. Even if it takes Browning some time to adjust to life without wide receiver John Ross, he can still hand it off to arguably the best running-back duo in team history – Myles Gaskin (back-to-back 1,300-yard seasons) and Lavon Coleman (852 rushing yards, school-record 7.5-yard-per-carry average in 2016).

Know this about the Scarlet Knights – it can’t get much worse than it was last season (97th in total defense at 450.7 yards per game; last in total offense at 283.5 ypg). The UW coaching staff has said it expects vast improvement on offense, led by QB Kyle Bolin, who becomes the fourth different starter in as many seasons. Once the starter at Louisville, Bolin lost his position to Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, and transferred to Rutgers in the spring. Bolin has 17 career games under his belt, totaling 2,104 yards and 13 TDs.

The Scarlet Knights might want to run the ball – they have a trio of physical tailbacks in Miami transfer Gus Edwards, Josh Hicks and Robert Martin – right at middle linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, who will likely start in place of suspended preseason All-American Azeem Victor (team violation).

The UW has accomplished plenty of things under coach Chris Petersen. One of the few things remaining is posting a convincing season-opening victory on the road. The Huskies barely beat Hawaii, 17-16, in Petersen’s first year (2014), and lost to Boise State, 16-13, in 2015.

The pick: Washington 41, Rutgers 16.

–Todd Milles, staff writer

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