Washington State will face Rutgers at CenturyLink Field in Seattle this Thursday. This will be the first time the teams have met and will be Rutgers first game as a member of the Big-Ten.
On paper the matchup seems to favor the Cougars. Last season Rutgers had an inconsistent offense and the worst pass defense in school history. They will be facing a high scoring WSU offense that returns almost all the starters.
Both coaches are entering the third year of their contracts, but they are on different trajectories. Mike Leach took over one of the worst FBS programs in the nation and has it on the rise. Kyle Flood took over a very good team and seems to be managing its decline.
Under Flood, Rutgers went from 9-4 in 2012 to a 6-7 record last season. In the last three years Rutgers is 24-15 and have been to three bowls.
Mike Leach took over a team that went 9-40 in the previous four seasons. He coached the team to a 3-11 record his first year but improved to 6-7 last season. The dramatic improvement sent the Cougars to their first bowl game in a decade. In the last three years Washington State has a record of 13-24 and one bowl appearance.
Rutgers offense is likely to be a bit of a mystery. After playing very inconsistently last season, new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen (their sixth in six years) has been brought in to shore up an offense that only scored 26.5 points per game last season.
Friedgen has stated he will shape his offense to match his players skills. "I've run a lot of offenses, from option to pro," he told The Trentonian last February after his hiring. "I don't believe in doing something the kids can't do."
He should know something about offense. He was O-coordinator at Georgia Tech in 1990 when they won a national championship and in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers when they made a Superbowl appearance in 1994. He also has 10 years of head coaching experience at Maryland.
He has inherited a decent but inconsistent quarterback, a couple of very good running backs, a good tight end and a talented but thin wide receiver corps.
The strength of their offense should be their run game. Running back Paul James is back after gaining 831 yards last season in only eight games. An injury sidelined him for the end of last season, but he is back this year.
Supporting the run will be a large (averaging over 300 pounds) but inconsistent offensive line. While they have 98 starts among them, problems like giving up eight sacks to Louisville last season abound. A new O-line coach (Mitch Browning) has been brought in to work on the fundamentals with the group.
Another weapon in their arsenal will be tight end Tyler Kroft, who had 43 catches for 573 yards last year. At 6'4" and 240 pounds, he will be a coverage problem for the Cougars.
Wide receiver Leonte Carroo showed explosiveness last season while catching 28 balls for 478 yards, but the receivers are thin after him.
Friedgen told Scarletknights.com that he would open up the formations from last year and the strength of the team are the running backs. In their spring game this seemed to hold true as they threw more short passes and worked on the run game.
Rutgers did prove able to throw the ball deep last year, mostly due to being in a lot of 3rd and long situations. Quarterback Gary Nova completed 54.5% of his passes for 2159 yards, 18 TD's and 14 INT's.
Friedgen probably has a few surprises planned for the Cougars. "I like to take what the defense gives us," he told Scarletknights.com.
Rutgers defense was a concern last season as they had the worst pass defense in school history, on the way to giving up 29.8 points per game.
New defensive coordinator Joe Rossi is working to shore that up by changing defensive secondary techniques. Rutgers will play a bump and run style and try to jam the receivers at the line instead of playing 5-7 yards off like last year. It will remain to be seen if that will be enough to make a difference on a team that gave up a school worst 4,580 passing yards last season.
Rutgers secondary will have more experience this year. They will be anchored by senior safety Lorenzo Waters, who has started 24 games. Next to him will be sophomore Delon Stephenson. Starting cornerbacks will be senior Gareef Glashen and recently converted running back Justin Goodwin, who only has two weeks of experience at corner.
Last year Rutgers was good on run defense, only giving up 100.8 yards per game. Their D-line is very deep and anchored by tackle Darius Hamilton, who had 11.5 tackles for loss and 48 total tackles yast year.
Washington State Offense
While Rutgers may have questions on offense, WSU definitely does not. The Cougars had 5,478 total yards last season, and were 4th in the nation in passing. Their prolific offense returns all backs and receivers. They are entering the third year of Mike Leach's Air Raid offense, and should surpass last seasons offensive output.
The Cougars are led by record-setting senior quarterback Connor Halliday. He started all of last season, and set several records, including WSU single season passing yards (4,597) and the FBS record for most pass attempts in a game (89). If Halliday has a weakness, it's that is not very mobile and has a tendency to throw too many interceptions.
All of the Cougar wide receivers return from last season. Returning are Gabe Marks (807 yards last year), Dom Williams (647 yards) River Cracraft (614 yards) Vince Mayle (539 yards) and four others who all had over 300 yards last season. Many have picked them as the best group of receivers in the Pac-12.
WSU does not run much (13 times per game last year) but when they do it is for 5.0 yards per carry. They will be led by redshirt freshman Jamal Morrow. For more on the Cougar run game click here.
The biggest question mark for Washington State is the offensive line. While inexperienced, they are significantly bigger than last years line and average 310 pounds. "We're quickly developing a young team," head Coach Mike Leach told Pac-12 Networks. "We've got a lot of new faces on the O-line but they're bigger people and they're stronger people."
Washington State Defense
While the Cougars have a great offense, the defense is certainly lacking. Last season they were among the worst in the Pac-12, giving up 32.5 points per game. This season they have more depth and are hoping to improve.
The strength of Washington State's defense is the front seven. The Cougars return defensive tackle Xavier Cooper, who had 50 tackles, including 13.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks. Unlike last year, this season they have some depth along the line. At linebacker the team returns junior Darryl Monroe, who had 94 tackles last year. They also return Tana Pritchard (55 tackles) and Kache Palacio (49 tackles).
Similar to Rutgers, the secondary is the Cougar's weakness. While they return junior Taylor Taliulu (54 tackles last year) and sophomore cornerback Daquawn Brown, little used senior Tracy Clark will be at the other corner and redshirt freshman Darius Lemora will be at the other safety. This is a unit that has very little experience.
Keys for Rutgers
Exploiting Washington State's relatively inexperienced offensive line to get pressure on Halliday is a must. If Halliday has no time to throw, he may be forced into costly mistakes.
Keys for Washington State
Washington State must use their deep group of receivers to take advantage of Rutgers young secondary.