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Washington State-Rutgers preview: Can a win save Mike Leach?

Washington State coach Mike Leach lost more than a game last week. He lost most of the fan base. Things are dismal right now in Pullman, and a win against Rutgers is the only thing that can brighten the mood.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

When the season opened Saturday, Mike Leach's job was very secure. Sure, he had fans who didn't like him, but every coach does. After losing to lowly Portland State in what many call WSU's worst loss ever, it is almost impossible to find a Cougar fan who still supports him. Not that it matters, his contract is such that he can't be fired for at least a few more years. How those years will play out will be determined by winning or losing to Rutgers.

A loss to Rutgers would mean no chance at a bowl game. It would mean even fewer fans in the stands. It would mean fewer donations. It would mean Leach's fourth straight losing season in Pullman. But worst of all, it would mean what Athletic Director Bill Moos calls "fan apathy". The fans just won't pay attention anymore. Moos fired previous football coach Paul Wulff and basketball  coach Ken Bone for "fan apathy". It's the worst thing that could happen to Leach. If people still pay attention, he will keep his job. If no one cares about WSU football he will be gone. It will take a few years because of his contract, but he will be gone eventually.

What about a win at Rutgers? Winning solves everything, at least that's the saying. A win would definitely help, but would it be enough? A lot of WSU fans say one win isn't enough, but if Leach can still get a few wins and maybe an upset or two, it may be enough to right the ship. Many fans are lost for good, but a few years of winning would at least get them to pay attention again.

The Opponent

As low as the Cougars are, at least they're not in jail for home invasions and armed robbery like five of Rutgers key players are. They also didn't have five players suspended for the first half of their opening game like the Scarlet Knights. And at least Mike Leach isn't being investigated for harassing a professor like Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood. Rutgers is a mess right now with arrests, player suspensions and investigations into Flood's behavior. Flood is on as much of a heat seat as Leach, if not more so. But the Scarlet Knights still managed to beat FCS team Norfolk State 63-13 in their season opener.

These teams met last season in Seattle, and Rutgers won a 41-38 shootout.

The Strategy

Rutgers plays a pro-style offense with a fullback and tailback running mostly out of the I formation. They also utilize a tight end for both blocking and receiving. They are a run-first team, and will use that to set up the pass. Look for them to run heavily, and use that to set up long shots downfield. As badly as the Cougar players were out of their gaps against Portland State, expect a lot of play-action passes and screens, maybe even a reverse or two.

Rutgers running back Paul James burned WSU for 173 rushing yards last year, so expect a heavy dose of him. Rutgers also has talented back Josh Hicks, who rushed for 118 yards against Norfolk State. At quarterback the Scarlet Knights will start redshirt sophomore Chris Laviano, who was suspended for the first half of last week's game but finished 4-4 with 138 yards and three touchdowns in the second half.

Rutgers has a great receiver in Leonte Carroo, who had 151 yards last year against the Cougars. Although he was suspended for the first half against Norfolk State, he caught three passes for 129 yards and all three were for touchdowns. Carroo led Rutgers last season with 55 receptions for 1,086 yards.

Defense seems to be the Rutgers weakness. Last season they gave up a school-record 5,756 yards, and they lost six seniors from that squad. Darius Hamilton is their best defensive lineman, but he is questionable with a leg injury. They have lost multiple starters to jail and suspensions, particularly among their defensive backs. Several freshmen will see time in the defensive backfield. The Scarlet Knights will need to get pressure on WSU quarterback Luke Falk or he will pick apart their secondary.

Washington State's game plan is pretty simple. Show up, play with enthusiasm and execute on both sides of the ball. They didn't do any of those things against Portland State last week. Leach won't be changing anything on offense, and the Cougar wide receivers should be able to get open against the Rutgers defensive backs. Luke Falk must play well at quarterback for the Cougars. If the WSU offense plays decisively and executes their offense, they will easily move the ball.

Defensively the Cougars face a tall task. Rutgers is set up to perfectly exploit all the Cougar weaknesses. Washington State must first stop the Rutgers run game, while not falling apart in pass coverage. This will put a ton of pressure on the Cougar defensive backs. If the Cougars can stop the run, Rutgers will use play-action passes and screens to soften up the defense, and they can't fall for them. Lastly, the defensive backs must provide good pass defense on the Rutgers receivers, especially Carroo. After seeing what Portland State did last week, this would seem a tough job for the Cougars.

Special teams will be a problem for the Cougars in this game. The Scarlet Knights have blocked 42 kicks since 2009, most by any NCAA team. The Cougars have been haunted by blocked and missed field goals in the last few years and Portland State blocked a field goal attempt last week. This could prove a long game for the Cougars on special teams. In 2014 against Rutgers a Cougar fumbled punt led to a game-winning Rutgers touchdown.

Keys to the Game

The Rutgers defense must control the Cougar offense. It doesn't matter how they do it, but they have to control the Cougar scoring. If Washington State can get over 40 points, they will win.

Players to Watch

On Rutgers, QB Chris Laviano must play effectively and get the ball to Leonte Carroo. Also watch for running backs Paul James and Josh Hicks to have good games.

On the Cougar side, this one is more about Mike Leach than any of the players. He has to provide the leadership and strength to get this team going. If it comes to a player, Luke Falk, or whoever is in at QB, must play great for the Cougars to have a chance.

The Final Score

This one is tough. Although the Cougars choked last week, Leach should at least get the offense scoring, but can the Cougar defense stop Rutgers? If Leach can get the Cougars back on track, this is a game they can win.