Rutgers refuses to overlook Washington State
After squeezing by Washington State out west in a 41-38 shootout last year, it almost would have been absurd for anyone on the Rutgers football team to chalk up this Saturday’s rematch at High Point Solutions Stadium as a “give me” game.
But that changed last weekend, to a degree, when the likes of lowly Portland State pulled off a 24-17 upset on the Cougars’ home turf in Pullman, Washington.
Back over on the east coast in Piscataway, New Jersey, the Scarlet Knights strung together one of their most complete performances in recent memory in their 63-13 season-opening blowout of Norfolk State.
Unlike Washington State (0-1), Rutgers (1-0) took care of the Division I-AA opponent it paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the visit. The Knights controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, blasting the floodgates open in the second half for 35 unanswered points.
And while the investigation on Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood lingers, the Knights have pushed the suspensions and arrests from last week behind them.
But as much as third-year Washington State head coach Mike Leach and the Cougars appear to be limping into New Jersey with the sky falling from last week’s apocalyptic beginning to the season, Flood refuses to buy into the idea that Rutgers can ease off in its approach.
“They are a very well-coached football team,” Flood said. “Coach Leach is one of the more prolific coaches of the passing game in the history of college football. So it's a tremendous challenge for us this week.”
While many of the Cougars cited a lack of focus for the drastic result from week one, the Knights rallied amid off-field controversy to deliver a pounding on the field.
Rutgers saw its quarterbacks combine to go 13-of-15 for 248 yards and four tochdowns through the air. On the ground, the Knights combined for 291 yards and four scores on 47 carries.
After Portland State’s 258 rushing yards gashed the Washington State defense last week, Rutgers’ latest results on offense give reason to believe that things should only grow more difficult for the Cougars.
If Rutgers can exploit Washington State with a heavy ground-and-pound attack, that could lead to a duplication of the deep bombs over the top from Chris Laviano to Leonte Carroo.
After serving their first half suspensions last week, the sophomore quarterback found the senior wide receiver for three touchdowns in just the third quarter.
Plays like those could be crucial for the Knights. As senior running back Paul James mentioned, keeping the Cougars’ offense off the field could be key for Rutgers to maintain control of the tempo throughout the course of the contest.
“I think it’s really important. It keeps our offense on the field,” James said. “It keeps them off the field because that’s all they do is pass the ball a lot and it’s something that I feel like their defense doesn’t see a lot … having an air raid offense, they’re used to a lot of passing and everything with their defense. So, the running game is something they don’t really see too much when they’re practicing. … I feel like that’s something we can use as a strong point to help us out.”
While Flood pointed out the difference in the two styles of attack on the ground between Rutgers and Portland State, the fourth-year head coach crunched the film of Washington State’s opener and evidently found some key similarities in how the Knights could exploit a leaky Cougars rush defense.
“What (Portland State) did was they ran the ball very effectively,” he said. “They run the quarterback quite a bit. They do it from spread sets quite a bit. Did we see some formations and things like that that looked like things we do? We did. Did they play a physical brand of football? They did. Is that something we like to do? That's certainly something we like to do.”
The offense is one story, but the Rutgers defense remains full of questions in the secondary. Flood wouldn’t put a limit on the amount of different defensive backs he might use — a number that could reach up to seven beyond starting freshmen cornerbacks Blessuan Austin and Isaiah Wharton.
With that number growing and Leach’s trademark air raid attack still a potent threat, it keeps the inexperienced Knights honest, posing the question of whether or not we might see a duplication of last year’s Seattle shootout.
Anthony Cioffi knows there is no concrete game plan to prevent that, but the junior free safety did mention that the Knights would need all hands on deck to slow the Cougars — who attempted 45 passes last week — when they fly into Piscataway on Saturday.
“It’s just we really have to get the game plan down and really study their routes because they have a lot of different passing combinations and we just have to really lock down their tendencies and know what they do,” Cioffi said. “It gets difficult (with the inexperience of the freshmen), but they’re in this business, too, so it’s their job to prepare as well. And if we don’t do it alone, we do it as a group.”
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