Rutgers 101: Footballs figure to fill the sky

THE SCARLETT KNIGHTS’ jump to the Big Ten begins with a 2,400-mile flight to Pac-12 country. Rutgers returns a bevy of talent from last year's bowl team, but a questionable secondary could get eaten alive by Connor Halliday and crew -- if the guys in crimson execute the offense.

Cougars (0-0) vs Scarlet Knights (0-0)
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
7 pm Pacific Time

WHERE:
CenturyLink Field (67,500)

TELEVISION:
FOX Sports 1

RADIO:
The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

THE LINE:
Cougs by 8 1/2

THE SERIES:
This is the first meeting .

CF.C PREDICTION:
Cougs 38, Rutgers 30

THE KNIGHTS ON OFFENSE

Players to Know
QB Gary Nova: The senior has had a rocky career in Piscataway. The two-year starter got benched late last season for throwing too many interceptions. The graduation of senior QB Chas Dodd led Rutgers coach Kyle Flood to declare an open QB competition this spring, but nobody seriously challenged Nova. At 6-2, 220-pounds, Nova has a great build and all the athleticism in the world, but struggles with consistency and decision making.
RB Paul James: The Knights have a loaded backfield with James, Savon Huggins, and Desmon Peoples. Despite recruiting well at the position, it was the walk-on James who led the team last year with 881 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns despite missing four games.
TE Tyler Kroft: The 6-6 240-pound junior is Rutgers strongest proven returning receiving target. He led the team with 574 receiving yards last year as well as four touchdowns.

Overview
After three years in retirement, Kyle Flood successfully coxed former national coach the year Ralph Friedgen back into coaching as Rutgers’ offensive coordinator in the hopes that he can stimulate this crew. Friedgen likes to run a balanced, pro-style attack.

Offensively, so much hinges on the success of Nova. In the first five games, he threw for 13 touchdowns and four interceptions, in the next five games, he threw four touchdowns and ten interceptions. The ability is there, but pass protection and open targets are essential. Rutgers lost both starting receivers from last year, and Ruhann Peele, a replacement starter is out with an injury. The Knights offensive line struggled against the blitz last season, but all five starters return.

Strategy
The Cougars have had a stout defensive line in fall camp – but now they need to prove it in games. Rutger's line struggled last season. Take control of the line of scrimmage and make life difficult for Nova. It is dangerous to leave WSU's young secondary exposed, but they could match up surprisingly well with Rutgers inexperienced receivers.

Key Statistic
Career receptions: 70. Outside of the tight end, Rutgers receiving corps is fairly green, with just 70 career catches between them. The Knights seem confident in the talent pool, but expect the routes to be kept short and simple early on.

THE KNIGHTS ON DEFENSE

Players to Know
Steven Longa, WILL: Longa managed a spectacular 123 tackles as a freshman last season. He swapped positions with MLB Kevin Snyder this spring and will be utilized as a weakside blitzer this year.
Justin Goodwin, CB: Just a few days ago, Goodwin was Rutger's No. 2 running back. A precariously thin secondary prompted coaches to move him to corner, a position he has not played since high school. Surprisingly, he is now projected to start this week against the Cougs.

Darius Hamilton, DT At 260-pounds Hamilton isn't the biggest defensive tackle in the world, but he is quick and highly disruptive. He lead the team with 11.5 TFL's in 2013.

Overview
Rutgers’ pass defense was nothing short of abysmal last season, ranking No. 120 in the nation. Opponents averaged 312 passing yards per game and 7.8 yards per throw. But even living down to those numbers could be difficult in 2014.

Three of four starters departed from that group, several others quit or transferred in the off-season. Both replacement starting cornerbacks went down with injuries this fall camp and may not be back/at 100 percent by game time. Kyle Flood has been forced to cannibalize his offensive talent looking for anyone who can play cornerback.

That said, the Knights have a decent selection of pass rushers that could give the Cougars problems. They were stout against the run (not than many teams bothered) and also generated 32 sacks in 2013.

Strategy
When the weakness of the opponent is the secondary, it is pretty obvious that the Cougars will test it heavily, but Connor Halliday needs to remember the ground game too when he’s checking off and to utilize his wealth at running back. The Knights are likely to massively over-compensate in pass defense. The running lanes should be wide open.

Key Statistic
Passing Touchdowns Allowed: 31. Teams shredded the Knights through the air last year. Fresno State, Houston, SMU, and Cincinnati each threw for at least 400 yards and 5 touchdowns a piece.

THE KNIGHTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
This is where things get interesting. WSU's special teams appears to be a collection of spare parts the coaches hope will come together. Rutgers on the other hand, thinks they have a game-changer in their special teams play. Kicker Kyle Federico is nothing remarkable, but the Knights had four punts and kickoff returns for touchdowns last year, to go along with two blocked punts.

FINAL THOUGHTS
-The Air Raid tests not just the quality, but also the depth of opponent's cornerbacks. WSU passes 60-plus times a game out of perpetual 4-receiver sets, and always keeps fresh legs on the field. That is an exhausting number of routes to defend, and Rutgers' secondary is both thin and inexperienced.

-The season opener between Rutgers and Fresno State was one of the most entertaining games of the season in 2013. Rutgers failed to make a last second field goal that would have won the game. In overtime they went for two and failed, losing 52-51. Nova had the offense firing early, and if he can do the same, it should be a tremendous shootout between him and Connor Halliday. Rutgers fully expects to be in a track meet.

-Century Link has offered little advantage to WSU, with the Cougars losing the last six Seattle games. If ever the location was going to help give WSU an edge, however, it would be against Rutgers, which must travel three time zones and 2,400 miles for what will be a 10 p.m. start on the East Coast.

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