Five WSU questions with Rutgers beat writer

WOODBRIDGE, N.J.- With Washington State vs. Rutgers only 72 hours away, we went to one of the top authorities on Scarlet Knights football -- Star-Ledger reporter Keith Sargeant. The veteran journalist sat down with CF.C’s Braulio Perez on Monday morning, providing some great insights on the Rutgers offense, defense and more.

When WSU faces Rutgers on Thursday evening (7 p.m. Fox Sports 1, blacked out on Dish) the Scarlet Knight will enter that contest with an upset on their minds, and Sargeant thinks Rutgers might just get one.

WSU is favored by eight points depending on which line you read, but Sargeant tells CF.C that if the team from New Jersey can control the tempo and limit their turnovers, they’ll be leaving the Evergreen State with a victory.

CF.C: With Rutgers, offensively, who are the big guns Washington State should be focusing on?

Sergeant: You’re going to focus on the quarterback Gary Nova, who is certainly in a make-or-break year. The best word to describe his career so far would be uneven. He was benched at the end of last season for three games, but had a great summer and won the starting job.

Under new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, I would say a lot of people are expecting big things from Nova this season. Beyond that, Leonte Carroo will be the go-to wide receiver and tight end Tyler Kroft is a Mackey Award candidate. Running back Paul James had 891 yards a year ago and only played nine games. You could pretty much trace their downfall last season to when he got hurt. He broke his leg and didn’t play for four games. At the time (of his injury) he was leading the country in rushing. He’s back and has had a great camp. I think he’s ready to lead the load.

CF.C: With Washington State’s youth in the secondary, would you expect Rutgers to throw the ball around quite a bit? You expecting a shootout?

Sergeant: If you’ve seen some of their bigger games over the years, whether it was at Arkansas a few years ago or Fresno State, they’ve shown they’re not shy to play that way. Gary Nova, for all of his struggles, has shown he has the ability to win those types of games. If I had to guess, and this is with no inside information, I’d say they’re going to try and control the tempo and establish their own pace. They’re going to want to keep WSU off the field as much as a possible.

Just reading about Connor Halliday, the numbers he’s put up are prolific. The less time he’s on the field will probably be for the better. With that being said, I do think Rutgers has the ability to win a shootout and they’ve done it before. If I had to guess, though, I’d say they’d like to keep it below 30 points.

CF.C: Washington State figures to throw the ball quite a bit. What have you seen out of the Rutgers defense throughout fall camp?

Sergeant: The defensive line is deep and experienced. A lot of people say they’re undersized compared to other Big-10 teams, but that won’t be an issue against Washington State. The linebacker core is experienced and they’re solid across the board as well.

Then in the secondary, they gave up 4,500 yards a year ago. The good thing is they have some returners coming back, but we just won’t know how good they are until 1 or 2 a.m. on Friday after the dust settles in the opener. For as much as they’ve look okay during the summer, you just don’t know. They haven’t been tested. I think the key will be getting pressure with the front four. New defensive coordinator Joe Rossi is going to be more aggressive and try and get after the quarterback. If they can do that and disrupt Halliday a little bit to take some pressure of the secondary, that will be big for them.”

CF.C: With Mike Leach and his style of play, what’s the biggest concern for Rutgers in Seattle?

Sergeant: With the secondary Rutgers has, you just don’t know what can happen. You look at the quarterbacks they faced a year ago and some of the guys were Teddy Bridgewater, who has a chance to start for the Minnesota Vikings, Blake Bortles, who was a top three pick by Jacksonville and Derek Carr who is a quarterback for the Oakland Raiders. They faced really good quarterbacks a year ago and all of them had high degrees of success.

Going into it, that’s the concern. A guy like Halliday, where his numbers are video game like, he throws all over the place and guys can’t keep up with him. The less three-and-outs for Rutgers the better. They’re going to want to keep the defense off the field as much as possible. Rutgers wants to take pressure of the defense. Going into it, the question is if the secondary can make enough plays to try and disrupt Halliday and the offense.

CF.C: Who will be the biggest difference makers for Rutgers on Thursday night?

Sergeant: I’m going to go with the tight end Tyler Kroft. The wide receiver core is banged up right now. You have Andre Patton, who a lot of people expected to start, out for the game. Ruhann Peel has been out for some time, but he also won’t be suiting up against WSU. Tyler Kroft led the team with 43 receptions last year and had four touchdowns. It was a breakout year for him and clearly he’s been a favorite target of Gary Nova. I’d expect that to continue.

CF.C: What’s your prediction for the game?

Sergeant: You know, I’m going to go with Rutgers. I think they’re going to have success controlling the tempo and running the ball. You have to think Paul James will be able to run for over 100 yards and have success. I think Gary Nova has been efficient over the summer. If he can take care of the ball and not commit turnovers, I think Rutgers will have a good chance to win.

I’m going to keep the score a little lower than others have predicted, though. I’ll say it’s going to be 31-28.

Keith Sergeant is in his first year covering Rutgers football for NJ.com and the Star-Ledger, but has 14 seasons of Rutgers football under his belt. Sergeant joined NJ.com after 17 years with Gannett New Jersey media group, where he had covered Rutgers athletics since 2000.

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