WSU in Week 2: A very different Rutgers squad

WITH WASHINGTON STATE expected to be a heavy favorite in two of their three nonconference games, the road trip to Rutgers on Sept. 12 figures to be huge. The 2015 vintage of the Scarlett Knights is a far different team than WSU faced in Seattle last year.

Rutgers surprised the pundits in 2014 with an eight-win season but in looking at the stats, a lot of people are still wondering how they did it: Rutgers’ ranked 98th nationally in total defense, while their offense was just 76th.

Two reasons for the 8-5 record that included a bowl win: Rutgers was very good on special teams (they lead the country in blocked kicks since 2009 with 41). They also had a lot of experienced players last season who made key plays at key moments that helped decide close games. Going into last year, Phil Steele rated the Rutgers’ returning experience No. 15 in the land.

That experience is gone in 2015.

Rutgers returns only eight combined starters on offense (5) and defense (3), with both the kicker and punter also back. Heading into this season, Steele ranks the ’15 Rutgers squad No. 112 out of 128 FBS teams in experience.

On offense, Rutgers' quarterback job remains up for grabs. They lost Gary Nova to graduation and neither LSU transfer Hayden Rettig or Chris Laviano have separated themselves, though Laviano may hold a slight edge heading into fall camp. Rutgers also has a new offensive coordinator in Ben McDaniels, replacing Ralph Friedgen.

Needing to replace three o-linemen, Rutgers has questions up front. But they should have a solid stable of running backs -- there are four RBs who could see significant turns and compete for the starting job. Last year the Cougs' defense was woeful against Rutgers, who ran the ball 43 times for 215 yards and amassed 496 yards of total offense. RB Paul James, who had 173 of those rushing yards against WSU, will be a fifth-year senior in '15.

Rutgers is expected to lean most on the running game this year but if the o-line can set up a decent pocket, the WSU defense will have its hands full with WR Leonte Carroo. He had a breakout season a year ago with 55 receptions, 1,086 yards and 10 touchdowns. No other Rutgers receiver had more than 347 receiving yards in ’14. (Carroo was the receiver who caught the 78-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage against WSU last year).

The strength of the D is found on the defensive line. Rutgers will feature one of the most athletic defensive lines in the country.

It will also be one of the smallest.

The heaviest of the two DT starters on the spring depth chart weighed 285-pounds. The starting front four averaged just 265-pounds.

DT Darius Hamilton is the headliner – he weighed just 266-pounds this spring but that’s 10-plus more than he weighed last season when he posted a team-high 11.5 tackles for loss and six sacks among his 45 tackles.

The linebackers should be relatively solid with Steve Longa (two straight seasons of 100-plus tackles) but the secondary has serious question marks. A lot of new faces will be asked to grow up fast and make plays in the defensive backfield.

Last year Rutgers allowed 6.39 yards a play, ranking 113th nationally. Surprisingly, a number of pundits see them improving there despite losing almost half of their starters.

Facing an undersized d-line, will Washington State test the Rutgers run defense more than they did in last year’s 41-38 loss? Perhaps the better question is if the Cougar o-line and running backs will be productive on the ground. WSU running backs combined for just nine carries a year ago against Rutgers – but they also didn't give Mike Leach much of a reason to keep it on the ground, with only 22 yards to show for those nine touches.

Meanwhile, teams ran for an average of 212-yards per game against Rutgers last season. Rutgers held teams to an average of 231 hashes through the air.

Washington State faces Rutgers at 12:30 p.m. (PT) on Sept. 12. The game will be televised by either ESPN or ESPNU. The Cougs are listed as 5-1/2 point underdogs by 5dimes.

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