For the first time in program history, the Washington Huskies are set to go joust with the Scarlet Knights, who underwent a coaching staff makeover this offseason, naming former Ohio State co-Defensive Coordinator Chris Ash the new head coach. He later appointed Drew Mehringer, who spent last year as a receivers coach at Houston, their offensive coordinator.
The new system is sort of a double-edged sword: the Scarlet Knights haven’t had a chance to try their new scheme against a real, live opponent. Conversely, the Huskies have no game tape on Rutgers operating under their new schemes on either side of the ball.
That being said, Washington does have the tape for 16 total returning starters, which should give Chris Petersen and his staff plenty to game plan for. Here’s a look at some of those returners who could make a big difference in this game.
Players to watch
#5 JR 6’2” 221-pound QB Chris Laviano
2015 stats: 187 of 307 for 2247 yards, 60.9 % completion, 16 TD, 12 INT, 131.8 efficiency rating
Scoop: Even after starting 11 games last year, Chris Ash did not guarantee Chris Laviano the job. However, with just under two weeks before the start of the season, the redshirt junior had separated himself enough from the pack to be named the starter. His calling card is his ability to deliver his passes on target. In fact, according to onthebanks.com, his 60.9 completion percentage was the highest by any Rutgers signal caller since 2008. The Scarlet Knights lost their top receiver last year and are transitioning to a more spread attack, meaning they’ll need to rely on Laviano’s experience and accuracy to guide them through the first few games before they hit their stride.
Husky Comparison: Jake Browning
#32 SR 5’11” 215-pound RB Justin Goodwin
2015 stats: 11 carries for 20 yards, 1.8 YPC, 1 TD, 6 long
Scoop: After a solid freshman season in 2013, Goodwin has slowly seen his reps drop over the ensuing seasons. That can partially be attributed to his switch to corner for the start of the 2014 season. However, Goodwin is set for his final season to be a fresh start, listed as the lead back on the initial depth chart. One area he has made more of an impact than other backs is catching the ball. He led the group in receptions last year and has 32 career catches. At this moment, it looks like he’s tailback 1A in a three-back committee.
Husky Comparison: Jomon Dotson, except much bigger
#7 JR 5’11” 210-pound RB Robert Martin
2015 stats: 141 carries for 763 yards, 5.4 YPC, 6 TD, 54 long
Scoop: Through a couple seasons of college football, Robert Martin has been incredibly efficient, as modeled by his career 5.3 yards per carry. His highlight film showcases an array of talents, including solid quickness, some power, and nice wheels when in space. Despite being the most productive tailback last season, he’s listed as tied for second on Rutgers’ initial depth chart. Either way, he’ll get his share of carries.
Husky Comparison: Myles Gaskin
#8 JR 5’10” 213-pound RB Josh Hicks
2015 stats: 130 carries for 704 yards, 5.2 YPC, 4 TD, 31 long
Scoop: Hicks has finished second on the team in rushing yards each of his first two seasons on campus. With a career mark of 5.6 yards per carry, he has proven the ability to consistently eat up chunks of yardage. He even made an impact on defense last year, tallying six tackles, recovering a fumble, and hauling in an interception as a safety against Army. His game at safety was more than likely a novelty, but it’s a testament to his athleticism. He’s the co-backup in Rutgers’ crowded backfield.
Husky Comparison: Lavon Coleman
#1 SR 5’10” 180-pound WR Janarion Grant
2015 stats: 1583 all-purpose yards (352 receiving, 80 rushing, 167 punt return, 984 kick return), 5 total touchdowns (1 receiving, 1 punt return, 3 kick return), 35 receptions
Scoop: Janarion Grant may have the most receptions of any returning Scarlet Knight, but catching passes is just one of the areas where the senior standout is dangerous. After just three years, he is Rutgers’ all-time kick off return yardage leader. He’s so dangerous that Phil Steele picked him as the preseason first team All-Big Ten kick returner for the upcoming season. With explosive quickness and speed to burn, Grant is lethal with the ball in his hands. As the most experienced receiver on the roster, expect Chris Laviano to get the ball in his hands no matter the cost.
Husky Comparison: John Ross III
#91 SR 6’3” 286-pound DT Darius Hamilton
2014 stats (injured in 2015): 45 total tackles, 6 sacks, 11.5 TFL, 1 FF
Scoop: Rutgers has the 26th ranked defensive line in the country according to Phil Steele, and that’s largely due to Darius Hamilton. He was honorable mention all-Big Ten in 2014, consistently making plays in opponent’s backfield. Phil Steele named Hamilton to his preseason second team all-Big Ten prediction. There’s no doubt he has the talent; how he bounces back from missing a year of football is the question.
Husky Comparison: Elijah Qualls
#11 SO 6’1” 202-pound CB Isaiah Wharton
2015 stats: 57 total tackles, 3 TFL, 10 PD, 1 INT
Scoop: Isaiah Wharton started all 12 games last year as a true freshman and put out some really exciting film. He’s big and physical, allowing him to give receivers a hard time at the line of scrimmage. He also is a solid tackler who can make an impact stopping the run.
Husky Comparison: Kevin King
#31 SR 6’0” 203-pound S Anthony Cioffi
2015 stats: 45 total tackles, 1.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 3 PD, 4 INT
Scoop: The lone senior in Rutgers’ defensive backfield’s two deeps, Cioffi is by far the most experienced of the group. And with 21 career starts, 10 of which coming at corner, his strength comes in his versatility. In his collegiate career, Cioffi has two and a half sacks, just fewer than 10 tackles for loss, six interceptions, and three forced fumbles. The New Jersey native is a strong tackler with nice ball skills and a nose for the football who has a knack for making plays.
Husky Comparison: Jojo McIntosh
What the Rutgers Offense look like
Drew Mehringer, having spent the past two seasons at James Madison and Houston, will implement a run-oriented spread offense this season. At both JMU and Houston, his quarterback was the team’s leading rusher. That won’t be the case with Chris Laviano. That’s not his game. That doesn’t mean Rutgers isn’t capable of running the spread offense successfully. They have a sort of “three-headed monster” backfield with Goodwin, Martin, and Hicks. Those three will be running behind an experienced offensive line that returns four starters and a whopping 58 total starts for the interior linemen. There are five fifth-year receivers in the two deeps, led by Janarion Grant. The range of body types and skill sets will allow Laviano to move the ball down the field in a variety of ways, whether through screen passes to Grant or over the top to bigger bodies like Andre Patton.
There is no game tape out on Rutgers running a spread offense, but Pete Kwiatkowski and the rest of the coaching staff still feel they are taking the necessary steps to prepare themselves. Expect an up-tempo offense with a lot of run-pass option and quick hitters to play makers like Grant. To sum it up, Sidney Jones called it, “college football stuff.” Chris Petersen on Monday, while talking about the uncertainty of Rutgers, insisted that even against familiar systems there are new wrinkles that the coaches need to adjust to on the fly. This showdown with Rutgers is just a little more extreme in that regard.
What the Rutgers Defense looks like
The Scarlet Knight defense has a lot of experience on the that side of the ball, save the linebacker corps. They lost all three starters in that group, who coincidentally were the team’s three leading tacklers in 2015. Rutgers will replace those guys with two true sophomores and a journeyman senior. The three combined for 25 games played and one start. However, behind the linebackers is a secondary with a lot of experience, as well as size. As a unit, they’ve accumulated 44 starts, 34 of which came last season. The corners, Isaiah Wharton and Blessuan Austin, are both long and physical. They aren’t afraid to challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage. Anthony Cioffi, one of two safeties, is the veteran of the group, with starts at corner and safety in his career. All four starters in the secondary are at least six feet tall, and the lightest of the bunch, Blessuan Austin, is just a protein shake away from 200 pounds.
The defensive line is most likely the strength of the defense with three returning starters. The fourth, Darius Hamilton, missed all of last season with an injury. If he returns to full form, he could be the best player on this defense.
Just looking at the 4-3 front of this defense, Chris Ash isn’t changing too much from his Ohio State days, and with a solid secondary and big defensive line he has something to work with. It seems that Rutgers’ defense is the perfect test for Washington’s offense. They have a physical secondary and big, experienced defensive line to combat Washington’s receiving corps and offensive line, which are two positions fans have kept an eye on all offseason. If the linebacker corps can hold their own, the Scarlet Knights should have a tough group to score on.
Keys to the game
- Silence the crowd – The Washington hype train is at full speed ahead, but nothing sucks the air out of a stadium like a 26-point underdog coming in and turning an expected blowout into a nail-biter. Also, I hate to say it, but a rainy day before students are on campus featuring a lopsided game won’t fill the bleachers. Turning a road game into a neutral site, at least in terms of noise, would take one of Washington’s advantages away.
- Go for broke – The difference in expectations for the two teams are light years apart. That’s not to say Rutgers isn’t on the right track with a new coaching staff and a defense that features five starting sophomores. But, it’s fair to say the Huskies are the team with something to lose. On top of that, there’s no film of Rutgers with their new system. Entropy is Rutgers’ friend on Saturday, and a few ‘what just happened’ moments could flip the script in a hurry.
- Play mean on defense – I don’t mean dirty, but physical play, especially out of their big corners, will put a lot of pressure on the Huskies' young receiving corps, especially without a ton of big targets to go to.
- Draw first blood – As Dawgman's Chris Fetters mentioned in his Thoughts from the Week, the Huskies didn’t score last year on their first drive until the eleventh game of the season, and didn’t score twice in the first quarter until their tenth game. If the Huskies can get on the board first and take an early lead, it should calm the nerves of the players and coaches alike.
- Win the special teams battle – As Dawg fans saw in last season’s opener at Boise State, a few special teams plays can turn an abysmal showing into a tight game, and ultimately a lost game. Again last year, Rutgers nearly took down Washington State, which largely was a result of two return touchdowns from Janarion Grant. Grant is back and dangerous as ever with the ball in his hands. Imagine the difference it would make if John Ross housed a kick return and Grant didn’t? Now imagine the opposite.
- Make Rutgers earn every yard – Rutgers’ new offense will want to run a lot of plays in rapid succession. Not giving a new offense a short field, forcing them to methodically move the ball against one of the country’s top-rated defenses, and not allowing Drew Mehringer’s group to find a rhythm will help ‘Death Row’ start the season off with a solid number in the points per game department.