Rutgers (0-0) vs. Washington State (0-0) (ET)
FACTS & STATS: Site: CenturyLink Field (67,000) -- Seattle, Washington. Television: FS1. Home Record: Rutgers 0-0, WSU 0-0. Away Record: Rutgers 0-0, WSU 0-0. Neutral Record: Rutgers 0-0, WSU 0-0. Conference Record: Rutgers 0-0, WSU 0-0. Series Record: First-ever meeting.
GAME NOTES: The 2014 season will kickoff for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and the Washington State Cougars when the two teams clash at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.
Although technically a neutral-site affair, this game is more of a home test for the Cougars, who are coming off their first bowl appearance since 2003. Head coach Mike Leach was heralded as a savior of sorts for the program when he was hired two years ago. Thus far he has the Cougars trending in the right direction, getting them to a bowl game in his second season, during which they notched six wins for the first time since 2006.
While the Cougars are hoping for stability this season, Rutgers is in a year of transition. After competing in the American Athletic Conference last season following 22 years in the Big East, the Scarlet Knights are now a member of the Big Ten. They will need to adjust quickly if they hope to maintain their recent success, which has included eight bowl games in the last nine years.
Rutgers will face a number of new teams this season so what better way to start the year than to meet one in the opener? This will mark the first time the Scarlet Knights have battled the Cougars, and just the fifth time they have played a team from the Pac-12 Conference.
Gary Nova returns to lead the Rutgers offense after a mediocre 2013 campaign. Nova started the first 10 games of the campaign, but was benched in favor of Chas Dodd for the final three, including the 29-16 loss to Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl. Nova still threw for 2,159 yards and 18 touchdowns, but he was also guilty of 14 interceptions, while completing just 54.5 percent of his pass attempts.
Nova will be working with a safety net in tight end Tyler Kroft (43 receptions, 573 yards, four TDs), but the rest of his receivers are largely unproven. Leonte Carroo (32 yards, 478 yards, nine TDs) led the team in touchdown receptions and had some very impressive games, but lacked consistency.
The running game remains the responsibility of Paul James, as he rushed for 881 yards and nine scores as the top option last season. He led the team in rushing despite missing four games in the middle of the year. Prior to the absence he piled up 100 yards in three of four contests. Justin Goodwin (521 yards, five TDs) was effective as his replacement and will get some work as well.
Of course offense is not really Rutgers' strong suit. The Scarlet Knights were just inside the top-100 in the nation when it came to total offense (365.2 ypg) last year, but they were more effective on defense, especially against the run (100.8 ypg to rank fourth).
The unit should be stout once again with leading tacklers Steve Longa (123) and Kevin Snyder (96) back in the fold, and defensive tackle Darius Hamilton (11.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks) also returning. The secondary has a few more question marks, although Lorenzo Waters (62 tackles) is a solid leader.
In this one, Rutgers' strength in stopping the run is rather useless, since Washington State lives almost exclusively in the air on offense. The Cougars were fourth in the country in passing yards last season (368 ypg), while managing less than 700 total rushing yards.
Connor Halliday is the man under center, entering his third season in Leach's system. Last year was his first as the full-time starter and he showed promise, throwing for 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns while completing 62.9 percent of his pass attempts. However, he still needs to cut down on the mistakes (22 interceptions).
Receivers Gabe Marks, River Cracraft and Rickey Galvin are all back. Marks led the team in receptions (74), yards (807) and touchdowns (seven) last season. Cracraft (46 receptions, 614 yards, three TDs) and Galvin (39 receptions, 311 yards, four TDs) made their share of plays as well.
When the Cougars do decide to throw in a run play, the carries will generally go to Marcus Mason (429 yards, two TDs). Mason is also a valuable asset in the passing game (52 receptions, 390 yards, two TDs).
Defense is not as strong a part of the Cougars' philosophy. Last season, they ranked outside the top-100 nationally in total defense (458 ypg), although to be fair, that is partially to blame on the speed in which the offense ran plays.
Washington State is most dangerous up front where a host of talented players return. Chief among them is Darryl Monroe (94 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks), with Kache Palacio (49 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks) and Cyrus Coen (60 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) also lending a hand.
These two teams could not be more diametrically opposed. Rutgers relies on a smash-mouth style, choosing to run at a deliberate pace, while Washington State likes to push the tempo and rely on the passing game almost to a fault. Of the two, the Cougars are the program that is most intact and seemingly on the rise. That, plus playing a quasi-home game, will be the difference.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Washington State 34, Rutgers 24Game Date and Time
Thursday, August 28, 10 p.m. (ET)