For the second straight season, Rutgers football begins their campaign on the west coast against a spread offense team. For 2014, the Knights kick off against Mike Leach and the Washington State Cougars, who seem to be on the cusp of a breakout year in the incredibly deep Pac-12. Let's take an early look at the matchup:
Head coach: Mike Leach (2nd year)
Key returning players: QB Connor Halliday, WR Gabe Marks, DT Xavier Cooper
2013 Record: 6-7 (4-5 Pac-12)
The 2013 Washington State Cougars are improving quickly under former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. Before the New Mexico Bowl loss to Colorado State last season, Wazzu last made a bowl game in 2003, when they beat Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl. They opened 2013 with a one-touchdown loss to national runner-up Auburn and beat USC and Arizona on the road in Pac-12 play. The Pirate seems to have found a nice home in Pullman - away from the spotlight of the national media, yet enough attention as a power conference team.
Based on last season's results, this is a nightmare matchup for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights were the fourth worst passing defense in the nation last season, leading to a school record for yards given up through the air. This is a great litmus test for Rutgers fans to see if Joe Rossi has figured out the Knights' secondary woes. The Cougars bring back senior quarterback Connor Halliday, a former three-star prospect who threw for 34 touchdowns (but also 22 interceptions) and nearly 4600+ yards last season. To make matters worse, Wazzu returns 10 of 11 of last year's pass catchers. The Cougar offense looks ready to explode in 2014.
If there's any silver lining, the Cougs lose the majority of their offensive line, as returning starters LG Gunnar Eklund and LT Joe Dahl bring with them only 33 career starts combined. In contrast, Rutgers' line returns 98 combined starts, including a second-team all-conference selection in C Betim Bujari. We'll see if that makes a difference, however. One of the benefits of Mike Leach's Air Raid offense is a quick release from the quarterback, negating the number of opportunities for pass rushes.
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In a way, Rutgers fans might feel grateful to have Washington State on the schedule so early. I know that I'm eager to see if last season's disastrous secondary has been fixed. RU was well on its way for gaining a legit reputation as "defensive back U." Hopefully the 2014 season opener will show that 2013 was an aberration, and not a disturbing trend.