The season opener for any team brings with it plenty of hype and anticipation, obviously due to the long wait for real, actual football. It's 243 days from December 28, 2013 to August 28, 2014, and we would all probably still be as excited if Howard was scheduled as the opener rather than Washington State. But it's the Cougars, led by a Pirate by the name of Leach, who will stand in opposition to the Knights this Thursday night. And not only is it a matchup of Power 5 opponents to begin the season, it's a matchup of strengths and weaknesses that make it interesting as well.
Darius Hamilton is the star of the Rutgers defense, and deservedly so. He's a blue-chip recruit and is poised to disrupt many an offensive line in 2014, making him an impact player for almost every game. He should have a good chance against the Cougars, who gave up 32 sacks in 2013 (good for 95th in the nation). However, Rutgers will need to look elsewhere to stop Connor Halliday from dropping 400 yards passing on the Knights, which might send fans into a depression after what happened last season. Here's a description of the Air Raid offense from Brian Anderson of CougCenter:
Leach's Air Raid has never been about deception. Some offenses are; his isn't. His is more about execution. His offense will run its plays better than you can defend them -- it's all about technique and execution.
The Cougar offense averages around 15 rush attempts per game, consistent with past Leach offenses. Play-action probably won't be a factor, supporting the non-deception factor. What the offense will do is send four-five receivers out into short and intermediate routes to spread the defense and find a soft spot in the coverage. The immediate answer you might think to try is to add more coverage defenders and take away pass rushers. After all, shouldn't it be a numbers game? Theoretically, four receivers shouldn't be able to run wild and free against eight defenders. The problem there is that the pass-rush suffers, giving the quarterback more time to find an open man. The offense could add a fifth receiver as well, and with all of the talent returning for Wazzu, they'll have the depth to do so.
The key player here is Steve Longa. His athleticism is key to stopping an offense like this, where he can drop into coverage and use his closing speed to limit small plays from turning into huge gains. The Air Raid utilizes a quick release from the QB on short pass routes, negating the strength of the Rutgers defense, which is the line. Longa, and the linebacker corps as a whole, will need to be vigilant in closing passing lanes, or it'll be a long night for the defense. Man coverage can limit the soft spots that a zone has, and that's where the talent and execution comes in. The game will boil down to the moments where Halliday finds single coverage. At that point, it's all about execution, for the Wazzu offense, and the Rutgers defense.
If you focus on stopping the big play, Halliday could gash the Knights for five-yard gains all night. If you play up on the receivers to clog the intermediate lanes, it leaves the field vulnerable to a deep pass. It's almost a pick-your-poison situation, but I believe that Rutgers has enough speed to defend the short yardage passes. Press coverage has the benefit of jamming receivers at the line as well as limiting YAC. Of course, the caveat is that it could leave outside receivers on an island with the cornerbacks. Not the best way to ease in a secondary that's a work-in-progress.
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Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As an old enemy
The Rutgers' secondary says they can't wait to "shut everybody up." Those are strong words for a unit that gave up the most passing yards in program history. They have a pretty terrible opponent to back up those words, but they don't really have to shut anyone up. If the score is again 52-51 at 2 AM on Friday morning but in favor of Rutgers, I imagine many fans won't be too upset. Sure, we all want the RU defense to be dominant again, but baby steps. The Cougars will get yards. All Rutgers needs to do is get more than them (maybe score more points too).