Wazzu travels to the furthest reaches of the Eastern time zone to take on Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. When responding to adversity, there's essentially two routes a team can go, both depending entirely on leadership: use it as a rallying point to unify a team, or let if foster dissension and fold. Both Rutgers and Washington State are kinda backed up into a corner at the start of this season -- though how they got into their respective corners is very different -- and fans of both squads are eager to see how their teams respond.
What has me concerned about Rutgers
Travel. WSU went to Auburn back in 2013 and competed very well against a team that'd go on to become one of the nation's best by the end of the season. The staff has a travel itinerary in place to normalize things as much as they can, but it's still pretty concerning to traverse the country in the direction you lose hours.
Momentum. Game-to-game momentum doesn't exist, or that's what linebacker Jeremiah Allison would want us to believe. Momentum is one of those funny things our brains assume is true. Strongly. Even in the face of empirical evidence that proves otherwise. Allison is right, there shouldn't be a hangover from last week, but there's an awful lot of fans curious to see if what was on the field Saturday was what this team will offer all season.
Pressure. Last year Rutgers controlled the line of scrimmage on offense and defense. Teams that can do that will often win games. The front is the Scarlet Knights' defensive strength, and they'll lean more on getting pressure as opposed to dropping into coverage. That probably means a good dose of Steve Longa (WILL) and Quentin Gause (SAM) on stunts. Both are excellent players and team leaders. This will be a massive test for the offensive line.
Hands. Drops happen. When a team throws the ball as often as WSU, they happen a lot. They'll happen again. Give an excuse like the weather or focus, or say it's inexcusable, it doesn't really matter, too many drops happened last week. Two weeks in a row and we start getting the impression of a trend. They can snap that idea right in half with a great bounce back game against Rutgers, but until then, we have to wait and see with the wide receiver group a lot more than we initially thought before the first snap of the season.
Stopping the run. Portland State essentially marched on the WSU defense in the second half using little more than an inverted veer out of a wildcat formation with Paris Penn. That's...not good. The defensive ends got pinned down rushing the QB and lost contain on bootlegs, which is also...not good. The real concern is with the Scarlet Knights' backfield. They have a bevy of running backs, led by Paul James and Josh Hicks. Rutgers hung 63 points on Norfolk State last week, the most in the Kyle Flood era, and threw the ball 15 (!) times. Three running backs had over 10 carries, and they came nine yards shy of 300 on the ground as a team. Rutgers will run the dang ball.
Explosives. The home run to Leonte Carroo to start the game last season wasn't an aberration. He's opened the last three (!) seasons with a big touchdown catch on his first pass reception. Laviano hit Carroo for 56 and 55 yard TDs on consecutive drives in the third quarter last week. Just when you're thinking about the run, they'll take big shots deep. Oh and he hit Carroo for an 18 yard TD the series after. Think they have a connection?
Hesitation and being conservative. After the rolling boil of emotions cooled to a simmer and I re-watched the game, Luke Falk didn't play all that poorly in the first half. His biggest problem was hesitating in the pocket, which the offensive line gave him plenty of time to do on the majority of pass attempts. He won't have that time against Rutgers, and didn't do a whole lot with it against Portland State anyway. Falk also opted to work down his progression even when receivers had gotten decent separation downfield. Being conservative is ok, but overly conservative isn't gonna win you a lot of games either.
To curb some of that, Leach recently said he's gonna put some of the play calling responsibility back on his shoulders. As we've talked about before, the quarterback is often given a formation with a suggested play then told go. It sounds like rather than leaving the entire playbook open, Leach is moving to either/or calls, which should allow Falk to think less and just play. The film room is a great place to over-analyze, the pocket on gameday is not.
I still think Falk can be a quarterback that wins a lot of games for WSU in this offense, but after one good start and three pretty lousy ones, he's got a real "prove it" moment ahead of him in Piscataway...if he's healthy enough to go. And we all hope he's ok, cause that spill looked pretty nasty and the heart he had to go for it is really admirable.
Aaron Breitman, On The Banks
What are you most confident in about the Scarlet Knights?
"The senior leadership on this team is as strong as it was back in 2006 and 2012, our best teams of the past few decades. They have kept this team together through all the adversity and there is no reason to think it will not continue. This team already felt disrespected after most pre-season predictions picked them last or second to last in the Big Ten East. After finishing 8-5 and 4th place in our first season, it was obvious based on those predictions that respect had still not been earned. Now with all the controversy over suspensions, arrests and investigations, I think this team will flourish playing with their backs against the wall, so to speak."
What has me confident in WSU
Team leadership. This could come back to bite me, but I kinda liked how Gabe Marks, Gunnar Eklund, and especially Jeremiah Allison responded to the loss at the podium. And they all did it in three very different ways. You could tell Eklund was pissed, defiant to the point of saying it won't ever happen again. Allison was more composed, like we've come to expect from him, and gave an energy that you can imagine would help solidify the team defense. Marks was dismissive of almost everything he was asked. He knows the receivers are way better than that game, that they'll show everybody the next chance they get that wasn't them. I believe all of them, hopefully the rest of the team does too.
Circumstance. WSU is playing Rutgers when they've got quite a lot of internal turmoil, which has been fairly well documented at this point. Cliff Notes version is that Rutgers' depth in the secondary took a major hit when some players were criminally charged and dismissed, and their head coach Kyle Flood is under investigation for improperly contacting a faculty member about a player's eligibility. That's a lot to deal with as a team.
As things sit going into the game against WSU, the Scarlet Knights have four freshman on their two-deep at corner, only one of them a redshirt. Wazzu should be licking their chops at the opportunity to throw against that little experience.
Darius Hamilton, who leads the team with 24.5 TFLs and 10.5 sacks, is out with an injury. Also, Kemoko Turay, their speed rush specialist behind Quanzell Lambert, is dinged up but expected to play a little.
What scares you about Wazzu?
"The Air Raid of course. Leach having the offense throw 50+ times against our young and inexperienced secondary, particularly our corners, scares us very much so. Our defensive line and linebackers are our strength and need to generate consistent pressure to give the secondary a chance."
How I think it'll play out
Wazzu has a real opportunity to rebound against a power conference opponent in Rutgers. Before last Saturday happened, I would've thought the secondary had no chance against this group of receivers, and most of Rutgers' efforts to get to the quarterback would be handled by the big guys up front.
Let's not let one terrible game (this season) get in the way of that; let's wait for the trend to develop (this season).
Rutgers will control the clock and march up and down the field with the running game. They'll even hit a couple of explosive plays and burn the defense. When the Cougs do stymie that rushing attack and force a third-and-long, I think we see the secondary make a play. They didn't get a whole lot of opportunities against Portland State - and probably won't against Rutgers either - but those downs will be massively important throughout the game. Wazzu gets their legs underneath them offensively, and after Rutgers stuffs a few drives with ill-advised rush attempts, they start hitting receivers in the second half, scoring at a rate Rutgers struggles to match on the ground.
Final score of WSU 38 -31 Rutgers.
How do you see the game playing out?
"I think it will be a close first half with WSU having some success with Air Raid. I expect our run game to have success immediately and for the teams to be within one score of each other at the break. I think the secondary will catch their breath a bit and make some adjustments in the second half. Not enough to stop the Air Raid, but enough to slow WSU and allow our running game to physically wear down your defense in the 4th quarter. I see Rutgers clinching it with a late touchdown for a 45-35 win."