Wazzu opens the 2014 season with a home game outside the friendly confines of Martin Stadium for perhaps the last time, or for a while at least, squaring off against Rutgers University in one of the NFL's most imposing venues...which is already on the mind of the Scarlet Knights.
What is Rutgers?
Rutgers hails from Piscataway, New Jersey, happily situated between the Raritan River and Westons Mill Pond, which is about 45 traffic-free minutes southwest on I-95 of New York City. This game will be the Scarlet Knights' first as members of the Big Ten conference (probably don't have to worry about this being a Rose Bowl preview), which presumably took them on to capture that illustrious (mythical?) NYC college football television market. Maryland also joined, contributing its own share of eyeballs to the Big Ten Network with the D.C and Baltimore audiences that follow the Terps.
The Scarlet Knights open their season on the West Coast for a second consecutive season after losing a barn burner in overtime to Fresno State last year, and face a Pac-12 opponent for the first time since a 40-45 loss to Arizona State in 2005.
Rutgers is allegedly the "birthplace of intercollegiate football", and love to advertise it, but football On The Banks - except during the 1970's - hadn't been much of anything to pay attention to until 2006. The Scarlet Knights had five winning seasons between 1980 and 2006, and a stretch from '95 to '05 that Coug fans can sympathize with. Greg Schiano took over in 2001, leading Rutgers to 6 bowls in 10 seasons before departing for a failed season in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
After Schiano, Rutgers promoted in-house, making Kyle Flood their head man in 2012. With Schiano's roster (full of "Schiano Men"), Flood was able to win a Big East Championship to go with Big East Coach of the Year honors in his first season. Twenty Rutgers players have moved on to the NFL in Flood's first two seasons.
Now in year three, Flood is working primarily with his own recruits, fighting to replace all the talent that's moved on and disprove some rather dismal pre-season projections for the Scarlet Knights.
You can watch the full 50 minute video on the Scarlet Knight's spring here. It's really well done and you can get a good appreciation for the work these college athletes put in when no one's watching.
Rutgers faced some injury adversity late in the season, losing both starting running back Paul James and wide receiver Leonte Carroo. Combine that with problems at the quarterback position and you get a team that only put up more than three touchdowns in a game twice in their final eight.
Who will Rutgers be?
If Rutgers is anything near average in its first Big Ten season it would be viewed as a success by most in the media. No one is picking them to be anything special, a few even question whether they'll win a conference game. BTN analysts view two conference games as a positive goal, and think their match-up with the Cougs is particularly concerning. Media at Northwestern thinks they'll win a single conference game. Rutgers fans are unsurprisingly more confident about their chances.
We asked Ty Hildenbrandt, co-host of the excellent Solid Verbal podcast (find it on iTunes and subscribe, it's the most fun college football podcast out there, they have great content and amazing guests), for his thoughts on Rutgers;
Rutgers is a total wild card. To its credit, this team will be more experienced and athletic than the one we saw in 2013. But last year's tire fire was so out-of-control that it may still be smoldering. Kyle Flood needs to find a way to fix the offensive inefficiencies and defensive inconsistencies that killed Rutgers last season, or else his side could go winless in the Big Ten.
What are they good at?
If you've been following the site, you've probably noticed this preview isn't as X and O heavy as how teams have been scouted in the past. That's due to Rutgers' most recent major staff change.
Insert Ralph Friedgen, Coach Fridge, Rutgers' sixth offensive coordinator in as many seasons.
Last year, Rutgers' offense belonged to coordinator Ron Prince, who's now the Assistant Head Coach/Tight Ends Coach for the Detroit Lions. Rutgers was entirely inconsistent, often relying on big plays to keep them in games and being completely outclassed when they didn't come. Friedgen hopes to bring some stability to that side of the ball as one of the more accomplished Offensive Coordinators in all of football.
Coach Friedgen has the potential to single-handedly make the Scarlet Knight offense formidable. And he could very well do it this season. A brief coaching synopsis:
He played guard for Maryland, also getting his feet wet there as a graduate assistant immediately following his playing days. After bouncing around a bit he came back to the Terrapins as the offensive coordinator for four years, before a four-year stint as OC at Georgia Tech (where he won a national championship in 1990). Friedgen then spent the mid-90's in the NFL (appearing in a Superbowl as the offensive coordinator for the Chargers in '94) before returning to Georgia Tech, again as the OC, in '97.
In 2001, he became the head coach of Maryland and brought the program to a level of respectability it hadn't really seen before. Following the 2010 season, where his Terps went 9-4 and he won ACC Coach of the Year honors, his OC James Franklin was offered the head coaching job at Vanderbilt and took four coaches from the staff with him. This domino'd into the Maryland AD terminating Friedgen's contract before his final season and hiring Randy Edsall, which was widely regarded as a bad move, and he wasn't too happy about it.
Coach Fridge has been out of the game since, but he has a tremendous amount of respect from college coaches and is truly one of the great offensive coordinators in the college game.
As for a system, Friedgen doesn't really have one that's specific to him. He'll run the offense best for the personnel he has on hand. As you might've guessed from his history, he's orchestrated just about everything under the sun. In an interview with The Trentonian he said, "I've run a lot of different offenses, from option to pro, one back, two back, I don't believe in trying to do something the kids can't do" (Coaching itch prompts Ralph Friedgen to unretire, joins Rutgers' staff ).
He added a little more about his philosophy in a Q & A with Tom Luicci of ScarletKnights.com;
My philosophy is to have a balance between run and pass. That doesn’t mean I want to run it 50 percent of the time and throw it 50 percent of the time. But I want the capability that if you’re going to play the pass I’m going to run the ball on you. And if you’re going to play the run I’m going to throw the ball on you. If you’re only one dimensional then they’re going to make you play left-handed and I don’t like to play left-handed. I like to take what the defense gives us.
What will the offense look like?
Last year, the offense under Prince was fairly balanced in terms of run vs pass and that shouldn't change a whole lot this season. Problems arose for 2013 Rutgers when QBs were asked to throw downfield. This happened often.
They found themselves behind on down-and-distance regularly, requiring more out of the passing game than they could provide with consistency. Forcing throws downfield led to a low completion percentage for recently announced starting QB Gary Nova (165-303, 54.5 percent), and higher sack rate (7.6 percent of dropbacks). Nova threw for 2,159 yards, 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last season. He played great at times, horrid at times, and pretty average at times. The only person who knows what kind of player shows up under center against WSU in Seattle is Gary Nova, and he might not even have a clue either.
Luicci asked Coach Fridge about his offense and whether it'd look different than last year;
Yes, I think it will. Last year they were in a lot of tight formations. I like spreading things out a little more. The strength of the offense is our running backs. I think we have three pretty good running backs. I think we have a very good fullback in Michael Burton, who is very versatile, smart and someone who can catch the ball and block. I’m someone who likes using what we have. So when people have asked `what will the offense be like?’ I’ve answered by saying `that depends on what kind of talent we have.’ I have always worked around the talent.
Things under Coach Fridge, who has autonomy with the offense, have already shown signs of turning around. According to their beat writer Dan Duggan, Nova completed 68 percent of his passes throughout the spring and only threw one interception. This comes with a grain of salt as Nova has a reputation for being a great practice player that hasn't found a way to translate that to games.
Friedgen wasn't able to attend the spring game (he was apparently passing a kidney stone at the time) but did install the game plan. Fridge wasn't alone in missing their spring game, as just about every single playmaker on offense didn't participate.
During the spring game, Rutgers appeared to shift their focus to more underneath routes and got third-string running back Desmon Peoples some good carries, helping make the move of former second-string running back Justin Goodwin to corner more palatable. Paul James remains their starter at RB and he should see the most snaps against Wazzu. James had 881 yards on 156 carries last season, while missing four games due a broken fibula. He sat out the majority of the spring recovering from off-season shoulder surgery.
The Scarlet Knights have a few weapons outside. A real dangerous one is junior receiver Leonte Carroo (6-1 205). Carroo had 467 yards on 27 catches last year, and was poised to take over as the main offensive playmaker until a concussion derailed his spring a bit.
In his absence, sophomore Janarion Grant (5-11, 175) stepped up, earning a Most Improved Offensive Player award for the spring. Grant's catching ability is a little suspect but he's a burner, and Rutgers likes to use him in many of the same ways Oregon State deployed Brandin Cooks last season; think jet sweeps and reverses to go along with his underneath routes. He's also an excellent return man. His role could be increased on offense with Ruhann Peele likely out for the first game with an upper-body injury.
Their No. 2 wide out appears to be sophomore Andre Patton (6-4, 200). Patton played his way into the role during fall camp, and was actually surprised to see his name at the top of the depth chart when he showed up after summer workouts. He only had 3 catches for 49 yards all of last season, a performance he beat in a single scrimmage this fall (3 receptions, 72 yards, 3 TDs).
The Scarlet Knights also have a solid receiving tight end in senior Tyler Kroft (6-6, 240). Kroft had 69 targets on the season, good for second most behind leading receiver Brandon Coleman (not returning), and racked up 573 yards on 43 catches. This man will be a challenge to defend. He came out of a 3-point and bunched formations a lot last season; we should expect to see him split out a little more under Coach Fridge.
Rutgers' starting offensive line is a bit of a question mark for them. They are all right around the 300 pound mark, having the size to be good at this level, and managed to float between staggeringly average and awful in a weak conference last season. One of my favorite beat writer comments comes from Dan Duggan on returning five OL starters: "Yeah, we're bringing five mediocre guys back...so what does that mean?" They have size and experience, and the Coug front seven should test whether they've improved technique.
The Big Ten has no shortage of huge defensive lineman to battle those powerhouse offensive lineman in the trenches, and Rutgers doesn't look up to that task yet, at least not offensively. Rutgers brought in Mitch Browning, who spent 10 years in Minnesota, to coach up the offensive line, and he's already had an impact just by teaching the basics. The left side will likely be anchored by Kaleb Johnson (6-4 300) and Keith Lumpkin (6-8 310), who both received pretty high praise coming out of the spring.
Rutgers has talent at the skill positions capable of not only explosive plays but putting up points, that talent is almost entirely reliant on which Gary Nova shows up to play. Paul James is a decent back, great at breaking explosive runs, but the offensive line really struggled opening up holes for him... while also struggling in pass blocking. Xavier Cooper has been pegged as one of the most important keystones of the Cougar defense, and he and Buck linebacker Kache Palacio should have an excellent opportunity to do some damage in this game. They'll need to get in the backfield and cause a little havoc for the defense to be successful.
WSU will have a young secondary that needs to keep an eye on Carroo at all times; if they don't, one of those big plays that Rutgers uses as lifeblood could jump up on them. I don't see Rutgers changing the standard WSU defensive gameplan too much. They shouldn't need to lock Carroo down with a corner, and the Cougs should be able to stunt and get after Nova in the backfield, playing that aggressive, turnover forcing defense that Coach Breske likes so much.
Kroft is the concerning match-up here. While Cyrus Coen and Chester Su'a get plenty reps in route coverage against WSU's offense, they'll be facing some size in Kroft the Cougs can't really replicate without any true tight ends on the roster (save Nick Begg). Watch for their coverage, especially on the 3rd and mid-range downs. If WSU is playing a stunt-happy defense, blitzing frequently, the running backs who have been integrated more in the Rutgers passing game (along with Kroft) could be major weapons as a counter to it.
The Rutgers offense we see may actually depend a lot on what Wazzu's offense does, which can happen when you play an Air Raid team. Jumping out to a lead, scoring often, and forcing Nova to play catch-up with aggressive passing is playing to the weaknesses of that offense. Defensively, WSU needs to force the Rutgers offense into as many passing downs as possible, keeping the Scarlet Knights from getting a ground game going on standard and running downs will make things very uncomfortable for them.
We'll be back later with a preview of the Scarlet Knight defense.