By Tom Luicci
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Aug. 20, 2014) – From a defensive standpoint, there’s almost no doubt about what will come to pass when Rutgers opens its season against Washington State on Aug. 28.
A quick review of the final NCAA statistics from the 2013 is all that’s required.
The team that attempted and completed the most passes in the country last year? The Cougars.
The worst rushing team in the country then? Those same Cougars, last nationally out of 123 schools.
With that much of a disparity on offense – of the 999 plays Washington State had last season, 756 were passes – there wouldn’t seem to be much reason for Rutgers to concern itself with the run.
But that would be a mistake, the Scarlet Knights say.
“You still have to respect all aspects of the game,” strong safety Lorenzo Waters said. “Otherwise it will turn into a 7-on-7.”
Middle linebacker Kevin Snyder said any success by Rutgers’ defense will require keeping quarterback Connor Halliday & co. honest when it comes to the run.
“It’s one of those things that no matter what you’re going to have to prepare for it because if it’s something they can exploit in your defense they’re going to do it,” he said. “If they see they can run the ball they’re going to do it. So it’s something we have to prepare for.”
What Washington State did a year ago under coach Mike Leach, now in his third season at the helm, is turn almost every situation into a passing possibility with its hurry-up, four-receiver sets. That includes traditional running plays on third and one or third and two.
Halliday, a senior, set school records for attempts (714), completions (449) and passing yards (4,597) while tying the mark for touchdown passes with 34. Overall, Washington State attempted 756 passes and had 490 completions. The Cougars’ top eight receivers from a year ago are back as well.
“They’ve got a good football team,” Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood said. “Their skill on offense is excellent. They’ve got a quarterback who can make all of the throws. I think it’s his third year in Mike’s system. When you look at quarterbacks who have been able to spend multiple years with Mike Leach the numbers are prolific with what they’ve been able to do.”
And it’s not as if Halliday is coy about what his intentions are.
“They put their MO out there.They’re throwing the ball,” said Waters. “They’re going to throw it in our face. It’s up to us to stop them.”
“Obviously it’s programmed in your head as a defensive player that third and short is more often a running play,” Snyder added. “But the way they spread you out you kind of forget about what they do and go back to your reads. But when you have four receivers out there and you’re not looking at a fullback or a tight end coming at you in those third and ones or third and twos it’s a little bit different, that’s for sure.”
They key for Rutgers’ defense, looking to make amends following its struggles against the pass all of last season, is getting in and out of its sets as quickly as possible, according to Snyder. This is a game where nickel and dime packages take on a more significant role.
“As soon as the play is over we know they like to move fast, so you have to snap your eyes to the sidelines right away,” Snyder said. “We’ll have coaches on the sidelines signaling what they want us to do and we’ll have guys running in and out so you have to be on your toes with that.
“Obviously you enjoy this challenge because it’s something you don’t see a lot and something we struggled with it last year. So it’s the challenge of improving. I think that’s the biggest thing. When you have a team that throws the ball this much and move so quickly I think the most important thing is to get lined up and get calls in. Because if they can get you when your feet aren’t set they will pick you apart if guys aren’t in the right spots and set.”