By Tom Luicci
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Aug. 24, 2014) – If Thursday’s season opener against Washington State turns into a shootout, Rutgers’ offensive players insist they’re ready for it, just as they were in last year’s opener at Fresno State and then at SMU, two wild high-scoring affairs.
The Scarlet Knights proved they can hold their own in offense-dominated football, earning a split in those two games, which each came down to the final possession of overtime.
But is that the best formula for success against a Cougars team coming off a record-setting passing season with a senior quarterback who threw for 4,597 yards and 34 touchdowns a year ago?
“You feel playing against spread team that you could wind up in a higher scoring game,” Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova said. “You’re going to have a few more possessions with the way they play. We’ve got to be ready. If it turns into a back and forth game we’ve got to be smart, run the ball well and keep our defense in good positions.”
Nova, a senior, excelled in those two shootouts in 2013. He passed for 348 yards and five touchdowns against Fresno State (a 52-51 overtime loss) and 283 yards and four touchdowns in a 55-52, triple-overtime victory over SMU.
And as much as he admits those games are fun to play in, he knows that keeping the ball away from Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday as much as possible may be the best chance Rutgers has.
The best way to do that may be shortening the game by running the ball effectively -- something the Scarlet Knights’ offense is predicated on.
“I think it’s important in every game to be able to run the ball but obviously with a team like (Washington State) you’re going to get the ball a lot more than you usually do,” Nova said. “You want to put your defense in good position even when you don’t score and not turn the ball because if you make mistakes the lead can open up very quickly.”
The numbers suggest Rutgers should be able to run effectively, since the Cougars were No. 84 nationally (out of 123 teams) in rushing defense a year ago, finishing No. 102 in total defense and No. 96 in scoring defense.
But the more telling statistics for understanding what Washington State wants to do come from the number of plays and the time of possession the Cougars had last season.
Washington State ran 999 plays last fall (102 more than Rutgers did) yet was No. 94 nationally in time of possession at 28 minutes and 37 seconds per game on average. So the Cougars make the most of the time they have the ball. Limiting the time they have it puts even more pressure on Halliday & Co. to capitalize every drive.
“I think their offense is a lot with rhythm and getting to the line of scrimmage fast, so the best way to defend that is to keep them off the field,” said Nova. “We have to have good possessions and be smart with the football.”
Wide receiver Leonte Carroo says he never goes into a game trying to figure out in advance how it will go because it’s often an exercise in futility.
“We just let the game come to us and whatever happens in the game we adjust,” he said. “I hear that they have a high-powered offense and if they’re scoring a lot we’re just going to come down and respond.”
Running back Paul James is ready for the added workload if that’s what it requires, though he doesn’t feel the Scarlet Knights’ offense has to take a back seat in any high-scoring game.
“When we go into a game as an offense I always expect us to put up a lot of points,” said James. “I expect the defense to stop them and not give up any points but if it does come to that I feel like it’s a challenge to the offenses to see what they can do, which offense can put up more points.
“I like that, (if) it’s more of an offensive game. I'm hoping for the defense to come up with stops and come up big a lot but if we have to we’ll put up points.”
He also knows that running the ball effectively is not enough by itself. Rutgers will have to score more than usual against a team that led the nation in pass attempts (756) and completions (470) a year ago, while treating its own running game as an afterthought (last at No. 123 nationally in rushing).
“With a team like this, a high-scoring team, that’s what you’ve got to do,” James said of needing to run successfully. “But you’ve also got to put up points, too.
“We have to wear them down, outlast them and beat them physically.”