Rutgers makes its Big Ten Conference debut Thursday when it meets Washington State for the first time - at Century Link Field in Seattle. The Scarlet Knights, who were picked to finish last in the seven-team East Division by Big Ten writers, enter a conference known for its physical play but coach Kyle Flood said they are up to the challenge. "We've played physical offenses before, we've played bigger teams before," Flood told reporters. "We've never built our team to be the biggest team. It's not philosophically how we go about things. But when we've played at a high level, we've been able to compete with anybody in the country."
The Cougars, who were selected to finish fifth in the Pac-12's six-team North Division, should have no trouble scoring with record-setting quarterback Connor Halliday calling the signals, but stopping the opponent is another story. Washington State, which yielded 458 yards per game in 2013 - 102nd among the 123 FBS teams - returns its entire defensive line but must replace three starters in the secondary. One way to help the defense is to develop a running game, which was last in the nation at 53.4 yards per game last season - but the emergence of freshman Gerard Wicks and Jamal Morrow could also help take some pressure off Halliday.
TV: 10 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1. LINE: Washington State -8
ABOUT RUTGERS (2013: 6-7): The Scarlet Knights will need a strong running game and junior Paul James (881 yards, 5.6 per carry, nine touchdowns) returns to carry the load. Ralph Friedgen, who coached Maryland from 2001-10 but has been unemployed for three years, was hired as offensive coordinator and is expected to help develop quarterback Gary Nova. The 6-2, 220-pound senior completed 54.5 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last season.
ABOUT WASHINGTON STATE (2013: 6-7): Halliday, a 6-4, 210-pound senior from Spokane, Wash., passed for a school-record 4,597 yards in 2013 - second-most in Pac-12 history. Halliday also set school standards for completions (449) and attempts (714), and equaled the school record with 34 touchdown passes. Halliday, who threw 22 interceptions last season, welcomes a stronger running presence, telling the Spokesman-Review: "It’s huge. You’re not throwing into windows that are that small and the defensive line can’t pin their ears back and come upfield because if they do that we’ll hit them inside with a trap and get it right up the middle.”
1. The Cougars return their top eight receivers including junior Gabe Marks, who hauled in a team-high 74 passes (10.9 yards per catch) and seven touchdowns.
2. Rutgers has won four of its last five season openers, with its blemish a 52-51 overtime setback at Fresno State last season.
3. Century Link Field, home of the Super Bowl champion Seahawks, is nearly 300 miles from Washington State's campus in Pullman.
PREDICTION: Washington State 41, Rutgers 20