PULLMAN – Leonte Carroo’s first-play touchdown against Washington State in the Seattle season-opener last year became an iconic moment, not only for the loss, but for the Cougars’ struggles defending passes all season.
It was a routine play for Carroo, practically a tradition, since he has now scored a touchdown on his first catch in each of the last three seasons. So far this year all three of his receptions have ended in touchdowns, giving the senior a school-record 22 touchdown catches over 24 games (he played only special teams as a freshman).
That’s not to say that the Scarlet Knights will force-feed Carroo or their other receivers the ball. Rutgers has a decidedly run-first offensive identity, a regional contrast with the pass-happy West Coast and its happiest-passing team, WSU.
“The trends go back and forth,” said WSU head coach Mike Leach, who noted that the other Big Ten teams have similarly rush-oriented offenses.
Like a boxer, the Scarlet Knights pound defenses over the course of the game, softening them up with blow after blow and forcing their hands to come down, the secondary to creep up.
Rutgers coach Kyle Flood was asked during his weekly press conference what he could extrapolate from Portland State’s win over WSU last weekend and immediately turned to the run game.
“What they did was they ran the ball very effectively,” Flood said. “Now the way and the method they use to run the ball is a bit different from what we do – they run the quarterback quite a bit, they do it from spread sets quite a bit.”
Running backs Josh Hicks, Robert Martin and Paul James, who rushed for 173 yards by himself against the Cougars last year, provide the jabs that are the offense’s staples.
And then Carroo hits you with the haymaker.
Although quarterback Chris Laviano is making his first start, there’s little doubt he has a rapport with Carroo. The two were suspended for the first half of Rutgers’ 63-13 win over Norfolk State, then hooked up for a hat trick in the second half.
“If my sister was playing quarterback, I’d have a good chemistry with her,” Carroo told the Asbury Park Press. “Whatever guy is out there, I’m here to catch balls. I’m going to do my job regardless and play hard. Whoever is out there throwing me the ball, I’m going to make sure I make plays for my team.”
WSU safety Taylor Taliulu said during WSU’s weekly press conference on Monday that the Cougars won’t give Carroo any special attention.
“I don’t remember his name,” Taliulu admitted. “Obviously, he’s a good athlete, he scored three touchdowns last week. We’re going to treat every receiver on the team as a weapon.”
And the Scarlet Knights do have other receiving weapons beyond Carroo, although none worthy of an NJ.com poll asking whether or not they were the best pass-catcher in school history. Five different receivers caught a pass of 12 or more yards against Norfolk State.
Before worrying about all those receivers, the Cougars will hope to stifle that dogged rushing attack.
“Coach (defensive coordinator Alex) Grinch has something called the Cougar Advantage,” linebacker Jeremiah Allison said. “If you can stop the run then you’ll have the advantage.”
Making the Scarlet Knights offense one-dimensional would be a good start for WSU’s defense. But it might not be advantageous if it leads to more catches for Rutgers’ best offensive weapon.
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