SEATTLE (AP) — Certainly there will be excitement for Chris Ash leading Rutgers onto the field Saturday for the first time as a head coach.
Yet Ash doesn’t expect that to be the dominant emotion when the Scarlet Knights face No. 14 Washington to open the season.
“Exciting, I guess, would be a word that a lot of people would assume I would be. But it’s challenging,” Ash said. “And just trying to make sure we cross every ‘T’ and dot every ‘I.’ We just continue to coach these guys on every single detail as we continue to move forward.”
Undoubtedly, the opponent Ash faces to begin his first season as a head coach adds to that challenge.
The Huskies have spent the offseason hearing all the talk about this being the year they jump from being a .500 program and back into the elite of the Pac-12, potentially contending for a conference title and Rose Bowl berth.
It’s the kind of gaudy expectations Washington coach Chris Petersen has wanted to tamp down but he understands it’s part of growing the Huskies program into a contender again.
“The parity, I think that’s one of the beauties of college football. And to start the season with all those unknowns, that just evens things out,” Petersen said. “So this is going to be a tough, good, hard opening test for this team to see, OK, can we play one play at a time and put that play behind us and go.”
Here are other things to watch when the Huskies and Scarlet Knights meet for the first time.
ENCORE, ENCORE: If Washington is to take the next step to the top of the Pac-12, it can’t afford any sophomore slumps by quarterback Jake Browning or running back Myles Gaskin.
Both were stars at times during their freshmen seasons, although Gaskin was more consistent than Browning. Gaskin rushed for 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Browning threw for 2,955 yards and 16 TDs.
Browning has said his goal for this season is to improve on deep throws. The return of speedy wide receiver John Ross III from a knee injury that cost him the entire 2015 season should help.
IN CHARGE: Quarterback Chris Lavino started 11 of 12 games last season for Rutgers but had to beat out TCU transfer Zach Allen for the starting job this season as the Scarlet Knights transition to more of a spread offense. Lavino completed 61 percent of his passes last season but threw for just 16 touchdowns and had 12 interceptions. He does have an experienced group of wide receivers with three of his top four pass catchers back from last season.
PURPLE HAZE: Washington has the best secondary in the Pac-12, led by Budda Baker and Kevin King. It may have the best middle linebacker in the conference in junior Azeem Victor. There is little doubt the Huskies defense will be good.
But can it be as good as last year when the Huskies led the conference by allowing just 18.8 points per game? Much of that will be determined by Washington’s pass rush and the ability to replace Travis Feeney and Cory Littleton, who combined for 14 sacks and 28 ½ tackles for loss last season. Watch for Joe Mathis to try to fill some of that void as a rush defensive end.
IN THE MIDDLE: Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton was an honorable mention all-Big Ten selection in 2014 before missing 11 of 12 games last season due to a lower body injury. He was granted a medical redshirt and his return is a boost for Rutgers’ defensive line. Ash said that coaches will need to watch the number of plays Hamilton is in for.
“He’s going to start the game, and he’s going to play as much as his body allows him to play,” Ash said.
SOUND THE SIREN: In four of its final six games last season, Washington topped the 40-point mark. Not all those points were scored by the offense as Washington had four special teams or defensive touchdowns in those four victories. But it was a sign of the Huskies’ offensive potency, which they hope can carry into this season.
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