Share story

The schools are a continent apart, one just outside the nation’s largest city, the other just outside Colfax.

You wouldn’t think Rutgers and Washington State, opening the college football season Thursday night at CenturyLink Field, would have that much in common. But au contraire.

• Gary Nova of Rutgers and Connor Halliday of WSU are each senior quarterbacks with extensive experience, both at starting games and fending off critics. Each has 39 career interceptions.

• Until proven otherwise, the secondaries are a question mark as big as the Columbia Tower. Rutgers allowed a school-record 4,056 passing yards last year — only California, with 36 yards more, was worse — while WSU was no bargain either, ranking No. 112 in NCAA pass defense.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

• Both teams are coming off losing bowl games, surrounded by skepticism that they’ll be going back. Las Vegas puts that prospect at slightly less than 50 percent for WSU, while Rutgers, in its first year in the Big Ten, has to negotiate a midseason siege of Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

Rutgers made the trip west Tuesday, having felt the two-day buffer worked well a year ago in its opener at Fresno State. Rutgers was a heavy underdog but lost a wacko 52-51 game in overtime.

“I do think they enjoy playing in a pro stadium,” said third-year coach Kyle Flood of the Scarlet Knights. “And it doesn’t hurt that they’re (the Seahawks) the reigning Super Bowl champions.”

The Cougars have had mostly horrific experiences at CenturyLink recently, losing five straight by a combined 227-97. Halliday’s work against the Knights will have a lot to do with whether that gets reversed.

“Connor’s a new player this year,” said receiver River Cracraft recently. “Sometimes during the games (last year), he’d get down, maybe get a little upset with himself, maybe not make the decisions he should.

“There’s definitely a spark in Connor. I’ve seen it since day one in spring ball. He’s doing a great job.”

People around Rutgers say this is a new and improved Nova, too, since ex-Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen joined the staff in the offseason. Friedgen’s 10-year tenure as Maryland coach roughly paralleled that of WSU’s Mike Leach at Texas Tech.

“Gary went through 15 practices in the spring and only threw one interception,” said Flood. “And in training camp, I feel he’s built on that.

“He and Ralph have built a really good relationship. It’s not the first time Ralph has made a quarterback better. It’s kind of been the signature of his career.”

If it’s true what they’re saying about Halliday and Nova, the defensive backfields will be on the spot.

Each team moved a running back to the secondary in fall camp, and WSU’s two-deep includes a true-freshman cornerback (Jeff Farrar) who didn’t arrive for practice until after the 12-day camp in Lewiston; a little-used sophomore (Isaac Dotson) who missed most of spring and much of fall with an injury; and the converted runner (Teondray Cald­well), whom Leach has hinted might start.

Leach praised Caldwell’s recognition and physical skills at safety, and then said he’s willing to take his chances with a largely unproven secondary.

“The thing about new faces is, all of them that everybody misses (WSU had three senior starters in the secondary in 2013, including All-American Deone Bucannon) were new faces at one time,” Leach said.

“These guys had a pretty good training camp. For all we know, they’ll be better than the guys that left.”

Leach doesn’t know Friedgen, but issued a scouting report on play-action passes that squares with WSU’s inexperience on the back end.

“His offenses are ones you’d better not fall asleep on,” Leach said. “Out of the blue, Ralph’s teams will go deep on you when you least expect it.”

Ticket sales had crept to 30,000 as of Wednesday afternoon for what is the last scheduled WSU game at CenturyLink.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.