August 30, 2016

An offseason of high expectations for Washington ends Saturday when the No. 14 Huskies host Rutgers, which will be playing its first game under coach Chris Ash.

Ash spent the past two seasons as the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State, helping the Buckeyes win the national championship in 2014. He also coordinated defenses at Arkansas and Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, much of the optimism around Washington centers on third-year coach Chris Petersen, who is only 15-12 in two seasons with the Huskies but had a long run of success at Boise State before that.

He seems to have Washington on the cusp of big things, returning eight starters from a defense that ranked as the best in the Pac-12 last year, allowing only 351.8 yards a game.

The offense should launch behind sophomore quarterback Jake Browning, who passed for 2,955 yards while starting 12 games as a true freshman, and sophomore running back Myles Gaskin, who rushed for 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns as a true freshman.

Browning threw 16 touchdown passes and was intercepted 10 times in an offense that usually moved at a deliberate pace.

"From this year at this time, to last year, there is a big difference," Petersen said about Browning.

"He knows everything we're talking about with quite certainty. ... One thing we're really trying to stress with him is let's still try and keep it simple. It's still one-two throw, or run for your life. Sometimes you can make this game too complicated."

Rutgers, which went 4-8 last season and had off-field issues that led to the dismissal of coach Kyle Flood, will enter Husky Stadium as a big underdog.

"We're ready to go and just really excited to find out where we're at as a program," Ash said.

One of the first things Ash had to do was settle on a quarterback. Chris Laviano got the nod over three others. He completed 60.9 percent of his passes last season -- the highest Rutgers percentage since 2008 -- but he no longer has receiver Leonte Carroo as a target. Carroo was a third-round pick of the Miami Dolphins.

Rutgers will be facing a defense that returns two first-team All-Pac-12 defensive backs.

Junior safety Budda Baker has started 24 of 25 games in his career and is a potential All-American. Junior cornerback Sidney Jones led the conference last season with 14 pass break-ups. He intercepted four passes and forced three fumbles.

Washington allowed only 11 touchdown passes, which was the lowest figure in the Pac-12.

Throw in other talented players such as linebacker Azeem Victor, and 300-pound-plus defensive linemen Elijah Qualls and Greg Gaines, and you can see why Washington is a preseason top 15 team after going 7-6 last season.

Washington begins the season with three homes games -- Idaho and FCS Portland State follow -- before conference play begins at Arizona on Sept. 24.

"A lot of uncertainty," Petersen said about an opener against a team with a new coaching staff.

"You're watching tapes of where they came from, but then they are going to have their own ideas that are tailored to their personnel. So that's probably the biggest challenge. ... And I think the second thing is they'll have new energy."

This is the first meeting between Rutgers and Washington.

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