Gary Nova threw a 78-yard touchdown to Leonte Carroo on the first play from scrimmage and Rutgers withstood a passing onslaught from Washington State's Connor Halliday.
Rutgers won its opener for the sixth time in nine years and picked up a significant road victory with a challenging Big Ten slate ahead. Meanwhile, Washington State has just one victory in its last nine openers.
Halliday did his part. The senior completed 40 of 56 passes for 532 yards and five touchdowns, but his fourth-down pass for River Cracraft near midfield with 53 seconds left was batted away.
Nova was 16 of 27 for 281 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but the Scarlet Knights rode James and the run game. James had 113 yards rushing in the first half and touchdown runs of 1 and 56 yards as Rutgers built a 21-10 lead.
The Scarlet Knights leaned on James at the end. Cracraft fumbled a punt near midfield with 7 minutes left and Rutgers recovered trailing 38-34. James carried on four straight plays and Nova hit consecutive passes, the second an 11-yard dart to Carroo to the 14 with 4:11 left. James capped the drive with a 3-yard TD run and Rutgers was back ahead.
Washington State couldn't put together one final drive. Halliday was sacked and a pair of incompletions turned the ball over with less than a minute left.
Halliday overcame a shaky start and was nearly flawless in the middle two quarters. After an early interception, Halliday connected on 15 of his next 21 throws the rest of the half, including touchdown tosses of 4 yards to Isiah Myers and a 26-yard flick to Vince Mayle late in the first half to pull Washington State to 21-17 at the break.
He was even better in the third quarter, leading the Cougars to a pair of touchdowns with nearly flawless efficiency. Halliday hit on 13 of 15 passes to start the second half, his only incompletions a throwaway under pressure and a drop in the end zone. Halliday hit Cracraft on a 7-yard strike to give Washington State a 24-21 lead. Myers had his second touchdown catch, taking a huge hit while hauling in a 14-yard strike on third-and-goal for a 31-24 lead.
Just as quickly the lead was gone. Kyle Federico's second field goal, on the first play of the fourth quarter, pulled Rutgers to 31-27 and after a Washington State three-and-out, Nova found John Tsimis for a 29-yard TD and a 34-31 lead with 10:50 remaining.
Halliday answered in a hurry. He found Myers for 43 yards to the 9, then went over the 500-yard mark on a 5-yard TD pass to Rickey Galvin for a 38-34 lead with 8:13 left, the Cougars' final lead.
The game drew 30,927 to CenturyLink Field in what will likely be the Cougars last visit there in the foreseeable future. Washington State athletic director Bill Moos wants all home games on campus beginning next season and the crowd was the smallest to see a Washington State game played in Seattle.