Brady Vernon: What do you make of the Cougars defensive coordinator situation and how do you believe it will affect Saturday’s game?
JN: Well, it’s clearly a mess, and I think most people are pretty skeptical that it will result in any kind of dramatic improvement for the defense. Tracy Claeys was well respected in spite of the disastrous results of this season; there wasn’t a groundswell seeking his dismissal, even as we knew something was very, very wrong on that side of the ball. Thing is, he’s being replaced by two guys: Linebackers coach Roc Bellantoni and secondary coach Darcel McBath. Bellantoni is the only guy with any kind of coordinating experience, so he’ll be calling the plays, but his three years at FAU don’t exactly inspire blind faith. McBath is young -- just 33 and in only his second year as a coach after serving in a “quality control” role -- and will work on game planning with Bellantoni while being an elevated presence on the sideline.
The one thing they’ve already done is change some personnel (https://www.cougcenter.com/wsu-vs-asu-football-news-score-schedule/2019/10/7/20903305/wsu-vs-asu-tracy-claeys-depth-chart-defense-skyler-thomas-pat-nunn-daniel-isom) but it remains to be seen how much of a difference that can make. Mike Leach intimated that things needed to be simplified, but it seemed they’d already tried that. I suppose the goal of the bye week has been to get back to basics in a way that allows the defense to play a little faster -- confusion seemed to reign supreme, particularly on the back end. This defense has been at its best in the past few years when it’s able to attack, and I presume that’s the goal here.
BV: Utah’s defense seemed to limit Washington State’s offense in its last game. What went wrong?
JN: Defenses with a certain kind of personnel have had a lot of success against the Cougs since Mike Leach took over. Up until now, that list has basically started and ended with Washington, but the Utes have built something remarkably similar: Rangy, physical players in the secondary and a line that can get home with three or four rushers. To be frank, the wide receivers -- who had been widely praised -- struggled mightily to get open, and there’s a sense that when Leach talked about players being “fat, dumb, happy, and entitled” he might have been talking directly to them, as if they just weren’t fighting hard enough against Utah’s secondary.
I know ASU’s defense is pretty good, but I’m not sure they’ve got the same skill set that UW -- and this year, Utah -- have used to shut down what had otherwise been an extremely explosive offense in the first four games of the year.
BV: What offensive weapon do you think will give the Sun Devils the most trouble?
JN: I’m not familiar enough with ASU’s defense to know precisely where the weaknesses might be, so I’ll just go with WSU’s most dangerous weapon: Running back Max Borghi. That will probably take people by surprise, given that we’re dealing with the Air Raid and all, but he’s the most explosive player we’ve got. You’ll hear endless comparisons to Christian McCaffrey -- partly because he’s from Colorado, but mostly because he’s white -- however, they’re pretty different stylistically. Borghi’s got breakaway speed like McCaffrey, but he’s a much more physical runner than McCaffrey. Where McCaffrey is a slasher, Borghi patiently waits for holes to develop before exploding, and he finishes his runs with physicality.
Quarterback Anthony Gordon, who is responsible for most of the run checks after the team has lined up, lamented that they didn’t get Borghi more touches against Utah, particularly in the red zone. He had 17 touches anyway, so maybe he won’t have more touches, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t end up with more than the eight carries he totaled against the Utes.
BV: What mythical powers do you think a Sun Devil has?
JN: The ability to cast a spell on WSU and doom the Cougars to inexplicably bad performances in Tempe? At least, that’s the way it’s seemed to go since forever -- my personal introduction was Ryan Leaf’s team losing at Sun Devil Stadium in 1997.
BV: Score prediction and why?
JN: I want to believe the Cougs will win, and before the season, I gave us a greater than 50% chance of winning this one. But the last two games have got me shook. I’ll go with 35-31 ASU -- the Sun Devils won’t be able to completely hold down the WSU offense, but I think the Cougar defense will still be a mess.