TEMPE, Ariz. – Before Roc Bellantoni’s group interview in Pullman on Wednesday – not his first, but his first as Washington State’s interim defensive coordinator – the man who’ll be making the tough decisions for the defense going forward briefly pivoted away from football.
“You guys aren’t here to ask me about the Yankees, right?” Bellantoni, an avid New York baseball fan, joked.
But, which club faces a stiffer test? Bellantoni’s beloved Yankees against the juggernaut Astros in the American League Championship Series, or WSU, and its languishing defense, against Arizona State.
One thing is sure: Bellantoni will be able watch the Yanks on Saturday night with more ease if he can coax a solid defensive game out of the Cougars (3-2, 0-2 Pac-12), who visit the Sun Devils (4-1, 1-1) in Tempe at 12:30 p.m . (Pac-12 Networks).
Bellantoni, with his 14 years of experience as a defensive coordinator and three at the FBS level, was a somewhat obvious choice when Mike Leach was deciding how he’d restructure his defensive staff after Tracy Claeys resigned, some 72 hours after WSU’s most recent dud – a 38-13 loss at Utah that saw the Cougars give up 526 yards of total offense, bringing their two-game rolling total to 1,182.
“It’s been a wild week,” Bellantoni said. “Just putting everything together, getting everybody together, trying to figure out what our guys do best and what they’re going to do best on game day. And what the best situation is for us in the (press) box and on the field, and communication and things like that.
“It’s been nice. It’s been probably better than you would think it would go. I’ve been doing it a long time, 14 years as a coordinator, so it’s just a matter of getting back into a routine and time management and getting everybody on the same page and reassigning some things. So it’s been OK. Our guys are working together great, our staff is unified, I think our players are fired up to play another game and get out there and prove they’re better than they’ve shown.”
ASU’s offense isn’t particularly explosive, either, so it could be a good time for the Cougars to get back on track. The Sun Devils rank 10th in points per game (22.8) and yards per game (376.8) and not unlike the Cougars, it’s obvious how they prefer to attack teams.
Saturday’s game pits the team with the most pass completions in the Pac-12 (WSU at 179) against the one with the fewest (ASU at 85). But just because the Sun Devils are more committed to the run, doesn’t mean they’re extremely proficient at it. ASU is averaging a Pac-12-low 3.4 yards per carry and despite putting the ball on the ground 98 more times than WSU, the Sun Devils have rushed for only 153 more yards than the Cougars. ASU also has seven rushing touchdowns to WSU’s five.
But one player, junior running back Eno Benjamin, is responsible for six of those seven touchdowns. The Cougars should be wary of the player who won the conference’s 2018 rushing crown, but also true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels, who isn’t as potent with his arm, but similar to the last two signal-callers WSU faced – Utah’s Tyler Huntley and UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson – is plenty capable with his legs.
“I cannot believe he’s a freshman, he does not play like a freshman,” Bellantoni said. “Can throw the ball, can run the ball, dangerous scrambling. Great player, he’s going to be a very good player in the future. He’s only going to get better. The running back’s a really good player. They’ve got some explosive receivers, so we’ve got our hands full.”
Defensively, the Cougars have made some quick fixes they believe will mitigate their problems. Those include edits to the depth chart that will elevate two players from backup to starting roles and move two others back to their natural positions.
WSU also hopes to streamline, and simplify, the play-calling process. The Cougars will be swifter getting plays onto the field and they’re removing some of the “bells and whistles and gadgets” from a few of their defensive packages, according to coach Mike Leach.
“That’s the trouble with football, it’s always tempting to add something clever,” Leach said on his weekly coaches show. “The other guy does this, so let’s try that. Well that’s why he’s the other guy, because he does that. That’s the thing, if you sit there and add too much, you’re going to drive yourself to mediocre or worse because you’ve got to have an identity, otherwise you’re just everybody else.”
Leach also elevated his cornerbacks coach, Darcel McBath, to co-interim defensive coordinator, and hopes he’ll provide vocal leadership and energy on the sideline while Bellantoni hashes out X’s and O’s from the press box.
Ironically, McBath was a standout defensive back for the last Leach team to make a midseason change at defensive coordinator. In 2007 at Texas Tech, Lyle Setencich left his post and Leach elevated Ruffin McNeil. The Red Raiders rebounded to win nine games and beat No. 21 Virginia in the Gator Bowl.
Thursday, McBath drew parallels between the two situations.
“I was there and I saw what happened and what changed and those kinds of things,” he said. “You try to bring that here, where it fits. That’s what we’re trying to do.”