Don’t take your eyes off …
It may sound like an obscure detail, but it’ll be worth watching whether Arizona State speeds up its pace of play offensively and hurries back to the line of scrimmage in between plays – particularly in the red zone. That’s because Washington State’s defense has been caught off guard mid-substitution a couple of times in the past two weeks on scoring plays. WSU was late to swap out players before a goal-line snap in the first quarter of its 21-19 loss to BYU last weekend in Pullman. The visitors capitalized on the tardiness and punched in a short TD. The Cougs tweak their defensive lineups frequently to offset certain looks and match personnel with their foes’ offensive formations. And apparently WSU’s opponents are starting to pick up on that strategy – so they’re going up-tempo to “try to limit our packaging stuff,” WSU interim coach/defensive coordinator Jake Dickert said. “It’s part of the game they’re playing and part of the game we’re playing. Bottom line is I need to get the guys in faster, get them the call so they can line up and play.”
When WSU has the ball …
The Sun Devil defense has given up fewer than 25 points in five of its seven games this season. ASU held three opponents under 100 yards rushing, and limited three foes to fewer than 150 passing yards. The Devils rank first in the Pac-12 in scoring (18.9 ppg) and total defense (321 yards), and they boast the only FBS defense that has yet to surrender a play of 40 or more yards this year. They pace the conference with 21 sacks. So, the matchup doesn’t seem to bode well for a Cougar offense that’s seeking an uptick in explosiveness coming off a somewhat slow-moving 19-point effort in a loss to BYU. WSU’s run-and-shoot system was temperamental on the heels of a week in which it lost its boss in Nick Rolovich and made a quick shift at playcaller, sliding offensive coordinator Brian Smith back into the role. On the optimistic side of things, the Cougars enjoyed a productive rushing day from Max Borghi – who’ll likely have backfield compadre Deon McIntosh back from injury versus ASU – and their passing attack flashed some of the smooth-moving qualities that’d been common in recent weeks, when quarterback Jayden de Laura and company were close to peak form. “I think it showed growth,” slot Lincoln Victor said. “We lose by two points, and the biggest takeaway from that game is just really knowing it was self-inflicted wounds.” WSU’s offense went jab-for-jab with BYU, and it’ll presumably operate with more consistency after two full weeks’ worth of experience under a new-look staff led by the defensive-minded Dickert. “Offensively, I think there were some (issues) with who is signaling, how we’re getting (plays) in, the information we’re getting from the booth to the field.” Dickert said. “Now that we have a game under our belts, everyone knows their roles, what they’re looking at and the communication structure.”
When ASU has the ball …
Dickert called junior Sun Devils quarterback Jayden Daniels “one of the most dynamic players in our league,” who is surrounded by a towering set of wide receivers, supported by three strong running backs and protected by a “physical offensive line” that has only given up 11 sacks this season. The Cougars’ defensive front has quite a task ahead of it in containing Daniels – a 401-yard rusher – and the rest of the ASU ballcarriers, who are combining for 203.7 yards per game on the ground and leading the conference with 22 scores. In four of its eight games this year, WSU’s defense allowed over 200 yards, including 238 last weekend against BYU. Statistically, the Sun Devils feature the second-most-productive run game of all the Cougs’ opponents so far. “It’s going to be hard to stop them on 50-50 third downs. It’ll start early in the series,” Dickert said. “We gotta win more first downs, and that starts with stopping the run, and it starts with me putting our guys in the best positions to make plays.” Daniels (6-3, 185 pounds) has drawn the attention of pro scouts with his elusiveness and playmaking capabilities outside of the pocket, but his passing accuracy (69% on 168 attempts) is equally impressive. “He’s most dangerous when he’s off-schedule, when he improvises,” Dickert said. “But it isn’t just scramble to run either – it’s scramble to pass. He does a good job keeping his eyes downfield.”
‘I’m a football guy’
Dickert had a few hours added to his weekly schedule. The new boss now has an obligation to observe the Cougars’ offense and special teams, as well as his defense. Dickert hasn’t worked on the offensive side of the ball since he was playing wide receiver for Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He sat down with Smith and “made some general notes,” he said. “Just kind of saying, ‘Here’s what I’m seeing. What are you seeing? What are we thinking in these moments?’ (We’re) getting more on the same page.” The former prep quarterback and standout Division III pass-catcher is finding his footing again on offense and enjoying the process. “It was fun. It was exciting,” he said. “I’m a football person. I know the story is that I used to play offense. I just love seeing the game and seeing it from all perspectives.”
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