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Against Sun Devil defense, run game is key

Oct 1, 2013, 3:29 PM EDT

George Atkinson III AP

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into Arizona State to understand there are some areas to attack. The last three games the Sun Devils have played have resulted in some ugly numbers in rushing defense, counterintuitive when you consider Will Sutton is considered Louis Nix’s equal when talking about elite defensive tackles.

Of course, allowing big games on the ground to Wisconsin, Stanford and USC hardly means your front seven are playing on roller skates. But looking at the numbers put up by that trio is pretty astounding. While the Sun Devils went 2-1 against the three teams, they gave up over 230 yards of rushing to all three opponents on better than six-yards a carry.

Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham talked at length about the team’s run defense and had some interesting things to say about it.

“Obviously, we aren’t doing very well in that regard. I think the inside running game we have made vast improvement,” Graham said. “Most of it has been alignment issues on the perimeter. Most of the yards they are making are on perimeter runs. Most of it, we can fix. We have played good people, but still we are giving up plays where we are absolutely misaligned. We had right at 15 plays last week where we were misaligned.”

Inside runs being well defended are likely a product of Sutton being a very good football player. But alignment issues and getting beat on the outside are issues that Notre Dame can exploit, especially if George Atkinson plays the way he did against Oklahoma.

Brian Kelly talked about Atkinson’s strong play on Saturday, and how it was one of the lone positive takeaways he got from the offense.

“One of the highlights offensively was watching George continue to get better at the position,” Kelly said. “Running through tackles, really using good vision, and continuously, for us, making better and better decisions.  There’s still some room for growth there.  We feel like he missed a couple of cuts here and there, but as coaches, it’s gratifying to see the development of a young man like George Atkinson, and we saw that against Oklahoma.”

Atkinson has the speed and ability to run outside, taking a crease in the defense and turning it into a very big gain. While watching Arizona State make big play after big play offensively, the Sun Devil defense is the group that just hasn’t been able to stop opponents from creating yards in chunks.

“Big play runs have been our nemesis, Graham said on Monday. “We have had a couple big passes given up, but the concerning thing for me is in this last game our big plays of 10-plus yards have gone from six to eight to 20. That was way too many. We have made some adjustments and that is what we are going to do.”

Against an offense like ASU’s, Notre Dame might do well to take a page out of Stanford’s playbook, riding the run game to an early lead and keeping the ball away from a Sun Devil offense that can score points in a hurry (the Cardinal defense gave up three touchdowns in eight minutes in the fourth quarter to make things look competitive).

Stanford held onto the football for 35 minutes in the game (over 19 minutes in the second half) taking advantage of their offensive line’s command to coast to a victory. In the first half, they ran 33 plays and only 12 of them were passes. (Interestingly, on Stanford’s only three-and-out in the first half, all three plays were passes.) Scoring two touchdowns in the first quarter, two more and a safety in the second, a halftime lead of 29-0 was all David Shaw’s troops needed to coast in.

One way to remedy the slow starts that have plagued Notre Dame is have early success running the football. After having success with the passing game until playing Michigan State and Oklahoma, running the football will help open up the playaction pass game, and allow Tommy Rees some time to find TJ Jones, DaVaris Daniels and Troy Niklas.

“Offensively, we have yet to find the balance that we’re looking for,” Kelly said Tuesday. “If we rewind here, we were talking about how well we were throwing the football and how poorly we were running it.  Now we’re talking about how well we’re running the ball and how poorly we’re throwing the ball.

“We’ve got to get ourselves where we have enough balance offensively to run the ball and throw the ball effectively.”

  1. irishdodger - Oct 1, 2013 at 3:55 PM

    Please no empty backfield sets….Please.

    • sharptux44 - Oct 2, 2013 at 3:55 PM

      Especially on third and short!! That is infuriating!!!

  2. blackirish23 - Oct 1, 2013 at 5:16 PM

    If we are to establish a run game and stick with the run game, the coaches need to tell Tommy to stop thinking so much at the line of scrimmage and checking us into too many passing plays on first downs.

    With his completion percentage going down, we end up in 2nd and long situations, and inevitably 3rd and long situations, most of which end up being predictable passing downs, and that is what has been killing our drives and momentum.

    Lastly, I agree with the comment above that our passing game doesn’t need to rely so heavily on empty back sets. At least let’s give the defense a second look through play action passes even if our ground game is less than effective. The empty backfield means we’re passing the ball with Tommy because the whole world knows it’s definitely not a QB run, and until Tommy improves his accuracy, let’s just give teams a different look all together during passing downs.

    Here’s to hoping for a signature win from the team. Complete domination on Offense and Defense!!

    Go Irish!!

    • wrlc2013 - Oct 1, 2013 at 6:52 PM

      Agree completely, empty backfield sets are a dead giveaway and deadly for this team.

      I really hope Folston gets some real playing time this weekend too, he looked like a real threat in the 2 carries he had in the OK game.

  3. seadomer - Oct 1, 2013 at 8:17 PM

    Passionate Execution Needed

    That’s all, we have everything else.

  4. savejimmyjohnsonsassforme - Oct 1, 2013 at 8:51 PM

    We all seem to be in agreement that it’s imperative we run the ball successfully this week, correct? The coaching staff has got to be planning on burning clock, grinding out first downs via the run and playing keep away with the rock to give our D rest & the team it’s best chance to win, correct?…….with that said, I fully expect Rees to air it out another 50 times or so!

  5. NotreDan - Oct 1, 2013 at 10:43 PM

    Next insightful article…

    “To win, Irish must score more points than their opponent”

    • mattymill - Oct 2, 2013 at 9:47 AM

      NotreDan aka CompleteDouchebag

  6. ndfan33 - Oct 2, 2013 at 10:46 AM

    So now we are going to go conservative game plan, heavy running with tommy at qb??
    This only took what, game #6 to figure out? Unreal. Only problem, with no “go to” running back, running it every play
    Still wont yield enough yards to win the game. Just play a qb that can do both. Zaire not ready to run simplistic offense such as this? Not buying it, he’s been there since January. Not being ready falls on coaching! What happened to ” next man in”? Should be ” next man in, with exception of tommy”

    • wrlc2013 - Oct 2, 2013 at 6:59 PM

      As far as “go to” running backs are concerned, I am not convinced that Atkinson can repeat the hard running style he displayed in the OK game but, if he does and is paired in the backfield with Folston, I think ND could have a solid running game. To me, I think Folston could really be the ” go to” running back, especially if he is given enough carries to really get into a rhythm.

  7. jgaltesq - Oct 2, 2013 at 4:00 PM

    Come on, folks…BK is 15-3 in his last 18 games. I’ve been a Notre Dame fan since I knew what ND was, and I’ve seen, like you all, the highs and the lows. National championships are not a birthright. If Golson was here, we might still be 3-2, or we might be 4-1…or 2-3. Whatever. He’s not, and that’s a problem. Malik Zaire, and DeShone Kizer behind him, are the future, along with the errant Everett Golson. Taking the redshirt off MZ is a bad move. Right now, BK has to play what he has. Quit your bitching and stay the course!

  8. ndfan33 - Oct 2, 2013 at 4:40 PM

    Unfortunately “staying the course” will result in a 6-6 year. Next year will be yet another year of breaking in a new qb. Sounds great!

  9. fnc111 - Oct 2, 2013 at 5:39 PM

    Stay the course? Yikes. Still some delusional people out there. This season and next are going to be 6-6 type years. Kelly will be out of a job. Quit drinking Kool aid bro

  10. ndfightingirishfan - Oct 2, 2013 at 7:42 PM

    This ASU game is a MUST WIN. USC will be tough because of their talent, but is a game that ND should put in the W column. Pitt and BYU could present some problems, but again those are W’s. ND at worst should have 3 L’s going into the Stanford game and IF they get a W this weekend, it should remain at 2. BK, you have a fine stable of RBs, use them! This also helps the O-line to come together and definitely will help your struggling QB. Defense, please rush a minimum of 4 guys, especially if your not going to cover the underneath stuff, you may as well try to get to the QB. I would say the season is a disappointment thus far, but with the talent ND has, good things can still come from it.

  11. viktory2013 - Oct 2, 2013 at 7:51 PM

    It seems Kelly has written off this season, as demonstrated by his unwillingness to change this hopeless formula. It barely worked against weak teams and floundered against decent opposition. It doesn’t take a Division I coach to see its futility, and the pointlessness of repeating it over and over, hoping magically for a different outcome. They quite simply cannot beat ASU as is; anyone watching both team’s last couple games realizes it. It’s not a matter of fine tuning of minor details, the team looked defeated at the end of OU, so a major shakeup is needed to salvage this season…something Kelly isn’t will to do nor even acknowledge.

  12. blacknyellablacknyella - Oct 2, 2013 at 9:46 PM

    Die-hard ASU fan making the trip to Dallas. Our speed on a fast track in Dallas should make it tough on the Irish (the college football team I cheer, cheer for outside of ASU). We’ve got way too many weapons. It could get ugly. Our rush defense has been horrid though. If the Irish D can force some three-and-outs, hold us to field goals, and peel off some long td runs, it could be a good game.

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