Against Sun Devil defense, run game is key

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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.”