If No. 9 Arizona State wins, it'll have a marquee win on its resume that will bolster the Pac-12's case if either ASU or Oregon emerges as the conference champion. For No. 10 Notre Dame, the Irish need a little more than "almost beat Florida State on the road" to build their own case for inclusion. A win on the road here could very well do the trick.
Both squads rely on solid defenses built around pressure that can slow down top opposing offenses, but not shut them down. The Sun Devils were absolutely shredded on defense against the UCLA Bruins, but have since rebounded, while the Irish have trended negatively, with breakdowns against North Carolina and Navy.
Arizona State's offense is a system-based attack that challenges teams by maintaining balance. Notre Dame's offense has been mostly about Everett Golson and the passing game, but now Tarean Folston has come alive with 59 carries for 367 yards (6.2 yards per carry) over the last three games.
Has Notre Dame found a running game?
While four-star sophomore Folston has always been a promising runner, he wasn't handed the keys until the North Carolina game, when he responded with 98 yards on 18 carries.
Notre Dame's approach with Golson around is always going to be more about the passing game, particularly with an armory of weapons like William Fuller, Corey Robinson, Chris Brown, and C.J. Prosise in the receiving corps. However, the Irish offense is at its best when it can work the ball downfield through play action.
Folston's explosiveness has made that more of a threat. He's most dangerous when running power and lead zone concepts. His vision and ability to wiggle and accelerate through a hole allow him to key the linebackers and attack multiple parts of the line of scrimmage.
For instance, here's Folston running lead zone against Florida State behind Notre Dame's do-it-all TE, Ben Koyack:
Koyack leads through the a-gap inside of the guard, and Folston runs behind him.
Because Folston had already demonstrated the ability to hit cutbacks on lead concepts, the Seminoles drop the boundary safety into the box to allow both linebackers to flow to the point of attack, where Koyack is leading. The goal for the 'Noles is for the playside linebacker (on FSU's left) to blow up Koyack's block, and then for the backside linebacker and safety to split the assignments of filling the backside lane and filling behind the playside linebacker after he blows up Koyack.
However, if Folston can get safeties to commit to joining the box on schemes like this, he's already accomplished the mission of setting up the passing game for play action.
Florida State blows the execution. No. 24 Terrance Smith looks to fill the backside lane but No. 29, safety Nate Andrews, also plays behind him in the cutback lane. Now the Seminoles don't have another defender to make the tackle after their middle linebacker takes on Koyack's block.
The result is a 15-yard run by Folston to the right. He's simply too quick to allow such a crease. He'll dart through holes before you can say "gap integrity."
The RB reads on power work much the same way. Folston reads to determine if the backside linebacker's heading behind the playside linebacker's fill against the lead block. If not, Folston attacks the vacant cutback lane and forces that backside safety to play the run more decisively, thereby opening up play action opportunities. If that linebacker stays behind, Folston runs behind the lead block, where he he can choose to run to either side of his blocker.
With Folston's speed and ability to read defenders and make explosive cuts between the tackles, everything can become much easier for the Irish in opening up their already potent passing game.
How will the Sun Devil safeties hold up?
Arizona State relies heavily on its safeties to get involved in stopping the run. Strong safety Jordan Simone and rover Damarious Randall are tied for the team lead with 73 tackles apiece, while the next-ranked tackler, DE/LB hybrid Antonio Longino, has 51.
The inside linebackers look to spill the ball outside with aggressive blitzes, for the safeties or nickel to clean things up. The Sun Devils love to blitz, and will bring man/zone pressure combinations that encourage quick checkdown throws, where they trust their safeties to make tackles.
This has been more effective of late, and virtually every player has a sack as a result of their extensive blitz package.
The problem for Arizona State is what happens when these DBs are asked to carry the load against an Irish offense that attacks the safeties.
Besides Notre Dame's preference for using play action to create run/pass conflicts and push the ball downfield (which is a safety's worst nightmare when executed well), it will also use empty formations with six-man protections to run multiple deep patterns.
Koyack, secretly the key to everything the Irish do, serves as an extra blocker. Every other receiver is up on the line, where they can immediately push up the field on vertical routes.
When combined with Golson's ability to buy time and hit throws downfield, these formations and concepts put a lot of stress on a defense to hold up in coverage. Can the Sun Devil safeties manage all of their assignments? Keeping the Irish receivers in front of them, picking up receivers in man coverage, supporting the run against Folston, and making open field tackles against Notre Dame's athletes is a long grocery list.
Taylor Kelly and the Notre Dame run defense
Notre Dame's defensive strategy is to stop the run, then create havoc on third down with Brian VanGorder's well-disguised zone blitzes. The Irish are at their best when Matthias Farley is playing nickel and entrusted to play man coverage against the slot while the linebackers and a safety are free to load the box and stop the run.
The key to unravelling this scheme is to pick on Farley underneath with a great slot receiver who can do damage after the catch, or to beat isolated cornerbacks outside the hash marks.
Arizona State also runs the ball to create easier throws with play action. With QB Taylor Kelly back in action, the Sun Devils are able to do this with zone-read football, with the QB adding a constraint in the run game to even up the numbers in the box and open lanes for backs like DJ Foster, who's averaging 5.8 yards per carry and is on pace for a thousand-yard season.
Foster is running behind a quality offensive line of upperclassmen. With no player over 6'4 in height, it is a group that's at its best getting low and driving DL off the ball with combo blocks.
Arizona State finds itself in a catch-22 against the Irish. It's unlikely to have much success fending off Notre Dame's pressures unless it can throw off play action, but it'll struggle to create running room unless it can get the passing game going. Utah's zone pressures generated four sacks against the Sun Devils and kept them stymied much of the game. Expect Notre Dame to find similar success.
Jaylon Smith, as always, looms large. The Irish linebacker is athletic enough to help corral the speedy Foster and still run down Kelly before the QB does major damage on the zone read. On the blitz, he's likely to be a nightmare for the Sun Devils to contain. Although Kelly's running ability helps even up the numbers when the Irish load the box, a blue-chipper like Smith almost counts as a player and a half.
Unless Kelly can find big wideout Jaelen Strong early and often against the Irish secondary, it's hard to see the Sun Devils finding enough room in the running game to get their offense going. The Irish have been somewhat prone to defensive breakdowns, but mostly in games that were easier to overlook, such as North Carolina and Navy. Notre Dame won't be overlooking a road trip to Arizona State.
Arizona State has had an impressive and resilient season in the face of a tough schedule, with solid-to-good Pac-12 teams on the slate every week. The Sun Devils managed to survive injury to Kelly and are now in position to beat a well-regarded Notre Dame team at home and build a case for Playoff inclusion.
However, the Irish are really starting to click on offense now, and VanGorder's defense is designed to handle run-based attacks like what the Sun Devils will bring. The most likely scenario is an Irish upset, subsequent rise in the Playoff rankings, and a bad taste in the mouths of Notre Dame haters everywhere.