TEMPE, Ariz. -- "This is the number one thing that we have to do to win a championship."
Arizona State head coach Todd Graham left no room for doubt that his team's defense against the run was the most pressing matter facing the Sun Devils' quest for a Pac-12 title. After the last three weeks, it's easy to see why.
In each of ASU's three games against FBS teams this season, the defense has surrendered at least 230 yards rushing and an average of over six yards per carry. With this week's huge game against Notre Dame looming, it's something that will require immediate improvement.
Graham said that he felt that the primary reason for those struggles were incorrect alignments, an opinion one of his key defensive players shares.
“Mental errors and guys not being where they are supposed to be," said ASU senior defensive lineman Davon Coleman. "No critical errors. Nothing that we can’t correct. We need to focus on what you need to do and have the next man’s back.”
Beyond mental mistakes, the efforts to slow down the opposing rushing attack have been hampered by an injury-depleted defensive line. Defensive tackles Jaxon Hood and Mo Latu have each been sidelined with leg injuries, which have forced some shifting up front.
Coleman, typically a stout defensive end at 6-foot-2 and 283 pounds, is now sliding inside to fill Hood's spot at the nose. This is a move that will see Coleman making adjustments to his game.
“It’s a little different technique inside," Coleman said. "There are a lot more double teams. It’s way more physical.”
On Saturday, Coleman will be in the midst of a very large and very physical Notre Dame offensive line that averages over 310 pounds across their five starters.
So how can ASU's defensive line battle in the trenches while giving up nearly 30 pounds on average to the man in front of them? By taking the fight to the Irish.
"Attack. That’s all we need to do. Attack," said Coleman of the line's gameplan. "We have to get on them before they get on us. It goes back to our technique and getting off the ball as fast as we can.”
Notre Dame's offensive dynamic changed greatly this spring when starting quarterback Everett Golson left the school due to academic reasons. This gave the job back to Tommy Rees, who is not the running threat that Golson was. Subsequently, the Irish have adopted more of a passing scheme so far this year. Through five games, Notre Dame has thrown the ball on 53 percent of their plays, compared to the 43 percent of 2012.
The Irish have a very talented group of running backs, led by George Atkinson III, who had a breakout 148-yard performance in last week's loss to Oklahoma. Atkinson is a very capable blend of size (220 pounds) and speed, and ASU will see plenty of him and his backups on Saturday.
“They have more running personnel but they like to throw the ball a lot. It’s really 50-50," Coleman said.
That offensive balance will keep the Sun Devils on high alert, but it will not impact their top key to victory on Saturday.
“We have to stop the run, first and foremost," Coleman said. "That’s our main goal every week. Make them pass, so we can do what we do in the pass rush.”