No. 12-ranked Arizona State (10-2) will play No. 17 Texas in the 30th annual Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego at 6 p.m. Arizona time on Thursday evening. The game will be televised by ESPN. Here is a look at some of the key matchups.
ASU running backs versus Texas' defensive front seven:
Sun Devil coach Dennis Erickson is extremely committed to running the football and his team has had moderate to substantial success in this area in every game this season with the exception of USC, when Keegan Herring and Dimitri Nance had 20 combined carries for a net of 24 yards.
The problem for ASU is that Texas has a rushing defense that is nearly on par with the Trojans, ranked 10th in the nation (USC is 4th), giving up just 99.3 yards per game on the ground. When the Sun Devils lost Ryan Torain for the season at the midway point due to injury they lost the only true physical inside runner on the depth chart and that lose was really felt against USC, and even in certain situations in games against Oregon and UCLA.
Texas defensive tackles Frank Okam and Derek Lokey have the ability to be excellent at times and if Thursday is one of those times, ASU may be forced to have Rudy Carpenter throw the ball 35 or more times against a secondary that is nowhere near on part with the front seven in terms of pure performance.
ASU front seven against the backfield duo of running back Jamaal Charles and quarterback Colt McCoy:
Probably the No. 1 key for ASU in this game is to find a way to limit Charles and force McCoy to do his damage with his arm from inside the pocket. That is extremely difficult to do. Charles is most explosive running backs in the country. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he had clocked 10.2 seconds in the 100 meters, a Big-12 Champion sprinter who can take it to the end zone on any carry. He had over 700 yards in his last three games played, and 1,458 yards on 231 carries (6.3 yards per carry) and 16 touchdowns on the season. At ASU, that would be one of the best seasons in school history.
Then add McCoy, who has rushed for over 400 yards and three touchdowns. He's not as mobile as Oregon's Dennis Dixon or even one or two other Pac-10 signal callers ASU faced this season, but when combined with Charles, it has to be a real concern, something that will resemble the Ducks in terms of athleticism and explosiveness from the backfield.
What you'll likely see ASU do, is what it did against teams like Oregon, Washington and UCLA, when those squads featured mobile quarterbacks. They'll spy Robert James on the quarterback, blitz very infrequently (something that would be the case anyway, as ASU blitzes as seldom as you'll generally ever see in college football), and work hard to limit when Charles can do in between the tackles. How successful ASU is in these areas will largely determine whether it wins or losses this game, in all likelihood.
ASU back seven versus Texas' attempts to exploit ASU laterally:
Swing passes, bubble screens, running back screens, lateral passes, wide receiver end arounds, reverses and anything else that gets the ball to Texas' athletes in space in the flat and beyond is something the Sun Devils have to be concerned with in this game. Opponents have shown that when ASU takes away straight up and down type running plays, and even the downfield passing game, there is an opportunity to get 5-6 yards (or more) per play with quick drop short range passes in space.
The Sun Devils are average athletically up front. The linebackers, other than maybe James, don't cover a tremendous amount of space from where they line up to their lateral responsibilities and this scheme is basically designed to keep everything in front of it, have all the players stay in their lanes, and not give up big plays, while also letting the defensive backs come up big. And that's exactly what has happened, by and large, this season. Teams like Oregon though, had real success with their spread options type screens and USC killed the Sun Devils with passes to the tight end in space, usually leaking off the line into soft spots of zone defensive looks. Texas has the ability to do both of these things, and though maybe not at the same proficiency, it could still be very problematic. Watch out for McCoy getting the ball to Quan Cosby with room to operate. With this defense, it's really pick your poison. ASU will keep an extra player at home to try to limit the run in between the tackles, but it will result in more opportunity on the short edges.
Rudy Carpenter and the vertical passing attack against Texas' secondary:
Where Texas excels in run defense, it is somewhat suspect in the secondary, ranking 109th in pass defense. If it can limit ASU's ground attack -- which is highly possible -- you may see Carpenter forced to air it out. What a lot of fans don't consider, is that with the way teams usually scheme to beat them (blitzing on up to ¾ of the plays), it creates big play opportunities, both in the run and pass game. ASU may be bottled up on the run and then Herring busts loose for a 75-yard run, as he did versus UCLA. And that defensive approach is also one of the factors that contributes in making the Sun Devils the Pac-10 leaders in yards per passing play. Against a suspect secondary, and a versatile, varied array of receivers to throw to, Carpenter couple have another big bowl game performance. But it doesn't mean the Sun Devils will win, because Texas is capable of a big scoring output in its own right.
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