Holiday Bowl previewing continues with a look at the linebackers and the running game.
A Texas fan might become a bit disoriented looking through ASU's team defensive statistics. The Sun Devils' top two tacklers in 2007 - and three of the top four - were linebackers. Contrast that with Texas' tackling leaderboard, where the top two tacklers are DBs. (Had Erick Jackson not lost his job midseason, the top three would be defensive backs. Note, too, that this was the case last season as well.)
Senior Robert James led the ASU group by a wide margin, amassing an impressive 99 tackles on the season, 8 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and 4 interceptions. James' stellar season earned him First Team All Pac-10 honors just a year after making only 26 total tackles as a junior. Joining James in the linebacking rotation are sophomores Travis Goethel, Mike Nixon, and Gerald Munns, as well as junior Morris Wooten.
The Sun Devils' front seven worked well together against the run, ceding just 3.47 yards per carry in 2007, good for 33rd best nationally. The linebackers do a nice job helping in pass coverage as well, where ASU held opponents to only 6.1 yards per pass attempt, 21st best nationally.
Texas tailback Jamaal Charles will present a special challenge for Arizona State and might be the best back the Sun Devils have faced this season. Stafon Johnson, Jonathan Stewart, Louis Rankin and Justin Forsett are all outstanding tailbacks in the Pac 10, but Charles has had a pretty remarkable season. Charles' game log:
Charles' took on a 50% increase in his total carries from 2006 while adding a full yard per attempt. Though one could argue Charles wasn't used enough by the Longhorn coaches, the junior led the Big in in total carries, with 25 to spare. (His 231 attempts were 28th most nationally; among players with 100+ carries, Charles' 6.31 per attempt was seventh best nationally. It was a great season for JC.)
What do you do if you're Dennis Erickson? Arizona State has shown time and again this season it aims to stop the run and force teams to the air. Only four teams managed better than 4.0 yards per carry against Arizona State this season, and the Sun Devils won three of those contests. I'd imagine the Arizona State staff will look to keep the Texas rushing game in neutral and see if the inconsistent Colt McCoy is prepared to win the game through the air. Without Limas Sweed to stretch the field, it's not even a particularly dangerous gamble. If you're Greg Davis and you see Arizona State so committed to stopping the run, and you know Jordan Shipley's the closest thing you have to a deep threat, what should you do? I vote for lots of early looks to Jermichael Finley to keep ASU's linebackers honest.
The Sun Devils have distributed the rushing carries across three players over the 2007, with Keegan Herring, Ryan Torain, and Dimitri Nance each picking up over 100 attempts on the season. Boht Herring (5.3 yards per attempt) and Torain (5.0) have shown explosiveness for ASU this season, while Nance has been more of a short yardage and goal line back (7 TDs). ASU's season box score says the team only averaged 3.4 yards per rush, but that total includes the 51 sacks and -341 yards rushing the team lost to sacks. When you factor those out, the average jumps up to a much healthier 4.45 yards per attempt. (I'll note that though Ryan Torain is out for the season, Keegan Herring has participated in bowl workouts and is expected to start.)
As for Texas' linebackers, well...
Don't laugh. It's really seemed this way at times during the '07 season.
In reality, Texas' rush defense has been solid this season. Texas' held opponents to 99.3 yards rushing per game (10th nationally) at just 2.99 per attempt (11th nationally). As we all know, the big problems are on pass defense, though the two are not unrelated. The Longhorns' defensive ends don't rush the passer as well as they should in part because they're compensating for subpar linebackers and holding back in run support.
Arizona State attempted 43.5 rush attempts per game in 2007, 20th most nationally. Though this is corrected from an earlier version of this post which said ASU rarely runs, it may not make much a difference for this game. Offensive Coordinator Rich Olson may take one look at the A&M game and decide he's passing on every down.
Hopefully, Akina and MacDuff are working overtime during bowl workouts to shore up the pass coverage from the linebackers, because Texas has been pitifully easy to throw against, in large part because our linebackers are either athletically inferior or painfully undisciplined. The young kids who've needed to play more this season are infinitely better at making plays for this defense, but they won't be complete players until they improve with pass support.