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Foster, Strong Are Keys to ASU Victory vs. Irish

It is no secret that Notre Dame and Arizona State both need to win on Saturday in order to keep their college football playoff hopes alive. I am predicting Notre Dame to win 41-31 because I don’t think Arizona State will score enough points to keep up with the Fighting Irish’s high powered offense. However, if the Sun Devils do win, it will be because of their passing game and Notre Dame’s inability to cover D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong.

On defense, Brian VanGorder loves to dial up pressure from everywhere and everyone on the field. That leaves Notre Dame’s defensive backs in one-on-one coverage the majority of the time when blitzes occur. Aside from the second half against Florida State and the entire game with North Carolina, the defensive backs have done well in those situations.

On Saturday in Tempe, the Irish will be tested as they face one of the best receivers and arguably the fastest receiver in the country.

Strong is the best wide receiver in the country not named Amari Cooper according to Mel Kiper Jr. who has him at 17th on his NFL Draft big board. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound receiver from Philadelphia has mastered the art of the back shoulder fade, as well as any jump ball. It does not matter how tightly guarded Strong is, he has the ability to go up and make the catch and he is strong enough to come down with it.

Strong is a JUCO transfer who hauled in 75 passes and seven touchdowns last year in his first season of FBS football. This season through eight games, Strong has 57 catches for eight touchdowns. Cody Riggs is the likely bet for the man responsible for trying to shut down Strong. No pun intended, but Strong is definitely stronger than Riggs. Notre Dame’s corner from Florida struggled at times against Navy, but dominated against Michigan and will need to be at his very best to contain Strong.

Strong is coming off one of his worst games of his career last week against Utah. He still managed to collect five catches for 77 yards and a score, but he uncharacteristically dropped the ball on multiple occasions. He had a chance to make a highlight-reel catch in the second quarter on a deep fade, but lost the ball as he hit the ground.

Strong hasn’t announced his plans yet, but the tweets he put out before the season about next April’s draft and his dream of buying a fancy car hint that he will be leaving after this year. There will be a lot of scouts watching this game, and coupled with the fact that he is coming off one of his worst games, I believe he will be at his best. How many times can Riggs stop the back-shoulder fade?

The Sun Devils’ other weapon is Foster, a hybrid between a running back and a slot receiver that is similar to what Theo Riddick used to do for the Irish. Foster spent his first two seasons primarily as a slot receiver. As a freshman, he hauled in 38 passes, and caught 63 last year. The local product from Scottsdale, Arizona was expected to be the feature back this season with Marion Grice now in the NFL, but that only lasted three games. That plan worked for the first three games as Foster racked up 510 rushing yards, but his highest rushing game total since is 59, and that came on 24 carries.

With Foster in the slot for Arizona State’s zone-read spread offense, Matthias Farley will see the field more and will be responsible for guarding the ultra-quick Foster. Farley has been very impressive tackling in the open field, but his coverage skills are not his forte. He struggled against Stanford and looked very mediocre on Florida State’s first touchdown.

Strong will most likely have a good game regardless of how well Riggs plays. He is just that good of a player. The key to the game for the Irish defense is if Farley can stick with Foster on his deep posts and short bubble routes. Foster doesn’t have the best hands in the world, but he has no trouble getting open with his speed.

Quarterback Taylor Kelly has looked rusty since returning for the Washington and Utah games, and if he can’t find Foster open, the Sun Devils will lose by 10 or more.

Matt Heinz is a college football writer for Follow him on twitter @MattHeinz_Rant

Notre Dame and Arizona State are battling for a spot in the playoff Saturday. D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong are two players on Arizona State that the Irish need to stop?

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ASU's History In High-Pressure Home Games

Revisiting Arizona State's History In High-Pressure Games

Arizona State's History of Crumbling In High Pressure Home Games Will Cost Them Against Notre Dame
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona State is often referred to as a sleeping giant because, on paper, they should be a national powerhouse but never seem to get over the hump of winning a big game at home. Sure, the Sun Devils have beaten good teams at home before, but when the stakes are high, the stands are packed and the pressure is on, Arizona State usually folds. Here is a recent history of Arizona State in high-pressure games at home.

2014: No. 11 UCLA 62, No. 15 Arizona State 27

UCLA came to Tempe for a Thursday night "blackout" game in which the Sun Devil fans all wore black. This game was built up by Todd Graham all summer mainly because the Bruins were picked to win the Pac-12 South in the preseason media poll. Also, the winner of the previous three matchups went on to win the Pac-12 South. After starting 3-0, fans hoped Arizona State could beat UCLA and get into the top 10 for the first time in the Todd Graham era. Arizona State actually won the total yards battle 626-580, but couldn't make the key plays under pressure and turned the ball over four times. The stadium was near empty by the 3rd quarter.

2013: No. 7 Stanford 38, No. 11 Arizona State 14

Two weeks earlier, Arizona State upset UCLA on the road to capture the Pac-12 South crown. Because Oregon lost to Arizona, the Sun Devils got to host the Pac-12 Championship at Sun Devil Stadium. It was the hottest ticket in town and the buzz surrounding the game was intense because of the goal in sight. When Todd Graham was hired, one of the first things he did was put a painting of a giant rose in the football facilities so his coaches and players would constantly be reminded of the program's goal. Some fans were so excited that they made New Year's plans for the Los Angeles area. Despite two long D.J. Foster touchdowns, the Sun Devils got clobbered. The stadium was rocking until the game started and Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney ran a 69-yard touchdown on the Cardinal's first drive.

2013: Arizona State 32, No. 20 Wisconsin 30

The "blackout" game of 2013 featured a team with a rambunctious and faithful following. Wisconsin fans flocked to the desert and were all over Sun Devil Stadium cheering on their Badgers. This game had some pressure involved because in order for Sun Devil fans to buy what Todd Graham was selling, they needed to beat a ranked team early in the season. This was one of the few high-pressured games that the Sun Devils won, but many would put an asterisk next to the W. Pac-12 officials admitted the referees made a mistake by not allowing Wisconsin to spike the ball and kick a potential game-winning field goal. Instead, the referees stood over the ball for too long for Wisconsin to spike it in time. Wisconsin fans were forced to make the long trek home feeling very disappointed.

2012: No. 3 Oregon 43, Arizona State 21

This was another Thursday night "blackout" game featured on ESPN. Being on national television was something relatively new for Arizona State at the time and that was a reason the fans and the program were so excited for this game. Oregon came in with a No. 3 ranking and Arizona State entered the contest 5-1 during Todd Graham's first season. Some Oregon fans even painted the A on "A Mountain" green the night before the game. The game was much more of a blowout than the final score depicts as Oregon led 43-7 at halftime. The pressure of the game and speed of the Ducks were too much for Arizona State to handle. Interestingly, this is back when Taylor Kelly and Michael Eubank split playing time at quarterback and each finished with two interceptions.

2011: Arizona State 37, No. 21 Missouri 30

This Friday night showdown against Missouri was actually the first ever "blackout" game as the team was unveiling its new black, pitchfork dominated uniforms. Arizona State elected to play on a Friday in order to be on national television via ESPN. This game helped kick-start Nike's "fear the fork" campaign. There was a lot of hype surrounding the 2011 Sun Devils team because they lost so many close games the year before. It was one of the more electric atmospheres Sun Devil Stadium has had in recent years and ASU came out with an overtime win, but it should be noted that this Missouri team finished the season with five losses while Arizona State lost seven games.

2010: No. 7 Stanford 17, Arizona State 13

There wasn't much hype or pressure for any game in 2010 because the Sun Devils ended up losing six games that year, but they did have two home games against top 10 opponents. Stanford was the first and they came to town with stud quarterback Andrew Luck, who went 33 for 41 in this game. The Sun Devils hung around until late in the game, but couldn't seal the deal for a win. A win against Stanford would have helped Dennis Erickson keep the fans and the athletic director on his side.

2010: No. 6 Oregon 42, Arizona State 31

This was the second home game against a top 10 team, so the few fans that went to this game were hoping for an upset. Like many of their games in 2010, the Sun Devils battled deep in the 4th quarter until LaMichael James and Darron Thomas pulled the Ducks away. It was another chance for Dennis Erickson to prove the Sun Devils belonged with the big dogs of the Pac-10, and Arizona State failed to do so in this game.

2008: No. 3 Georgia 27, Arizona State 10

Arizona State was coming off a 10-win season under first year head coach Dennis Erickson and the Sun Devils entered the season ranked in the preseason polls. Georgia was actually ranked first in the preseason poll because they returned Matthew Stafford, Knowshawn Moreno and A. J. Green. ESPN's College GameDay was planning on coming to Tempe for this game, but Arizona State blew its chance by losing to UNLV the week before. Sun Devil Stadium was packed to the brim and full of fans from Georgia. Arizona State never had a chance in this one as (again) they couldn't succeed on the big stage. Moreno had one of the most memorable touchdown runs in Sun Devil Stadium history when he superman dived into the end zone early in the game.

2007: No. 11 USC 44, No. 6 Arizona State 24

The 2007 USC and 2013 Stanford games had the most pressure involved because if Arizona State had won either of these games, they would have made just their 3rd Rose Bowl appearances ever. 2007 was Dennis Erickson's first year and the Sun Devils shocked everybody by starting off 9-1. The game was held on Thanksgiving night and Trojan quarterback John David Booty torched the ASU defense for 375 yards and four touchdowns. The Trojans were clearly not ready to hand over the Pac-10 crown to Arizona State this year. Another game against an elite team on ESPN and Arizona State couldn't get the job done.

2006: No. 1 USC 38, No. 14 Arizona State 28

The 2006 USC Trojans were being compared to some of the greatest teams in college football history until Vince Young and Texas beat them in the National Championship at the Rose Bowl. Reggie Bush, Matt Leinhart, LenDale White, Dwayne Jarrett and a defense full of future NFL stars led the Trojans in 2006. ESPN's College GameDay was in Tempe for this game and they haven't been back since. Arizona State even took a 21-3 lead into halftime but, again, the Sun Devils couldn't handle the pressure of winning a big game at home in front of an eccentric crowd. The Trojans went on to win their 26th game in a row behind the unstoppable running game of Bush and White in the second half.

2006: No. 5 LSU 35, No. 15 Arizona State 31

This game was originally scheduled to be played in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but Hurricane Katrina changed those plans. Arizona State had high expectations in 2006 as it was ranked No. 15 with a top five and SEC powerhouse team coming to town. Arizona State had LSU on the ropes all game and led the game 17-7 heading into the fourth quarter. But, like usual, Arizona State couldn't handle the pressure of beating an elite team at home. LSU scored 28 fourth quarter points including the game-winning touchdown pass from JaMarcus Russell with just over a minute left in the game.

Matt Heinz is a college football writer for Follow him on twitter @MattHeinz_Rant

Arizona State has had plenty of chances to knock off elite teams at home. How have they fared in those games?

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