Benjamin, Taylor commanding Arizona, Arizona State offenses

Nov 23, 2018, 1:44 PM

AP Photos...

AP Photos

Before the season, quarterback play was expected to define Arizona’s and Arizona State’s offenses.

That hasn’t been the case. Through 11 games, the teams’ offensive identities have centered around their respective running backs.

Saturday, the two running back-led squads face each other in this year’s Territorial Cup. ASU’s Eno Benjamin and Arizona’s J.J. Taylor could be the keys to each offense’s success.

Sophomore slump? Nonsense

For the Sun Devils, Benjamin has been a star in the backfield. In his first season of significant playing time, the sophomore leads the Pac-12 in rushing yards.

At 1,444 yards, Benjamin has almost eclipsed ASU’s single-season rushing record. To reach Woody Green’s record of 1,565 yards, Benjamin needs to rush for 121 yards in Arizona State’s last two games (bowl game included).

Steady improvement

Perhaps what’s most mind-boggling about Benjamin’s success is that some were calling for his backup, Isaiah Floyd, to get more reps earlier this season. Benjamin rushed for just 48 combined yards in ASU’s losses to San Diego State and Michigan State, two of the Sun Devils’ first three games.

But since then, he’s been nothing short of phenomenal.

In seven of the last eight games, Benjamin has run for 100 yards or more, including a 312-yard explosion against Oregon State. That game, he shattered the school record for rushing yards in a single contest, previously set by Ben Malone (250 yards).

Additionally, Benjamin has found the end zone 12 times this season, which is tied for the most in the conference.

While Benjamin has been stellar, he also credits his offensive line. The line, led by veterans Cohl Cabral and Casey Tucker, has been phenomenal this year since it instituted gap-blocking schemes.

Sneakily efficient

For how prolific Benjamin has been in the Sun Devils’ run game, Arizona running back J.J. Taylor has been nearly as critical for the Wildcats. In the early portion of the season, the snaps were divided between Taylor and Gary Brightwell, but one performance changed that.

Similar to Benjamin, Taylor’s biggest game of the season came against Oregon State. Against the Beavers, Taylor ran for 284 yards and two touchdowns. Since then, Taylor has controlled the position and averaged over 22 attempts per game.

In all 11 of Taylor’s games, he has run for at least 50 yards. And he’s done so with incredible efficiency, averaging 5.7 yards per carry.

Big-game machine

Though Taylor has only exceeded 80 yards five times this season, the sophomore was unstoppable every time he did. In those five games, Taylor combined for 927 yards with six touchdowns.

No, that is not a typo. In five games, Taylor rushed for more yards than most running backs do in an entire season.

With 1,290 rushing yards in Arizona’s 11 games, Taylor sits third in the conference behind Benjamin and Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson.

Stopping the run

With bragging rights and a potential bowl berth for the Wildcats on the line, the battle on the ground will be a key focus of this year’s Territorial Cup.

On the defensive end, Arizona and Arizona State have been almost equally effective (or, perhaps, ineffective) at stopping the run. The Sun Devils and Wildcats are allowing 156.3 and 164.9 rushing yards per game, respectively, which are eighth and ninth in the Pac-12 in that category.

Most recently, Arizona State struggled to contain Oregon’s run game, allowing 187 yards between mostly Travis Dye and CJ Verdell.

In Arizona’s 69-28 defeat to Washington State, stopping the run wasn’t the issue — it was stopping quarterback Gardner Minshew. Though the Wildcats held the Cougars to just 123 yards on the ground, the secondary allowed the “Mighty Mustache” almost 500 passing yards and seven touchdowns.

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Benjamin, Taylor commanding Arizona, Arizona State offenses