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Early-game woes, inexperience hindering ASU’s Benjamin, run game

Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin runs for a first down against Colorado during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TEMPE, Ariz. — In the four games the Arizona State Sun Devils have lost this season, the team was outscored 56-14 in the first quarter alone.

The five wins? 17-17.

In the losses, the running game suffered, as the team was forced to play catch up, stunting junior running back Eno Benjamin’s ability to really make an impact in games when needed. The ineffectiveness of the offense led to just two 100-yard days, two scores and two lost fumbles on the ground for the back, while in the victories, Benjamin enjoyed three such days, compiling five touchdowns along the way.

It’s evident the game flow is an issue, but ASU head coach Herm Edwards isn’t panicking, knowing this could be a possibility for a team with so much youth and inexperience on the football field.

“It’s been a little bit inconsistent for the most part,” Edwards said Monday afternoon. “We had flashes of making some yards, the problem is we’ve gotten behind and that is always a cause for concern. [Against USC] we kinda caught up after the first quarter, we held them, but you’re behind and you’re trying to score.

“People come in and rightfully so, we’ve got Joey [Yellen] who’s never played quarterback yet and you’re USC, what are you going to do? You’re going to stack the box. And they’re going to say, ‘This freshman quarterback has never played a game, why wouldn’t we stop Eno?'”

With a high probability that a true freshman would take over the reins at QB, Edwards told Benjamin during the offseason that it wasn’t going to be the same as 2018, with defenses looking to force the inexperienced signal callers, to throw the football by loading up the box and cutting off the run. Add in the new additions along the offensive line and the cards seem stacked against the running game.

Edwards isn’t sitting idly by, however, as he has his sights set on adding more years to the offensive line.

“We were fortunate last year,” Edwards said. “When we got into the program, we went and got two veteran players … we had an experienced offensive line. Now we don’t, we don’t have that same experience. We have two younger players playing. That puts a burden on everybody and that’s part of the process and you know it.

“Eno knew that coming in and I told him it’s going to be hard, I said it’s no one’s fault but that’s kinda where we’re at right now as a team because that’s what we’re trying to build. Last year was different, I came and said we had to get an offensive line. We have to, going forward — we’re looking for older players because … we need some guys that’ve played, and that’s why, I hate to say it, Mr. Portal [transfer portal] or grad transfers. Are we looking for guys? We’re looking for guys.”

But while there’s new faces along the line and under center, Benjamin doesn’t necessarily see the youth of the team as something holding the running game back.

“Those guys are good players, they’re great players,” Benjamin said. “I think young is a mindset. I think those guys coming into the game, they know that those guys are older and we have to meet their intensity, we’ve got to get on the same level as them. I don’t think that they think, ‘oh I’m young so it’s OK.”

As for the added fumbles this season, Edwards knows that’s highly uncharacteristic of the starting running back.

“Eno’s not a fumbler by any stretch of imagination,” the head coach said. “He hadn’t fumbled the ball the years prior to that I don’t think and this year it’s just happened to come out a couple of times. So, I’m pretty sure he’ll secure it and probably at times because he fights so much to get yardage when he gets hit.

“Here’s the problem when you fumble it: It’s like, OK, the word gets out. And defenses come now and they’re coming to attack the ball. That’s what they do and it’s no different at any level. When you see that on tape, your coaches are saying, ‘Go after the ball.'”

In a way to curb the trend, offensive coordinator Rob Likens and Benjamin are going back to the basics, fine-tuning the little things to make way for increased production.

“If you want to win the game, you have to practice winning the game,” Likens said. “You have to pay attention to all the minute details that it takes to be great. That’s stance, start, head placement, where do I put my hands? On every, single play in practice. Even play is gold to your development as a human being, as a football player. And if you don’t take that approach, you’re just going to be average and we’ll still be talking about the same crap next week.

“Let’s fix everything. Everybody do your job, look in the mirror and let’s fix all those little details and some of in ball security is you have to be detail-orientated in the things that you do.”

The Sun Devils’ next opponent presents a team Benjamin is all too familiar with in the Oregon State Beavers.

If Oregon State fans hadn’t yet heard of Benjamin, they certainly did after his 2018 performance against the Beavers as the RB rushed for 312 yards and three scores on 30 carries. He also added another 27 yards and a touchdown on three catches.

But for the running back, he’s not living in last year’s glory. He cares about one thing; taking home the W.

“Just winning the game, going out there and competing and making sure we get the job done,” Benjamin said when asked about if he had any extra motivation against OSU. “We’ve had three loses, we’ve had a bye week so it’s almost been a month since we won a game and what I did last year has nothing to do with this year. Like I said, I just want to win.”

Benjamin wasn’t the only one to turn heads on the ground in the matchup, either, as OSU’s Jermar Jefferson posted 254 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries.

“[Benjamin] had a big day against these guys last year and their defense is probably talking about that,” Edwards said. “They don’t want that to happen, but their runner had a big day against us, too. It was a game that there was some scoring in it but there was a lot of running in it. When you think about it, no one anticipated that both teams could run the ball that many times and they did.”

The Beavers look improved this season, but still rank 94th in the FBS against the run, allowing 192.7 yards per game and 17 total touchdowns in nine games to opposing rushers. For reference, ASU sits 18th in the same category, giving up just over 100 yards per game and 11 total scores.

If there’s a game where the Sun Devils can get back to their identity of running the rock, it’s this one.

EXTRA POINTS

— Edwards on Veterans Day and what it means to him:

“You realize it’s a special day for all those who have served our country, men and women. Can’t thank them enough for their service. Freedom’s never free and I think sometimes we don’t realize that. I learned that from my dad, so special day for me. A lot of memories when this day hits every year.”

— Edwards on the status of injured starting quarterback Jayden Daniels:

“I’m hoping he can get through practice, last week he practiced a little bit but couldn’t quite get through it so we’ll see this week where he’s at. Hopefully he can make it through a practice and if he can that’s good signs to us that he’ll have an opportunity to play.”

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