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ASU’s Eno Benjamin cements legacy in Territorial Cup win

Junior running back Eno Benjamin rushed for 168 yards and two touchdowns in the Sun Devils' 24-14 win over Arizona Saturday night. (Photo by Sarah Farrell/Cronkite News)

TEMPE, Ariz. – After the final seconds had ticked off the clock and fans had streamed out of Sun Devil Stadium to celebrate Arizona State’s 24-14 Territorial Cup victory over rival Arizona, a few ASU players filed into an interview room to meet with the media.

In came freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels, junior defensive back Evan Fields and sophomore defensive lineman Jermayne Lole.

There was one obvious omission.

“Can we get Eno?” a member of the gathered media asked Mark Jezek, ASU’s assistant director of athletic communications, who said, “Yeah, I’ll go get him.”

It has been that kind of season for ASU junior running back Eno Benjamin and the Sun Devils’ running game. Too often, Benjamin and the rushing attack were an afterthought.

The team’s offensive line, which was supposed to include five senior starters, depended on two true freshmen as starters for much of the season, which slowed development of the team’s running game. Instead, the offense often revolved around the talented Daniels, the first true freshman in ASU history to start a season at quarterback. Meanwhile, Benjamin flew mostly under the radar.

But he showed up in the second half of the Territorial Cup game, and he wasn’t just a blip on the screen.

Trailing 7-6 at halftime with Benjamin limited to 26 yards on 10 carries, the Sun Devils exploded in the second half as Benjamin carried the load. He rushed 24 times for 142 yards and two touchdowns in the second half and Daniels needed to throw only twice after halftime as ASU dominated the Wildcats.

After the media requested his presence, Benjamin strutted into the media room still fully dressed in his uniform with a towel draped over his shoulders, clearly satisfied. His 168 rushing yards against the Wildcats were a season high and the most he had gained in 15 games, dating to a 182-yard effort against UCLA Benjamin had late in the 2018 season.

The inconsistent offense led coach Herm Edwards to shake up his offensive staff in the aftermath of the UA game. Edwards announced that offensive coordinator Rob Likens has been dismissed with a year remaining on his contract. And he announced that the contracts of wide receivers coach Charlie Fisher and tight ends coach Dante Yantis will not be renewed. Edwards said the three will not coach in the team’s postseason bowl game.

“We’re headed in a different direction, offensive philosophy-wise,” Edwards said. “This is always a hard decision for coaches. It had nothing to do with wins or losses, just philosophy and my thinking on what we want to become.”

What the Sun Devils became in the second half against UA was a run-first, grind-it-out offense and as a result, ASU (7-5, 4-5) sent Arizona (4-8, 2-7) to a third consecutive Territorial Cup defeat.

For his performance, Benjamin won the Bob Moran Territorial Cup Most Valuable Player award, named for the former Arizona Daily Star and East Valley Tribune sportswriter, who included among his catchphrases, “Somebody’s got to be a hero!”

Against the Wildcats, that was Benjamin. His big second half helped him eclipse the 1,000-yard mark for the season and made him the first Sun Devil back to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in back-to-back seasons since “Fast” Freddie Williams did it in 1974-75.

“Back when he was in the ninth grade, he reminded me of Walter Payton,” Likens said in the moments after the game. “I looked at him and I saw how violent he ran and I said ‘that’s Walter Payton Jr. right there.’”

It was the kind of darting, spinning, powerful performance that was typical of Benjamin during his sophomore year, when he ran for 1,642 yards and 16 touchdowns behind a veteran offensive line and alongside a senior quarterback.

But it might have been his curtain call in that ASU uniform he wore to the media room.

As a junior who is eligible for the NFL draft, Benjamin entered the season as a highly-touted prospect. Now he has to decide whether to enter the draft, and if so, whether he will play in a bowl game.

“I love that kid and everything that he has done,” Likens said. “We will see what decision he makes. I’m behind him whatever he wants to do. I love him.”

NFL teams might love him, too. Last season, Benjamin exploded onto the national scene and despite the dropoff in production to 1,083 yards and 10 touchdowns, Edwards said Benjamin might have been a better runner.

“This run thing has been a work in progress all year and it paid dividends (against the Wildcats),” Edwards said. “He was the beneficiary of it. To his credit, I think he has 1,000 yards rushing again, so it’s not the same season as he had last year, but probably a better season because of what he had to deal with.”

For a team that had not run the ball particularly well all season to do what the Sun Devils did in the second half against Arizona, it showed a lot of trust and faith in the offensive line and in Benjamin, Edwards said.

The Sun Devils ran the ball on 11 straight plays in their first drive of the second half and took the lead on a 6-yard Benjamin run. After the drive, Daniels told Benjamin it was his game and that it was time to show why he believes that Benjamin is the best running back in the country, Daniels said.

Likens said ASU had too many miscues in the first half and decided to “play smash-mouth football and run it right down their throat.”

After the game, ASU players grabbed the cup, believed to be the oldest rivalry trophy in college sports and dates to 1899, and ran around Sun Devil Stadium celebrating with fans. Benjamin removed his helmet, smiled, and walked after them before a fan stopped him.

“I just didn’t want to chase them down for the cup,” he said. “I knew it was going to make its way around, so I was just waiting for my moment.”

For Benjamin, it was that kind of season.


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