In a one-back offensive scheme, Utah would not be able to maximize both Zack Moss and Eno Benjamin.
If the Utes had succeeded in signing Benjamin, though, they wouldn’t have to face him Saturday, when they visit Arizona State. Two of the country’s top rushers will meet at Sun Devil Stadium, where the No. 16 Utes will try to extend their four-game winning streak and move closer to a Pac-12 South title.
Moss, a junior, ranks No. 6 nationally with 964 yards in eight games and is on track to break Utah’s single-season rushing record after running for a career-high 211 yards in Friday’s 41-10 win over UCLA. Benjamin, a sophomore, is right behind him with 938 yards. Each player has scored 11 touchdowns.
Benjamin is “a solid back; he's consistent,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said during his weekly news conference Monday.
Whittingham and his staff saw good vision and straight-ahead running ability in Benjamin, who’s from Wylie, Texas. Much like Moss, “there’s not a lot of wasted motion with him,” Whittingham said. “We really liked Eno out of high school and recruited him hard, but didn’t end up getting him.”
Benjamin will go against the country’s No. 3-ranked rushing defense; Utah allows just 81.1 yards per game. But the Utes will be missing one of their best defensive players in the first half, after senior safety Marquise Blair was penalized for targeting in the second half of Friday’s 41-10 win at UCLA.
Blair missed the second half of a September loss to Washington due to targeting; Whittingham later questioned that call. He didn't have any issues with the latest ruling.
“Certainly, we are constantly reminding them, teaching, drilling the proper way to tackle, what you can and can’t do,” he said. “And Marquise is an ultra-aggressive player. I mean, he’s as aggressive a player as we’ve ever had come through here. He just wants to hit everything that moves. … He’s a guy that’s gotten better with that, but as you saw, it showed up again on Friday.”
The Utes later got a break when backup safety Terrell Burgess was flagged for targeting, and the call was overturned after a review. The defensive coaching staff has some options this week, Whittingham said, but there’s “a strong possibility” Burgess will start in Blair’s place.
Utah’s defense will deal with quarterback Manny Wilkins, receiver N’Keal Harry and Benjamin, who gained only 142 yards last season as a freshman, including seven yards on three carries in a 30-10 win over Utah last October. As the Sun Devils' featured back this year, he has experienced both extremes of production.
When defenses have been preoccupied with stopping him, they’ve done so. He totaled only 48 yards on 26 carries against Michigan State and San Diego State in September. But when he gets going, he racks up some big numbers. Benjamin ran for a school-record 312 yards vs. Oregon State and 185 yards in last week’s 38-35 win over USC.
By winning Saturday, the Sun Devils (4-4, 2-3 Pac-12) would get within a half-game of Utah (6-2, 4-2) in the Pac-12 South and would own the tiebreaker. ASU’s remaining opponents after this week are UCLA, Oregon and Arizona; Utah faces Oregon and Colorado in conference play.
Utah potentially would be favored over ASU in a multi-team tie. In any case, it is clear that Saturday’s game will have major implications in the South, in a series that has favored the Sun Devils. The Utes' 2-5 record vs. ASU is their worst mark against any South rival in their eighth season of Pac-12 membership.