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Triple-threat: Washington State must stop trio of the Pac-12’s best running backs to open conference slate

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 20, 2019, 10:03 p.m.

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

Gouged by the likes of Patrick Carr and Milo Hall the last two weeks, the Washington State Cougars’ front seven is about to face three of the best ball carriers it will see all season.

From one perspective, the schedule gives the 19th-ranked Cougars an opportunity to prove those big games from the lead backs in Houston and Northern Colorado, respectively, were anomalies.

But from another, it could reveal that perhaps Washington State’s front seven – a strength the last three seasons – has taken a step back this year, at least as far as stopping the run.

Through three nonconference games, all victories, Washington State ranks 103rd out of 130 Division I FBS teams in rushing yards allowed per game at 183.7. That’s fourth worst among Pac-12 teams ahead of Oregon State (115th), Colorado (111th) and UCLA (106th), which visits Pullman on Saturday night.

In contrast, last season the Cougars ranked 38th against the run, and the previous two years they finished 47th and 29th nationally in the category.

Joshua Kelley is expected to start at running back for UCLA. Next week, at Utah, Washington State will face Zack Moss. Then, after a bye, comes a trip to Arizona State and running back Eno Benjamin.

Those three backs combined for 3,981 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns last season.

WSU fans might be forgiven their ignorance, as the Cougars didn’t play UCLA or Arizona State last year. But they did play Utah, and while they contained Moss – he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry – he still grounded out 122 yards on 30 carries, including one that went for a touchdown.

The next three weeks, then, will be at least partly defined by how well – or how not so well – Washington State’s run defense corrals those three running backs.


Talented trio

Washington State’s run defense will face three of its most difficult tests of the season in the next three weeks.

2018 Games Yds. TDs Avg.
Kelley (UCLA) 11 1,243 12 5.5
Moss (Utah) 9 1,069 11 6.1
Benjamin (ASU) 13 1,642 16 5.5
2019 Games Yds. Tds Avg.
Kelley (UCLA) 2 104 1 3.2
Moss (Utah) 3 373 4 6.5
Benjamin (ASU) 3 209 1 3.7

Joshua Kelley, UCLA

The Cougars didn’t face the Bruins a year ago, and so they have yet to see the senior running back Kelley, a former UC Davis transfer who ran for 1,243 yards as a junior last year. Six times he ran for more than 100 yards, including 289 against USC last November, and he was named a first-team All-Pac-12 selection.

He has been relatively held in check so far this year, though. He had just 53 yards on 15 carries in a loss to San Diego State, and last week against No. 5 Oklahoma he carried 18 times for 51 yards.

Kelley (6-foot, 210 pounds) is a weapon in the Bruins’ passing game, though not a particularly big one, as last year he had 27 receptions for 193 yards with no gains longer than 22 yards.

Not surprisingly, then, three of Kelley’s four best games last year came in the Bruins’ three victories: close contests in which their offense didn’t abandon the run.

Zack Moss, Utah

Through three games, Utah’s senior running back leads the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (124.3) and has scored four touchdowns, helping the 3-0 Utes climb into the top 10 this season.

While some of that production came in a 31-0 blowout over Idaho State of the Big Sky, Moss’ best game of the year was his first, a 187-yard performance at BYU.

A year ago he missed five games due to injury and still eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing (1,096). His 6.1 yards per carry was the best among the Pac-12’s eight 1,000 yard rushers in 2018, and he is already ahead of that pace (6.5).

“The guy is incredible,” USC coach Clay Helton told the Los Angeles Times this week ahead of their game against Utah on Saturday. “He’s going to play on Sundays.”

Moss is even less of a threat to catch passes out of the backfield than UCLA’s Kelley, as he had eight receptions all of last season. But with 3,024 career rushing yards, the 5-10, 222-pound Moss is already established as one of the great tailbacks in Utah program history.

UPDATE: Moss left Utah’s Week 3 loss at USC with an apparent shoulder injury. His status for the Sept. 28 game against WSU is unknown.

Eno Benjamin, Arizona State

The Cougars and Sun Devils did not play the last two seasons, so this will be the first time the junior Benjamin has played against the Washington State defense.

After carrying the ball just 23 times as a freshman, Benjamin led the Pac-12 in carries a year ago with 300, and it was hardly close: No one else had more than 255. Benjamin gained 1,642 yards on those 300 carries, the fifth-most yards in the FBS last season, and the most by an Arizona State player in a single season. He added another 263 receiving yards, coming up 95 yards shy of 2,000 yards from scrimmage.

All that production led to Benjamin being named a third-team All-America selection in 2018.

He is off to a slow start in 2019, with just 209 yards on 57 carries. Last week, in the Sun Devils’ upset victory over Michigan State, the Spartans held Benjamin to 49 yards from scrimmage, the fewest since his freshman year.

Yet the 5-10, 220-pound running back is deemed by many to be an NFL talent. How well the Cougars contain him will be crucial to their effort to get to 6-0 – if they stay unbeaten that long – for the second time in three seasons.

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