Coming into ASU’s 2019 season, running back Eno Benjamin faced expectations rarely placed on a Sun Devil after he ran for a school-best 1,642 yards and was a First Team Pac-12 All-Conference member in 2018.
But after a handful of early subpar performances from Benjamin, combined with the emerging brilliance of freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels, the spotlight shifted off the junior.
It was a startling reality for Benjamin, and one he felt negatively affected his play. It required a transformation of sorts, one that wouldn’t come in a handful of quarters but instead over an entire season, if it even comes at all.
It also forced Benjamin to self-evaluate, taking him on a journey with no clear final destination.
Yet Saturday, as he put the final touches on his masterful 168 yard, two-touchdown performance in ASU’s 24-14 win over Arizona, it appeared the Benjamin that many Sun Devil fans expected to see coming into the season had finally arrived.
“I think early in the season, it was more so I was tense, I was stressed, like my yards aren’t the same as last year. I started feeling like I was doing too much,” Benjamin said. “These last few games I’ve just been relaxing and playing my game and just letting it come to me.”
The depth of Benjamin’s evolution was not lost on offensive coordinator Rob Likens. The duo worked in tandem throughout the season to return the running back to his 2018 form. It wasn’t until a pivotal realization though, Likens reports, that Benjamin began to see progress.
“As the season went, I just saw him grow up,” Likens said. “He came to me and he said, ‘coach, I just want to win, I just want to win games. I don’t really care anymore about all this stuff.’ And so, he just let it go. And then you saw a different kid in the way he ran the football in these last several games.”
Inspired play from Benjamin played a substantial role in salvaging ASU's season following its four-game losing streak, as the running back preceded Saturday’s dominant showing with 168 scrimmage yards in the team's upset of the then No. 6 Oregon Ducks. The performances were also a testament to the commitment to the running game shown by the ASU coaching staff early in the season. Despite a young and inexperienced offensive line, the coaches never lost faith in their ability to run the ball, working through the growing pains with hopes of an eventual breakthrough.
“This run thing has been a work in progress all year, and it paid dividends tonight,” head coach Herm Edwards said. “(Benjamin) was the beneficiary of it. And to his credit, I think he’s got 1,000 yards rushing again, so that’s not the season he had last year, but probably a better season because of what he had to deal with.”
Despite Saturday's win, ASU trailed UA 7-6 at halftime. Between rampant mistakes and poor execution, ASU failed to generate any sort of consistent offense in either of the first two quarters. But the second half was a completely different story, as the commitment to the run came to fruition and allowed the Sun Devils to take over the ballgame, outscoring the Wildcats 18-7.
“I don’t know why, but we just had a lot of miscues in the first half,” Likens explained. “We came in the second half and said, 'man, we’re going to take all of the guesswork out of it and play big boy football like we’re capable of doing' and just run over them. That’s what we wanted to do, and we did that in the second half.”
ASU’s dedication to the run was due in large part to Likens’ confidence in the offensive line. Maligned for its play throughout much of this season, the group has quietly found its stride the past few contests. Finally provided the necessary time to coalesce, the unit has provided clear running lanes for Benjamin and clean pockets for Daniels.
“I knew that Cohl (Cabral) and Steven (Miller) and Alex (Losoya) and Roy (Hemsley) and Dohnovan (West), those guys just weren’t going to be denied this game,” Likens said of the offensive line. “I felt really good going into the second half that we could just ride those guys.”
Defensively, ASU submitted another stellar performance, building off what was likely its strongest showing of the season last week against Oregon. The takeaways that eluded the Sun Devils throughout the early parts of the year came in bunches Saturday, as ASU intercepted Wildcat quarterback Khalil Tate on three straight possessions.
In the lead up to Saturday’s matchup, there was significant worry within the ASU coaching staff that its team was primed for a disappointing performance. Emotions were riding high after last week’s upset win, and as Edwards put it, the Sun Devils “have not handled success well.”
Those concerns were quickly quelled after a commanding opening stand from the ASU defense, and the unit then surrendered just seven points through three quarters.
“When you beat the sixth-ranked team in the country, oftentimes you’re going to have a letdown in your next game,” defensive coordinator Danny Gonzales said. “I think it helped that this game was the following week because there was no trying to get them up for the game. They got themselves ready to play.”
Now, ASU must patiently for its bowl game assignment. The Sun Devils will look to complete their first eight-win season since 2014 when they finished with 10 wins.
For now, ASU will simply bask in the glory of its first three-game Territorial Cup win streak since 2005-07. For a Sun Devil squad that has preached its dislike for the school down south from the beginning of spring practice, there is simply no better feeling than taking down the Wildcats.
“It’s really, really fun beating those guys,” Gonzales said. “Any chance that we can pull away from them, I think it’s outstanding.”