Injured or not, Ducks must be ready for Eno Benjamin, the Pac-12’s top rusher

With depth at linebacker a major issue Saturday night, the starters must step up and play big


Scouting the run defense: For the first three games of the season, the Ducks boasted one of the country’s best run defenses. The unit ranked in the top-10 in rushing yards per game and rushing yards per attempt, showing a nastiness and physicality that has been lacking for years at Oregon.

But then conference play began and that once dominating rush defense began to look like a colander with how many holes it had. The Ducks now have the conference’s third-worst rushing defense against Pac-12 play, giving up 184.3 yards per game on 4.8 yards per carry.

It all begins in the middle with nose tackle Jordon Scott, who up until last week has been the Ducks’ most consistent player on the defensive line. But against Utah, something happened and the 329-pound man in the middle was beaten around by the Utes’ offensive line. Scott acknowledged his poor play after the game last Saturday, according to head coach Mario Cristobal.

"The way that we play defense the nose tackle really is a critical piece, it controls the A gaps,” Cristobal said. “He's going to be very critical of himself because he has a lot of pride, not only on what he is but in performance as well — we trust Jordon, we trust he's going to bounce back and have a better performance."

It’s not just Scott who’s been struggling as the Ducks are severely depleted at linebacker. Only three starters (Troy Dye, Justin Hollins, Lamar Winston Jr.) remain healthy from when Oregon released its depth chart to begin the season. If the nine players listed in the two-deep, only four are expected to see the field Saturday with a fifth expected to be a game-time decision.

“If the linebacker position goes another step, now you look at guys like MJ Cunningham, the redshirt potentially coming off, Nate Heaukulani, whose been with us, (Nick) Wiebe,” Cristobal said about the depth. “We've got a couple guys that we've been prepping in case it does get to that point.”

Regardless of who’s playing defense for Oregon on Saturday night, they better be ready for the storm that’s coming in for the form of Eno Benjamin, the Pac-12’s leading rusher. Benjamin, who’s rushed for 1,295 yards (a new Arizona State single season record) and 12 scores on the season, has averaged a conference-best 159.43 rushing yards per game in Pac-12 play.

Listed at 5-foot-10, 201-pounds, Benjamin is a combination of power and speed that has been overtaking defenses all season long. But it’s not just him as his offensive line has done a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage, giving Benjamin just enough daylight to make his move and go.

“I don't think their offensive line gets enough credit. Those guys have done a great job opening up holes for Benjamin,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said. “Formationally they do a lot of things — they do unbalanced stuff, they do the tackle over stuff, they do some things that present schematic issues if you're not ready for them.”

The Sun Devils boast the Pac-12’s top rushing offense, so slowing that down will be imperative. The Ducks know exactly what’s needed to slow them down but doing it with so many banged up and unproven players will be difficult to do. This is the time where veterans like Jalen Jelks, Justin Hollins, Lamar Winston Jr. and Troy Dye must step up and play their best ball if the Ducks want to send the seniors out of Autzen on the right foot.