Oregon running backs make difference in ground war against Stanford
Coming into the game the big-ticket battle was between a pair of star running backs, Oregon’s Royce Freeman and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. Both have been two of the most dominant runners in the country this season, yet their respective teams utilize them differently.
McCaffrey is in on almost every play, playing at a high-usage rate, whereas Freeman receives carries more sparingly as his backups rotate in to share the load. While both systems allow the sophomore runners to record big numbers, Oregon’s seems more sustainable as it allows Freeman to rest and hold back energy for the closing moments of games.
That difference contributed to the eventual Oregon 38-36 victory over the Cardinal.
“As fast as we play and as many plays as we like to get, you can’t give Royce the ball every time,” offensive coordinator Scott Frost said.
Freeman ended the game with 16 carries for 105 yards and a touchdown. McCaffrey, on the other hand, had a whopping 33 rushes for 147 yards and a touchdown, while also serving as the return specialist. Freeman was more productive with his chances, rushing for 6.6 yards per carry, while McCaffrey finished with 4.5. And while the Stanford runner collected a school record 8th consecutive game with over 100 yards on the ground, it was the trio of Ducks running backs doing more damage.
“Its definitely nice having those breathers,” Freeman said. “We get the same kind of look in practice so we carry that into the games.”
Running backs coach Gary Campbell is in charge of monitoring how many carries his players get, deciding when to swap one out for fresh legs. It has to come from the sidelines because the Duck players are too competitive to sub themselves out.
“If Royce is a little tired or anything happens to him, we feel great going to the other three guys,” Frost said.
The Oregon running back corps finished with 231 yards against a Cardinal defense that came into the game only allowing 123.6 rushing yards per game.
Kani Benoit carried it six times for 35 yards and a touchdown, Taj Griffin made big plays in the passing game out of the backfield and both Charles Nelson and Bralon Addison recorded carries in trick plays and running the triple option.
Nelson had the longest run of the night, taking it 75 yards to the house in the first half.
“When one of us gets a long run, the rest want to do the same thing,” Benoit said. “It’s a competition, but we love each other.”
The importance of backfield depth has already shown itself this season, as the Ducks lost Thomas Tyner at the start of the year. Tyner was expected to return to his role of Freeman’s backup, receiving a large portion of the carries. Instead the other running backs stepped up and carved out playing time.
“Everyone is talented enough they don’t have to think about going in and making plays,” Benoit said. “Everyone on our roster at the running back position is a natural playmaker.”
Oregon doesn’t have a cap on how many carries Freeman gets each game, instead basing it on the individual opponent and how the offense is running at the time. But with the way the group of backs have progressed this season, when he is subbed there shouldn’t be any fear of a drop off — and that can make all the difference.
Follow Christopher Keizur on Twitter @chriskeizur