TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State coach Todd Graham said Monday he believes six of the nation’s best running backs will be on the field Thursday night when his Sun Devils clash with Oregon.
“If you want to watch great running backs, this is a great game to come watch,” Graham said. “When you take those six guys, their three running backs and our three, there can’t be guys much better than those guys.”
In what order those running backs stack up, Graham and Ducks coach Chip Kelly might disagree.
Both Oregon and ASU roll three deep at running back, and while Oregon’s trio has garnered more attention, the Sun Devils feel their backs are just as capable.
“I know they get all the publicity — and not to say that their guys aren’t good,” ASU senior Cameron Marshall said. “I know Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas and my little brother (Byron Marshall) are all great athletes and they do a tremendous job week in and week out, but we’ve got great athletes here at Arizona State.
“We might not get the notoriety they get up there, but we’re every bit as good.”
Marshall entered the season expected to carry the load at running back for ASU, having run for more than 1,000 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. It became apparent quickly, though, that Marshall’s role would be reduced with the arrival of junior college transfer Marion Grice and dynamic freshman D.J. Foster.
Foster leads the team with 269 rushing yards and has also gained 297 on pass receptions. Marshall has 262 yards on a team-leading 62 carries. Grice, meanwhile, has 206 yards and a team-high five touchdowns on the ground, plus another 189 yards and four scores through the air.
All told, Marshall, Foster and Grice have accounted for about 45 percent of ASU’s offensive yards this season and 19 of its 30 touchdowns, but Oregon’s backs have put up even heftier numbers.
Barner, a senior, has racked 727 yards on the ground — 15th most in the nation — and nine touchdowns to go with 111 yards receiving. Thomas, regarded as one of college football’s fastest players, has tallied 377 yards rushing, 205 receiving and a total of nine TDs. Freshman Byron Marshall has gained 258 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 48 carries.
It all adds up to about 52 percent of Oregon’s offensive yards and 22 of 39 touchdowns.
“De’Anthony’s skill set is different than Kenjon, which is different than Byron,” Kelly said. “People don’t defend it differently.”
Those different skill sets nearly mimic those of ASU’s running backs. Foster provides an explosive style, Marshall counters with physicality, and Grice offers a mix somewhere between the two.
“I feel like we’re a whole back as a unit,” Foster said. “We all do a little bit of everything.”
Added Marshall, who said he and his brother have similar physical styles: “It gives them a lot of things they’ve got to account for when we’re in the game. I know they’re doing all that this week with their scout team defense and trying to simulate all of us, all of our running styles. It’s definitely a challenge to stop all three of us.”
While Oregon’s backs might have an upper hand in speed, Foster and Grice might give ASU a slight edge as receiving targets. How the trios compare will become more evident Thursday night, but no matter how that plays out, the six should be central to the outcome of the game.
“I think what we have is something special,” Foster said. “We can only worry about ourselves, and I think we have a great running back corps.”
— While ASU is hopeful of a sellout at
Sun Devil Stadium on Thursday night, athletic director Steve Patterson
reported Tuesday morning on Twitter that about 6,000 tickets remained