With part one done and dusted, we move onto the top running games in the conference. As seen in Part 1, massive personnel losses among the Stanford offensive line and backfield dropped them into the lower half of the conference rankings, but there are shakeups among the top six too. All the teams in this half of the list could be considered run-first, and expect to gain at least 200 yards on the ground every week. Who will come out on top? If you haven’t guessed already, you may as well read on.
Quarterback Keith Price may have gotten the majority of the headlines last season, but the Huskies ran the ball a lot last season, 610 times to be exact, averaging 239 yards per game and pounding out at impressive 35 TDs. Having an offensive line that returned four starters certainly helped, and Washington can boast the same number of returnees again this season, giving them the conference’s most experienced unit in 2014. Not having Price back won’t help as a new quarterback steps in, but replacing star runner Bishop Sankey, who ran for 1870 yards and 20 TDs on 327 carries, could be an even greater task. The trio of Dwayne Washington, Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier, who combined for 815 yards and 10 TDs, will attempt to replace him, although there are other options. The biggest loss of all could be head coach Steve Sarkisian, who will be replaced by Boise State’s Chris Petersen.
5. Arizona State
Not much movement for the Sun Devils, who lose reliable, but not quite dominant, runner Marion Grice, who gained 996 yards and 14 TDs on 191 carries. DJ Foster, who gained 318 of his 501 yards and 4 of his 6 TDs over the last three games when Grice was injured, will take over and could be outstanding. Also to be taken into consideration is quarterback Taylor Kelly, who was second on the team with 608 yards and 9 scores, in addition to providing a decent passing attack. Deantre Lewis (58-301-1) should see increased carries too, but JUCO De’Chavon Hayes could shake up the depth chart when he arrives in the fall. Leading the way will be three returning offensive linemen, which could be one units of the best in recent Sun Devil history. Center Nick Kelly and left tackle Jamil Douglas lead the way.
Despite injuries leading the Bruins to start three freshmen on the line last season, the running game was solid, if a little inconsistent. The youth movement will stand them in good stead this season, even with the loss of star guard Xavier Su’a-Filo to the NFL, and this could be the best unit in the league by season’s end. There are a solid bunch of running backs ready to go, but only Jordon James looks like a bell-cow type. James started hot last season, gaining 324 yards and 4 TDs in his three games, but injuries limited him over the rest of the season, and he finished with just 534 yards and 5 scores on 101 carries. Paul Perkins led the running backs with 573 yards and 6 TDs, but the team never settled on a starter in James’ absence. With no running back stepping forward, quarterback Brett Hundley stepped up and led the team with 748 yards and 11 TDs. While it’s always a bonus to have a quarterback who is a threat on the ground, it’s rarely advisable to use him as one of the main ball carriers, particularly a QB as valuable as Hundley. If James goes down again, and no one steps up, UCLA could take a hit in the rankings.
The Wildcats had the second best rushing attack in the conference statistically last season, and probably the best actual attack, but took two huge offseason hits with the loss of Ka’Deem Carey (NFL) and quarterback BJ Denker (eh, Switzerland), their two top rushers. Throw in top backup, senior Daniel Jenkins, and that’s a combined 3245 yards and 33 TDs to be replaced. There is good news though, starting up front with four starters returning on the offensive line. While most would struggle to name one of those starters, and not one got an all-conference nod, as a unit they paved the way for nearly 265 yards per game, and allowed a mere 17 sacks. Quarterback is a big part of the UA running game, and while Denker’s improved passing will be missed, the young bucks vying to replace him are excellent runners (maybe not Connor Brewer so much). Replacing all-everything Carey will be the biggest chore, and it may take a bunch of guys to do the job. Junior Jared Baker (27-127-0) will likely be the de facto starter, but there are some exciting freshmen ready to make their mark.
2. Southern California
A massive jump from last season’s number seven ranking, there is one major reason for this jump – the hiring of Steve Sarkisian from Washington. Sark oversaw a tough running attack at Washington, and now gets to do the same with USC’s useful talent stockpile. The Trojan running attack was inconsistent last season, but returns three starting offensive linemen, plus a talented bunch waiting in the wings. Silas Redd has graduated, but had an injury-plagued season, finishing with just 81 carries for 376 yards and a TD. With Redd out, USC got the chance to flash the skills of youngsters Javorius Allen, Tre Madden and Justin Davis, who combined for 1838 yards and 23 TDs on 325 carries. We know Sark will run the ball a lot, and with these three (and who knows who else), he won’t need to rely on one guy like he did with Sankey up in Seattle. Add in an improved Cody Kessler at quarterback to keep opponents off balance, and the Trojans have the makings of a great running game. What’s even scarier is, this group’s best football could be ahead of them.
Boring! The Ducks top the list again? What about the Stanford game? The Cardinal did indeed do an excellent job shutting down the Oregon running attack last season, as did Utah, but almost everyone is back on offense this season, and the unit should be outstanding. They essentially return five starters up front (Cameron Hunt started the last five games at right guard), and have all-American center Hroniss Grasu leading the fray. Star running back De’Anthony Thomas (96-594-8) is gone, but he was banged up last season and never got the opportunity to show what he could do as a lead runner. Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner stepped up in his absence, combining for 1749 yards and 23 TDs on just 283 carries (6.2 yards per carry), and will split the load again this season. Marshall is a tough, between-the-tackles runner, while Tyner is potentially as explosive as Thomas. Also to be factored in is the ever-present threat of junior quarterback Marcus Mariota (96-715-9). An electric runner who keeps opponents from cheating up by keeping his eyes downfield as he scrambles, the Heisman Trophy candidate has run the Ducks offense almost to perfection for two years and is easily the most important member of the offense.