With Royce Freeman out indefinitely, Oregon turns to Kani Benoit

Kani Benoit said he could “just tell” that there was something different about the Oregon Ducks prior to their Saturday night tilt with Cal.

“Everyone looked fast,” he said. “Everyone looked quick. You just could tell the mentality of not only the running backs, but the team, it was a bounce back game and we wanted to prove something.”

The Ducks, and Benoit in particular, proved plenty on Saturday, though they proved something they in no way could have expected. They proved that they could beat Cal, yes, and that the previous loss to Arizona State was firmly in the rearview. But they also proved that they could win by burning the red shirt of a third-string quarterback and a fifth-string running back.

And Benoit proved he can be the feature back Oregon can depend on should Royce Freeman be unavailable.

Perhaps the most recognizable name on Oregon’s roster, Freeman recently set the school record for touchdowns in a career and is just five away from the Pac-12 record. Despite leaving the Cal game early in the first quarter with what appeared to be a shoulder injury, his 10 touchdowns still lead the nation, and his 592 rushing yards still rank in the top 10.

Benoit does not have the name recognition of Freeman — but there is no doubting the senior has similar burst. His 68-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter staked the Ducks to a 31-17 lead, which would quickly stretch into a 45-24 blowout.

By game’s end, Benoit had run for 138 yards and two scores, atoning for a passing game that managed just 131 total yards.

“I don’t think as a staff we didn’t expect any less out of Kani,” Taggart said of the former walk-on tailback. “He’s been doing that for a while around here.”

Few realize just how long Benoit has been in Eugene. Forever in the shadow of Freeman, who is annually in Heisman discussions, Benoit is the quintessential spell-back, making cameos for a play or two, a third down here and there, to give Freeman a breather. But make no mistake, Benoit has taken advantage of his limited opportunities. As a sophomore, he averaged 7 yards per carry; a junior, 5.9.

And now, in his fourth and final season at Oregon, Benoit has carried the ball 35 times for 297 yards and 8 touchdowns, which places him in the top-10 scoring backs in the nation despite having significantly less opportunities to do so.

“Me and Tony [Brooks-James] knew what had been presented to us, and we knew the capability we had in our offense,” Benoit said. “We just locked in and knew we would have to make some extra plays.”

Should Freeman’s injury be a serious one — as well as Herbert’s — it will be up to Benoit to continue making those extra plays. Benoit doesn’t doubt his capabilities. Neither does Freeman.

“[Royce] knows if anyone drops, we’re going to pick up the slack,” Benoit said. “That’s what happened tonight.”

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