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Hawaii Bowl: BYU running back shuffle set to face physical Hawaii defense

Lopini Katoa was BYU’s leading rusher last season after coming off the bench. He holds that same label as the Cougars face Hawaii in the Sofi Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve

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BYU Cougars running back Lopini Katoa (4) is hit by Liberty Flames safety Isaac Steele (13) as BYU and Liberty play a collegefootball game in Provo, Utah, on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. BYU won 31-24.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Instead of Spud State, this is Pineapple Paradise but one postseason predicament for BYU remains the same: The Cougars really need running backs to step up.

In a lot of ways, BYU’s offense is right back in the same situation it was a year ago heading into a bowl game.

The Cougars are nursing their running back corps, a unit that saw two season-ending ACL injuries to senior Ty’Son Williams and freshman Sione Finau, who combined for 623 rushing yards. Finau was the current season leader with 359 rushing yards before he went under the surgeon’s knife, and still is.

Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and quarterback Zach Wilson need this group to produce meaningful numbers and blocking against the University of Hawaii in the SoFi Hawaii Bowl in Aloha Stadium on Christmas Eve.

The duties fall to sophomore Lopini Katoa, senior Emmanuel Esukpa and a pair of freshmen, Tyler Allgeier and Jackson McChesney. And there’s always receiver Aleva Hifo on those jet sweeps.

In other words, it is a position manned by committee. Again.

Some are better blockers in pass protection than others, some are more experienced, and there are differing degrees of skill, size, explosive capability and just plain old speed.

Without Williams and Finau, running back coach AJ Steward has approached it like a business manager. He can always move to another column on his spreadsheet.

That, it seems, points to Katoa as RB1, the season rushing leader a year ago with 423 yards after injuries took out Squally Canada and Matt Hadley.

“We have no choice. We preach from day 1 when you start counting the guy that’s the last on the list, they gotta be ready to answer the call when their opportunity comes,” said Steward.

“These guys just work so hard every day. I mean, no matter what the scenario is, they see the future and what they want to be. And so they just work hard every day. They accept coaching. I’m hard on them. I have high expectations for every single person in our room, no matter where they fit, walk-on or whatever.”

Indeed, one may make the case that Steward has done a phenomenal job coaching since losing senior transfer Williams to a knee injury suffered in the Washington game.

He turned Finau into a huge playmaker before he went down during practice after the Idaho State game.

Two ACL injuries to the two top running backs within two months?

Crazy, huh?

Of the survivors, Katoa has emerged as the leading rusher (307 yards) with three touchdowns and a 4.1 yards per carry average in 11 games with three starts.

Esukpa, who has been hobbled most of the season, (190 yards) has two touchdowns and averages 4.2 yards per carry.

Allgeier started the season as a running back, switched to linebacker and played on defense for a good chunk of the season. He then switched back to running back when Finau went down. He has nine carries for 42 yards for a 4.7-yard average per tote.

McChesney made the most of his playing time against a struggling UMass defense, setting a freshman single-game rushing record. He has played in just two games and gained 274 yards on 25 carries for two touchdowns and an 11.0 yard per carry average.

A week after blowing up UMass, McChesney did not get a touch of the ball against the blitzing San Diego State defense in the season-finale loss.

“My number just wasn’t called,” said McChesney this past week after practice.

“There is just one standard that we try to set and the guys respond really well to it. That’s why we’ve had success even through some trials the last two years really. I give the credit to the guys that they’ve bought in. They’re just willing to do whatever it takes to help this team,” said Steward.

McChesney said one positive thing about having a room full of running backs is if one goes down, it provides an opportunity for young players like Finau to step up. And, well, him.

“I’ve just got to make sure I’m the best I can be, make sure I’m ready to go, that when they call my number, I’m ready to do my job.”

McChesney said head coach Kalani Sitake made it clear this is a bowl game BYU is focused on winning. “We’ve got to come out with a win. Kalani has been honest by saying this is not a vacation. We are in Hawaii to win a football game.”

The last time Wilson faced this kind of challenge in a bowl, he completed 18 of 18 passes and it was a win.

The Hawaii Warriors are a far tougher opponent than BYU faced in the Idaho Potato Bowl a year ago, and it is in their own sandbox adjacent to Pearl Harbor.