Back in August, the Arizona State backfield storyline was about a dynamic duo, a most excellent partnership. It was about Marion Grice here, D.J. Foster there, and defenses seeing double from running backs who were as capable catching passes as taking handoffs.
But that narrative quickly got re-written. Grice became the marquee star, a touchdown-making machine. And Foster became … what? Mostly a second option in the passing game.
"They used me to spread out the offense," Foster explained. "They moved me all over the place. Every week, every game plan was a little different."
Foster entered last weekend's Territorial Cup against Arizona with just 42 carries for 183 yards. Last season, he had 102 carries for 493 yards. He had become more of a slot receiver than a running back, the position he was recruited to play, ranking second on the team with 54 catches for 550 yards.
There can be no question that the 11th-ranked Sun Devils' offensive plan has worked. They rank eighth in the nation in scoring with 43.3 points per game and are hosting Stanford on Saturday in the Pac-12 Championship Game. There is probably some question, however, on whether Foster was happy how things worked out for him.
"That's just how it worked out. I trust my coaches 100 percent," he said. "They try to put us in the best position to make plays. I wasn't really disappointed. I'm happy for all the success that Marion has had this year."
Of course, Foster might just be playing good soldier there. He might be frustrated but doesn't air his frustration to nosy reporters. Which is probably a good thing, a sign that coach Todd Graham is running a tight ship. A developing team culture of winning helps keep complaints to a low murmur.
Yet, when Grice got hurt at UCLA, an injury that will also sideline him this weekend, Foster knew that he had an opportunity to remind everyone what he could do with 20-plus touches in a game.
With 23 carries against Arizona, Foster played a key role in the 58-21 blowout of archrival Arizona. He rushed for 124 yards and two scores as the Sun Devils' high-octane offense didn't flinch without Grice.
"I just took it in my mind that it's my time, and I've got to step up and take charge at the running back position," Foster said. "It felt really good to be back there."
While Graham tipped his cap to Foster's performance immediately after the game, he revisited it during his Monday news conference. Turns out Graham had a different reaction after watching the game film.
"I knew D.J. had done well but going back and looking at the film, man, very, very impressive performance by him," Graham said. "He had a different gear. He stepped it up big time."
He'll need an even higher gear against Stanford, which ranks No. 3 in the nation in run defense, holding foes to a meager 87.3 yards rushing per game. In the Cardinal's 42-28 blowout win over Arizona State on Sept. 21, Grice and Arizona State had just 50 yards rushing. Foster didn't record a carry, though he caught eight passes for 80 yards.
The Sun Devils will need balance to beat Stanford. They can't just rely on the passing game against a furious Stanford pass rush. Foster will need to step up. Again.
Foster's performance against Arizona certainly caught the attention of Stanford coach David Shaw.
"D.J. Foster is a big-time back," Shaw said. "He was that way coming out of high school, he's that way now, and he's going to continue to be that way in the future."
Just like his coaches and teammates, Foster is eager to get a second shot at Stanford, particularly inside the friendly confines of Sun Devil Stadium, where they are unbeaten this season with an average winning margin of 28 points per game.
Foster's role has changed more than a few times this season. But change can be good. It can spur growth. Foster believes that's going to be the difference on Saturday. He and his team have matured and are now ready to go mano-a-mano with the Pac-12's most physical program.
"We've gotten better every week since that game," Foster said. "There's definitely a chip on our shoulder about how we performed last time."