Ohio State football’s best chance to beat Michigan may come from the lead back it least expected

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — When the Ohio State football coaches turned to Dallan Hayden with a season potentially on the line, they tried to simplify a complicated scenario.

The Buckeye rushing game could barely find first gear, let alone second. Maryland would not relent. Ohio State needed the true freshman to keep the clock running, keep picking up first downs and keep playing with a poise beyond his age.

“They just told me to trust what I see and, most importantly, to take care of the ball,” Hayden said.

By doing both, Hayden became the steady, striking presence the offense needed to grind out a 43-30 victory at Maryland. The victory officially began Michigan week. No more pretense about focusing solely on the opponent ahead. The anticipation the Buckeyes have carried since their season-defining loss in Ann Arbor one year ago surged to the present as time expired in SECU Stadium on Saturday night.

Ohio State approached its running back situation with The Game in mind, too. It split duties between TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams with the goal of pushing both through to November.

Yet with Williams unavailable at Maryland, and Henderson ineffective in the first half and only watching in the second, a new reality may have emerged. Hayden has proven himself a workhorse (26 second-half carries), productive (156 yards on 29 touches overall) and dependable (no fumbles yet). With so much at stake and so little room for error, he may be OSU’s best chance to keep its offense on track and in rhythm against easily the best team it has seen so far.

Henderson missed the previous two games after aggravating a foot injury first suffered against Toledo back on Sept. 17. That left foot has never been quite right since that night. When Henderson has played, he has played through pain and who knows what other limitations.

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Ohio State coach Ryan Day said Henderson had “a great week of practice” without much pain. He gave the ball back to his regular starter to begin the night. Henderson caught a throwback screen and broke away for a 31-yard touchdown on the opening drive. It seemed as though the break helped him find the form that made him a 1,000-yard rusher as a freshman.

Yet immediately after the touchdown, Henderson was favoring the foot on the sideline. Limping a bit, grimacing, jogging in place the test it out. For the remainder of the first half, he could not find that burst. On several running plays, he was stretched out horizontally for little gain or loss when he either could not see or did not recognize inside lanes to open field.

Henderson finished the first half with 19 yards on 11 carries. Day pointed that out in his own way in his halftime comments on the game broadcast.

“We’ve got to run it up inside,” Day said. “I think we’re getting some good movement, but we’re just not hitting it the way I think we should be able to hit it.”

Hayden had entered the previous week’s game for an injured Miyan Williams and rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown. Ohio State, though, led that game 28-7 at halftime and won going away. It trailed Maryland 13-10 at halftime Saturday when it became apparent Hayden would need to carry the backfield load.

A conversation with staff assistant Reilly Jeffers coming out of halftime helped put Hayden in the correct mindset.

“He was just telling me to calm down,” Hayden said. “It’s obvious, as a true freshman, sometimes you can get overwhelmed. But I felt like I was good. He was just being motivating, like he always is.”

The difference was palpable — and almost immediately noticeable. Hayden took those interior cutback lanes repeatedly. He said running backs coach Tony Alford had drilled that concept repeatedly. He had also emphasized that technique in the film room, pointing out what the backs should recognize pre-snap to let them know which gaps to attack.

Hayden was stopped for no gain on a couple of occasions, too. Yet he also mixed in four explosive runs of 11 yards or more. Over a third of his runs in the second half yielded either a touchdown or a first down. With him effectively lacerating Maryland’s defense inside, the rest of Ohio State’s offense became less dependent on quarterback CJ Stroud and Marvin Harrison Jr. and the other receivers conjuring a long third-down solution.

“He’s seeing it and hitting it,” Day said of Hayden, about two hours after those halftime comments. “And when you see him hit it he’s running through contact. You can just feel it.

“He’s got really good feet and made some people miss. Even at the end there when it was the four-minute drill … we had to run it to eat up the clock. As frustrating as that is, as hard as that is, you’ve got to do it. That being said, there were a couple of guys in the hole that were extra guys that he made miss and it kept those things moving, kept the chains moving, and got us on schedule.”

Hayden finished with 149 yards and three touchdowns. When countering Michigan’s own propulsive running game, OSU cannot afford three-and-outs and drives that repeatedly feature second and third-and-long obstacles. Assuming this improved defense still can’t simply push the Wolverines off the field at will, the offense likely needs to maximize its possessions.

So who will receive the bulk of the carries in the biggest regular-season Ohio State game Day, Stroud and the rest of the current team have ever participated?

Henderson watched the end of Saturday’s game with a protective boot on his left foot. He remains the highest-upside option, yet the one having the most trouble providing a high floor of performance.

Williams did not travel to Maryland. When asked if Williams will play at Michigan, Day replied, “That’s the hope. It’s trending this way.”

Williams was the one in the protective walking boot, and with crutches in hand, during the second half of the previous week’s victory over Indiana. Of the top two backs, his is the game that most closely resembles what Hayden did so well Saturday night. He has overachieved relative to his prospect ranking largely by hitting big holes with authority. He could be a more savvy version of what Hayden gives them right now.

Then there’s Hayden, who all but admitted he was more nervous in front of cameras and recorders than he had been on the field. He may be so fixated on performing the job ahead of him that he doesn’t have to consider anything but executing the play exactly as he has been taught.

It might be the critical element that keeps the chains moving against Michigan and keeps Ohio State in the conversation for championships.

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