Dallan Hayden And Xavier Johnson Step Up At Running Back, But Health Concerns Linger As Miyan Williams Joins Long List of Banged-Up Buckeyes

By Griffin Strom on November 12, 2022 at 6:15 pm
TreVeyon Henderson, Dallan Hayden, Miyan Williams
Adam Cairns, Columbus Dispatch

By multiple statistical measures, Ohio State turned in its best performance of the season on the ground Saturday.

Its 340 rushing yards were its most since 2020, let alone this year, and its 7.9 yards per game represented another season-high mark. But one play in the first half ensured Buckeye fans would leave the stadium with just as much cause for concern as they had for celebration regarding the run game. 

Miyan Williams made the injury absence of TreVeyon Henderson and Chip Trayanum at running back seem inconsequential with a monster start that saw him rack up 147 yards on 15 carries. That total included a 48-yard touchdown with 10:41 to play in the second quarter as the third-year rusher looked ready to reinvigorate a unit that had been a shell of itself over the previous three games.

Before halftime, though, Williams’ afternoon abruptly came to an end. The Cincinnati native was slow to get up after a four-yard run out of the shotgun, and Williams appeared unable to bare weight on his right leg. Williams was carted to the back after being assisted off the field by multiple trainers. Ohio State was already down to just two healthy scholarship running backs coming into the game, and halfway through the Indiana game, the Buckeyes were left with just one – a freshman, at that. 

Everything worked out fine for Ohio State on Saturday. Dallan Hayden stepped up in Williams’ stead to record a 100-yard game of his own, Xavier Johnson slid over from wide receiver to make some huge plays out of the backfield and the Buckeyes pounded the ball in the end zone three times on the ground. Despite the rapidly disappearing depth in the Buckeye running back room, Ryan Day isn’t hitting the panic button just yet. But with Michigan coming to Columbus in just two weeks, perhaps he might mull it over if health updates about Henderson and Williams don’t continue to trend in a positive direction.

“Hopefully, these are going to be some things that we can overcome here in a short period of time,” Day said. “Great to see our depth show up. We’ll have to see, but it didn't look like (Williams’ injury), based on what we saw here in the locker room, it was going to be something that's going to be really long-term. So we'll see how it feels overnight. And then we’re hoping to get Tre back next week.”

Bad breaks are nothing new for Tony Alford’s unit this season. Back in August, second-year rusher Evan Pryor – whom Alford and Ryan Day spoke highly of in the preseason – suffered a torn ACL that ended his season before it began.

While an unfortunate hit to the position room’s depth, it wasn’t catastrophic. Ohio State still had its top two backs, who combined to rack up 2,142 yards from scrimmage and 22 total touchdowns in 2021. But it wasn’t long before Henderson and Williams began to get banged up as well.

On the opening drive of Ohio State’s Week 3 matchup with Toledo, Henderson suffered a leg injury that sidelined him for the rest of the game, and he left the stadium in a walking boot. Henderson returned to rush for 121 yards the next week, but Day said the injury re-emerged to rule him out of Ohio State’s Week 5 matchup with Rutgers.

Given the lion’s share of snaps in Henderson’s absence, Williams had the finest game of his career, collecting 189 yards and tying Ohio State's all-time single-game rushing touchdown record with five scores. However, Williams could not carry that momentum forward, as he missed the next game with an injury. Henderson returned against Michigan State but left the game on the first drive of the third quarter after absorbing a hard hit to the legs.

Day said Henderson was only held out as a precaution at the time, but he’s now missed two of Ohio State’s four games since then.

In Henderson’s most recent appearance, Ohio State’s 13-point win on the road at Penn State on Oct. 29, Williams appeared to suffer both a hand and knee injury that knocked him out of the game after just his second carry. Two weeks later, Williams is injured again.

With both backs cycling in and out, Ohio State’s run game turned in three straight poor performances against Iowa (66 yards), Penn State (98 yards) and Northwestern (207). Before that, Ohio State averaged 228 yards per game through the first six weeks. Offensive line play and play calling deserve some criticism for that stretch, but the health of Ohio State’s running backs didn’t help.

Even before Saturday, Ohio State had taken bold measures to bolster running back depth. Trayanum, who began the season at linebacker, switched to RB full-time in October. Trayanum played running back at Arizona State, but the Buckeyes recruited him to play defense.

The Buckeyes even gave fourth-string running back reps to a true freshman walk-on as early as Week 3. TC Caffey did well with them, carrying the ball six times for 57 yards and a highlight-reel touchdown against Toledo, but he might not have seen the field if Ohio State hadn’t been dealing with running back injuries. Even Caffey has suffered a season-ending injury since then, which helped bring about Trayanum’s position switch.

Ohio State has also handed the ball off to Johnson, a former running back, and fullback Mitch Rossi at times this season. Johnson zigged and zagged for a 71-yard touchdown run in one of the season’s most awe-inspiring plays on Saturday. But those are hardly full-time solutions in the final two games of the regular season, particularly when facing a matchup with Michigan’s No. 1-ranked run defense.

Hayden handled relief duties admirably against Indiana, but even he got banged up by the game’s end. Hayden limped off the field in the third quarter and began the fourth on the stationary bike as he appeared to favor his leg. Hayden took more carries after that, though, and finished with 19 for 102 yards and a score.

“I think Dallan had some really nice runs today. The number one job of a running back is to take care of the football, the number one job. And the rest of it takes care of itself,” Day said. “And I thought he got into a rhythm, he had a nice run early on, he had the first touchdown run and bounced that one. He did a nice job with the vision on that. And overall, he ran hard, even on a couple of those runs in the fourth quarter. I thought he finished the runs. If it was a three-yard run, he was finishing at six. I think he's got good feet, good vision. He’s a really good young player.”

When it rains, it pours for the Ohio State running back rotation in 2022, and injuries at the position might lead to an even darker storm in two weeks. Michigan manhandled Ohio State on the ground on both sides of the ball last season, and improving the run game was a major emphasis of the offseason for that very reason.

Michigan looks every bit as good on the ground this year as it was last, and Ohio State’s litany of running back injuries won’t do much to inspire confidence in the Buckeyes’ ability to have an edge in that area – even after a season-high day on the ground.

“I think both those guys (Hayden and Johnson) showed that they can do a good job. I think it's pretty remarkable that we have that many guys who are capable. But whether it's Tre, Miyan or Chip, we're hoping to get all these guys back here as soon as we can,” Day said. “It's been frustrating, obviously, not having a full-strength room there. But I guess the positive spin on that is the toughness shown, and we've been able to keep that going.”

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