With a late-November Big Ten road game and the Buckeyes’ undefeated record hanging in the balance in College Park, Ohio State put the ball in the hands of a true freshman. Over and over again.
And Dallan Hayden delivered. Over and over again.
Miyan Williams sat out with an injury. TreVeyon Henderson left the game in a walking boot. Hayden took every carry at running back for Ohio State in the second half of a game it trailed at halftime, and the first-year Buckeye helped lead his team to a come-from-behind victory, 43-30, with 146 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries. All but one of those attempts came in the final 30 minutes.
The Buckeyes struggled mightily to run the ball early, but Hayden’s second score gave Ohio State the lead back in the third quarter, and it didn’t relinquish it after. Maryland cut the Buckeye advantage to three points in the final frame, but Hayden rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter alone to help keep the Terps at bay.
“I mean, he's seeing it. He's seeing it, and I think when you see him hit it, he's running through contact. I mean, you can just feel him."– Ryan Day on Dallan Hayden
Hayden’s performance wasn’t just a pleasant addition to the Buckeye win. It was indispensable.
“We didn't quite get the running game going there in the first half, and then made the change to Dallan, and he really got us into a rhythm,” Ryan Day said after the game. “I thought he was hitting the holes hard. Right after the blocked punt there, two good hard runs, and that was good. And then, from there on, I thought he almost broke a couple. I mean, he almost did. But for a young player with so much on the line here today, to play like that – first off, to take care of the football, it's the number one thing. When you hand somebody that football, you're putting the whole team in their hands. And that's something we talk about a lot. And so we trusted that Dallan was going to do that.
“He's had a couple of spots this year, but this was big. And for him to get this game under his belt, I think it'll build some confidence for him.”
Hayden didn’t start the game at running back. In fact, he didn’t even take a carry until the final four minutes of the first half. It was Henderson, who missed the past two games with injury, that served as the workhorse for Ohio State early. Only, there wasn’t much work to be had. Ohio State finished the first half with just 28 rushing yards on 13 carries. Henderson took 11 of those attempts and tallied just 19 yards.
On a stretch run play to the right with the Buckeyes threatening to score early in the second quarter, Henderson was wrapped up by multiple Maryland defenders for a 1-yard loss. The sophomore running back wasn’t happy about it.
Already his fourth rush for no gain or negative yardage in the first half, Henderson repeatedly stomped his foot into the turf in anger. That play, coupled with the reaction, summed up Henderson’s night in a nutshell. He hardly looked healthy in his first game back since Penn State, and Henderson finished the game wearing a walking boot on his left foot.
Here is TreVeyon Henderson in a walking boot on his left leg. pic.twitter.com/x72akXtG7z— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) November 20, 2022
Day said Henderson had a “great week of practice” leading up to the game but was ultimately pulled in the second half due to injury. Henderson saw the field briefly in the third quarter but didn’t receive a carry after halftime.
“We did hold Tre (out because of injury) there at one point. It got to the point where we just decided we weren't going to put him in anymore,” Day said.
Even with Henderson visibly hobbled after the game's opening drive, Ohio State was hesitant to hand over the reins to Dallan Hayden at running back. But when they did, the true freshman provided a shot of adrenaline for the Buckeye ground game.
In the third quarter alone, Hayden ran the ball 13 times for 67 yards and two touchdowns. The first of which gave Ohio State the lead back after trailing Maryland by three points at halftime. The second score gave the Buckeyes a two-touchdown advantage for their largest lead of the game at that point.
Dallan Hayden is good. Like, really good. pic.twitter.com/HY0AfRa05e— Eleven Warriors (@11W) November 19, 2022
Dallan Hayden is (and will be) special. pic.twitter.com/nMtfvMSjl7— Eleven Warriors (@11W) November 19, 2022
“I mean, he's seeing it. He's seeing it, and I think when you see him hit it, he's running through contact. I mean, you can just feel him,” Day said. “He's got really good feet, made some guys miss. Even at the end there, when it was the four-minute drill … there were a couple of guys in the hole that were extra guys that he made miss. He kept those things moving and kept the chains moving and got us on schedule, and I thought it was well done.”
There was a stark difference in the productivity of the run game before and after Hayden took over as the top option. While the Buckeyes would undoubtedly prefer to have a more experienced rusher handling most of the backfield duties down the stretch of a potential College Football Playoff run, they don’t appear to have one healthy enough to make that happen. Not on Saturday, anyway.
While the jury is out on Henderson, Day said Williams – who was carted off the field in the second quarter of last week’s Indiana win – is expected to be healthy enough to play against Michigan.
“Yeah, that is the hope,” Day said. “And it was trending that way.”
But when called upon to fill the role of RB1 for the Buckeyes, Hayden has left little to be desired. The Memphis native has now rushed for 249 yards and four touchdowns in the past two weeks alone, with back-to-back 100-yard efforts. Hayden rushed for 5.4 yards per carry in both of those contests, and his ability to get north and south has been a difference-maker in the run game.
“I feel like I've always naturally been able to just hit the hole and get downhill and get vertical. I've never really been like a dancing type of back,” Hayden said. “So yeah, I feel like it's natural.”
Michigan may prove to be a different animal. The Wolverines stifled the Buckeyes on the ground last season, even with TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams both healthy. The Michigan defense entered this weekend with the No. 1 run defense in the country.
But Hayden’s recent excellence may inspire confidence that Ohio State still has a dangerous weapon in the backfield even if its top two backs are hampered by injury late in the season.
“It just feels like it means I can show my coaches that they can trust to put me in, and if they need me, I can be there for them,” Hayden said.