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Ohio State Football’s best shot at beating Michigan could come from the lead that was least expected

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — When Ohio State football coaches approached Dallan Hayden about a possible season at stake, they tried to simplify a complicated scenario.

The buckeye rushing game could barely find first gear, let alone second. Maryland would not back down. Ohio State needed the true freshman to keep the clock ticking, consistently racking up first downs and playing with an attitude beyond his age.

“They just told me to trust what I see and above all watch the ball,” Hayden said.

By doing both, Hayden became the steady, flashy presence the offense needed to earn a 43-30 win in Maryland. The win officially began in Michigan week. No more pretending to only focus on the enemy in front. The anticipation the Buckeyes have carried since their season-defining loss in Ann Arbor a year ago rose to the present day when time was up at SECU Stadium Saturday night.

Ohio State also approached its running back situation with The Game in mind. It split duties between TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams, with a goal of getting both through by November.

With Williams unavailable in Maryland and Henderson ineffective in the first half and just watching in the second, a new reality may have emerged. Hayden has proven to be a workhorse (26 second-half carries), productive (156 yards on 29 total touches), and reliable (no fumbles yet). With so much at stake and so little room for error, he may be OSU’s best shot at keeping their offense on track and on pace against easily the best team they’ve seen yet.

Henderson has missed the last two games after picking up a foot injury he first picked up against Toledo on 17 September. That left foot has never been 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 training” without much pain. He returned the ball to his regular to start the night. Henderson caught a back parachute and broke free for a 31-yard touchdown on the opening drive. It seemed like the break helped him find the form that made him a 1,000-yard rusher as a freshman.

But immediately after the touchdown, Henderson favored the foot on the touchline. Hobble a little, make faces, jog in place to try it out. For the rest of the first half, he couldn’t find that breakout. On several running games, he was stretched out horizontally with little win or loss when he either couldn’t see or couldn’t spot the inside lanes to the open field.

Henderson ended the first half for 19 yards on 11 carries. Day pointed this out in his own way in his halftime comments on the game broadcast.

“We need to power it up inside,” Day said. “I think we’re getting a good move 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, rushing for 102 yards and a touchdown. However, Ohio State was leading that game 28-7 at halftime, winning the away game. It was 13-10 behind Maryland at halftime on Saturday when it became apparent that Hayden would have to carry the backfield load.

A chat with staff assistant Reilly Jeffers, coming in from halftime, helped put Hayden in the right mindset.

“He just told me calm down,” Hayden said. “It’s obvious that as a true novice you can sometimes feel overwhelmed. But I felt good. He was just motivating as he always is.”

The difference was tangible – and felt almost immediately. Hayden repeatedly took these interior cutback tracks. He said running backs coach Tony Alford drilled this concept repeatedly. He had also emphasized this technique in the film room, pointing out what the backs should detect before snapping to let them know which gaps to attack.

Hayden has also had a couple of free stops. But he also mixed in four explosive runs for 11 yards or more. More than a third of his runs in the second half were either a touchdown or a first down. After effectively tearing up Maryland’s defense from the inside, the rest of Ohio State’s offense became less dependent on quarterbacks CJ Stroud and Marvin Harrison Jr. and the other receivers conjuring up a long third-down solution.

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

“He has really good feet and has made some people miss. Even at the end when it was the four minute exercise…we had to do it to eat the clock. As frustrating as this is, as hard as this is, you have to do it. Aside from that, there were a few guys in the hole who were extra people that he missed and it kept those things moving, kept the chains moving and kept us on schedule.

Hayden finished with 149 yards and three touchdowns. When it counters Michigan’s own driving running game, OSU can’t afford three-and-outs and drives that feature repeated second and third and long obstacles. Assuming that this improved defense still can’t just push the Wolverines off the field at will, offense probably needs to maximize their possession.

So who will get the bulk of the carries in the biggest regular Ohio State Game Day Stroud and the rest of the current team have ever attended?

Henderson watched the end of Saturday’s game with a protective boot on his left foot. It remains the option with the highest upside potential, but has the most trouble performing well.

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

Williams was the one in protective hiking boots and crutches in hand during the second half of last week’s win over Indiana. Of the top two defenders, his game most closely resembles what Hayden did so well on Saturday night. He has excelled compared to his potential ranking primarily by hitting big holes with authority. He might be a more accomplished version of what Hayden is giving them right now.

Then there’s Hayden, who almost admitted he was more nervous in front of cameras and recorders than he was on the field. He may be so fixated on performing the task at hand that all he has to think about is performing the piece exactly as he was taught.

It could be the crucial element that keeps the chains turning against Michigan and keeps Ohio State in the championship talks.

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