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Can Dallan Hayden carry the load for the beat-up Buckeyes?
College Football

Can Dallan Hayden carry the load for the beat-up Buckeyes?

Published Oct. 18, 2023 4:05 a.m. ET

Dallan Hayden was ready for his moment.

With Ohio State's top three running backs — TreVeyon Henderson, Miyan Williams and Chip Trayanum — unable to play with various injuries, Hayden was called up.

While any coach will tell you that having depth is an advantage, especially in case of an emergency, they'd rather not have to dip into it. But in Ohio State's 41-7 win over Purdue last week, Ryan Day had to go deep into his bench and ask Hayden, his fourth-string running back who hadn't played any meaningful minutes yet this season, to shoulder the load.

In his first real action since the College Football Playoff semifinal against Georgia last year (he played briefly in the opener vs. Indiana, but didn't record any stats), Hayden led the team with 11 carries for 76 yards and a touchdown. And he might be asked to give a similar or better performance on Saturday when No. 3 Ohio State hosts No. 7 Penn State in a critical Big Ten East showdown (noon ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app).


"It's like the coaches always say, competitive spirit, you know?" Hayden told reporters after beating the Boilermakers on the road. "When your number is called, you've gotta make a play. I think we have the best running back room in the country, so I feel like when one goes down, it's just next-man-up."

That may have been fine against Purdue, but Penn State is a different story. The Nittany Lions have the No. 1 defense in the country right now, which is currently limiting offenses to 193.7 total yards per game on 3.4 yards per play. It's stingy on the ground, holding teams to 42.8 rushing yards per game and just six rushing touchdowns.

"This will be the biggest challenge to date," Day said.

Especially with a depleted running back room.

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Henderson, who was supposed to play last weekend before a setback, and Williams have unspecified injuries, while Trayanum went down in the first half vs. Purdue after absorbing a hard hit. The IR list also includes star wide receiver Emeka Egbuka, who missed the last game with a leg injury he sustained the week before against Maryland, and No. 1 cornerback Denzel Burke, who left Saturday's game early with an undisclosed injury.

Day said Tuesday that he's "hopeful" that his handful of injured playmakers will be ready to go by Saturday, but didn't elaborate much beyond that. This means Day will have to get creative offensively if the Buckeyes are going to have a shot at winning what is expected to be an epic conference clash.

As a true freshman last year, Hayden played in 10 games, including a breakout performance against Maryland when he ran for a career-high 146 yards and scored three touchdowns. He can hit the holes, but does have shortcomings — likely due to lack of experience — in pass protection and ball security. But he rose to the occasion last week when the Buckeyes needed him.

"I thought when the ball was in his hands, he did some really good things," Day said. "I thought our O-line opened up some holes, but Dallan ran hard as well. I thought once he got through the line of scrimmage, he got up to the safeties, and one run in particular, he really lowered his shoulder and ran the safety over and finished that run really well."

The plan is still for Hayden to redshirt this season. But if the other backs aren't healthy, Day said the plan might change.

"We're gonna do what we think is best to win every game, and it was great to see Dallan run out there and play well in the game," Day said. "When that decision [to redshirt] has to be made, we'll make that decision. It doesn't have to be made right now because we still have a little bit of wiggle room.

"But if it comes down to winning games, we'll sit down with Dallan and make sure we're all on the same page. I know Dallan wants to play and wants to do what's best for himself, but also for Ohio State."

Xavier Johnson, who is listed as a receiver, is another option Day can lean on. A sixth-year graduate student, Johnson carried the ball five times for 39 yards and had one catch for 21 yards against the Boilermakers. Depending on everyone's health status, he could have a more expansive role this week as well.

"He's very versatile for us," Day said. "You saw him doing a lot of things, running the ball, catching, blocking, and when you have veteran guys like that, who can do many things, you have to figure out ways to make it work because ultimately nobody cares. You gotta figure out a way to get it done."

Johnson is a true veteran. He learned how to block while playing special teams and cornerback, learned how to carry the ball while playing running back, and learned how to run routes while playing wide receiver.

"He can do many things," Day said. "And when you have that skill set, you're a real weapon."

That may be, but if Ohio State is going to beat a healthy Penn State team, it's going to need some of its starters back by Saturday.

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of "Strong Like a Woman," published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.


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