After completing a not-always-pretty road trip, the Ohio State Buckeyes have returned home and will face Tom Allen’s struggling Indiana Hoosiers on Saturday. The visitors have already exceeded their 2021 win total, but are now in the midst of a six-game losing streak. IU raced out of the blocks, and was the only team to have taken down mighty Illinois prior to this past weekend, but the team has fallen precipitously back to earth since their 3-0 start. They are no longer the Big Ten darlings they were in 2019 and 2020, but they do put up a fight most weeks.
The biggest and most glaring (recent) weakness for IU – in my humble opinion – has been their quarterback position. With Michael Penix Jr. at the helm in ’19 and ‘20, the Hoosiers were able to push the ball down field and break off chunk plays with consistency. They were legitimately fun to watch. Former Missouri QB Connor Bazelak was brought in to boost that position once again, and hopefully replicate some of his better SEC moments, but efficiency has been a major issue. Bazelak can light it up occasionally, but his 55 percent completion rate is well below-average, and he has a bad habit of taking too many sacks.
Oddly enough, Bazelak did even not dress this past weekend, giving way to fourth-year captain Jack Tuttle. The latter – who has already announced his intent to transfer (!) – got the start, completing 75 percent of his passes, but without providing much of a spark. He then suffered an injury, leaving IU’s QB position in a stay of total disarray. Bazelak is expected to get the nod on Saturday, but whomever starts against the Buckeyes will be doing so under less than ideal circumstances.
That being said, all is not lost for Indiana football. The program has developed a few NFL Draft picks in recent years, signed 2022’s No. 30 recruiting class (according to 247Sports), and seems to have hit on a handful of players from the transfer portal. One of many fresh faces for the Hoosiers this season belongs to running back Josh Henderson. The versatile transfer is a distant second to his backfield mate in touches, but has made the most of his opportunities. He leads the Hoosiers in touchdowns, earning him this week’s title of Offensive Player to Watch.
Hailing from New Jersey, Henderson took quite a detour on his way to the Big Ten. He spent three years at North Carolina, where he appeared sparingly as a backup. The former Tar Heel was only given 44 total touches while in Chapel Hill, leading to his search for playing time elsewhere. He ultimately settled on Indiana, and made his transfer announcement one day after that of Shaun Shivers. Shivers, formerly of Auburn, also joined the Hoosiers program, giving the team a new offensive core. They joined forces with Bazelak and wide receiver Cam Camper (all transfers), hoping to re-capture some of IU’s 2019-2020 magic. But with Camper out for the season, and Bazelak and Shivers struggling, it is Henderson who has stood out.
Throughout the first month of the 2022 season, Indiana seemed hell-bent on making their Shivers experiment work. He had previously put up decent stats in the SEC, so he was given 15-20 carries in each of the Hoosiers’ first four games, yielding mixed results. He was great against lowly Idaho, but average (at best) otherwise. This gave Henderson an opportunity to pilfer touches, with which he was largely efficient. Not including IU’s season opener against Illinois, the former Tar Heel produced at least 58 total yards in each of IU’s September games, averaging 6.3 yards per touch. Not bad in a supplementary role.
Henderson’s Hoosiers rolled into October and full-time conference play with a fair amount of confidence, but the wheels have since fallen (all the way) off. Especially where wheels are essential: in the running game. Indiana is averaging just 49.8 rushing yards per game in their last five, with neither back able to get going. But Henderson has still been productive in other facets of the game. He has reeled in 12 catches during the same stretch for a total of 158 yards through the air (13.2 YPC). He has also been an asset in pass protection, although that has not mattered much in the grand scheme of things. At 5-foot-11, 215 pounds, I would argue that Henderson is the better option in every facet of the game, but IU still leans on 5-foot-7, 190 pound Shivers as their primary ball carrier.
In nine games this season, Henderson has scored six TD – three rushing, three receiving – putting him one ahead of Shivers for the team lead. And he has done so on 46 fewer touches. Constantly comparing the two is not meant as a shot at Shivers, but rather to point out how impactful Henderson has been as “the other” transfer RB. He has been especially dangerous out of the backfield, which is something Ohio State needs to be cognizant of. He had at least 29 receiving yards in five straight games, making him more of a (receiving) threat than Braelon Allen, Jalen Berger, or Nick Singleton — just a few of the talented backs OSU has faced in recent Big Ten matchups.
If Henderson and the Hoosiers can re-discover some of his early-season magic, it would certainly go a long way in boosting the likelihood of IU finishing their season strong. Because while I don’t love the odds of a shocker taking place in Columbus this weekend, Michigan State and Purdue are winnable remaining games for the Hoosiers. They will need Henderson at his best to finish 2-0.
Come Saturday, OSU should be keenly aware of Henderson’s presence on the field. While not the biggest or fastest RB in the Big Ten, he possesses a solid combination of size and speed, and has shown that he is capable of making plays in a variety of ways. This former UNC backup appears to have found a new lease on football life in Bloomington, and will most certainly be looking to make a name for himself against the Buckeyes.