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Taking inventory of the Ohio State running back room

Making the case for Miyan Williams as the Buckeyes’ No. 1 RB.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

I’ll admit that, at the beginning of last season, I was pretty quick to jump aboard the TreVeyon Henderson bandwagon. He was breaking long runs. He was setting Ohio State freshmen records. He was great.

As the season went on and the competition got stiffer, Henderson was still playing well, but he was giving us fewer “wow!” moments. The OSU running attack came under scrutiny, and the physicality of the offensive line – not Henderson – was blamed. He finished 2021 with 1,248 yards and a record-setting 19 touchdowns — 15 of them on runs. A scoring machine he was, and, as the 2022 season drew near, Henderson was being promoted as a legitimate Heisman candidate, along with teammates C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

The Wisconsin game, and its aftermath, have given me some thoughts about the Ohio State running game and its two primary backs, Henderson and Miyan Williams, in particular.

The Wisconsin game

Saturday’s game was very satisfying. And it was surprising. Ohio State rather handily outplayed the Badgers on the line of scrimmage. Aside from Braelon Allen’s long run in the fourth quarter, the Buckeye front seven pretty much stymied the vaunted Wisconsin rushing attack. And, on offense, OSU linemen were pushing Badger defenders out of the way, creating big running lanes. The Bucks simply looked to be the superior running team. As I said, something of a surprise.

The Buckeyes put up 31 of their 52 points in the first half and 181 of their 281 total rushing yards. The running game was dominated by Miyan Williams, who carried the ball 11 times for 101 yards with two rushing touchdowns. He played a great half. And then we didn’t see him again. Maybe he was dinged up; I don’t know. Maybe he had gotten his 100 yards, and now it was someone else’s turn. But it was odd at the time.

There were other oddities. Henderson started for the Bucks on the first drive and carried the ball twice for a good 13 yards. When Emeka Egbuka took a long pass down to the Badger 2-yard line, however, Williams entered the game and scored the touchdown. Harder runner? More confidence in him on the goal line?

Henderson played the second and third Buckeye drives in the first half, yielding to Williams for the fourth and fifth. Henderson played during the final (except for a knee), sixth series in the half. A good alternating of the exceptional OSU talent at the position. But Williams played better, averaging 9.2 yards per carry to Henderson’s 6.5 (still a very good number, obviously).

Williams was done for the night, but Henderson gained another 43 yards on nine carries in the second half, good for an average of about 4.8 yards a carry. Henderson ended up with 121 rushing yards on 21 runs, an average of 5.8 for the game, his longest run 16 yards.

In the postgame press conference, Ryan Day and some players talked up Henderson’s infectious energy and team leadership. This excessive praise and the second-half carries appeared to me to be attempts to build up the star back, a back who so far this year has been outplayed by Miyan Williams.

Oh, I know that Henderson’s been hurt and has missed some series. And I’m not saying that Henderson, in only his second year, has been overrated. But both the hype and the expectations have been sky-high. Although I’d say that he’s largely met those expectations, it’s difficult for me to regard him as one of the country’s top running backs.

The 2022 season so far

For the year, Henderson and Williams actually have stats that are pretty comparable. Both have played in all four games, and Henderson has only seven more carries than Williams. Here are the numbers:

  • Henderson — 50 carries, 326 yards. A 6.4 yards per carry average, with a long run of 41 yards. Henderson is averaging 79.5 yards a game, and has tallied three rushing touchdowns. He has yet to catch a pass in 2022 – more on that later.
  • Williams — 308 yards on his 43 carries, an average of 7.2. His longest run was the 25-yarder against Wisconsin. He, too, has three rushing touchdowns, and he has grabbed three passes for another 23 yards.

As I said, the numbers are similar, though Williams’s are a little better – as they were during the 2021 season, when he averaged 7.2 yards a carry to Henderson’s 6.8. As a purely subjective observer, though, I just feel that the team goes better, that they have a better run/pass presence when Williams is at running back.

In these first four games, Henderson hasn’t looked as electrifying as he did at the onset of last year. Clearly, he’s a bit bigger. Has he lost a step of speed? There’s a lot of football to be played, and I certainly expect him to give us some breakaways. I’ve suggested before that Ohio State should get Henderson the ball in space. No passes in four games? Inexplicable. Off-tackle runs, rather than pitch-sweeps. Also inexplicable. Maybe Williams is doing better because the running plays are more suited to his skillset.

Alternating series isn’t going to allow either running back to be among national leaders in total rushing yards. Interestingly, three of the top five in that category are Big Ten backs:

No. 1: Chase Brown, Illinois — 604 yards
No. 2: Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota — 567 yards
No. 5: Braelon Allen, Wisconsin — 497 yards

In yards per carry, the list is again dominated by B1G runners. Penn State freshman Nick Singleton is No. 1 with an 8.95 yards/carry average. Blake Corum of TTUN is No. 5 at 7.47. Williams’s 7.16 is good enough for No. 8, and Henderson sits at 24th with 6.36. Brown, Ibrahim, and Allen are all workhorses and get tons of carries. Corum and Singleton, on the other hand, are thoroughbreds, capable of scoring from anywhere.

The Buckeye running game is as good as it is because of the one-two punch of Henderson and Williams. Neither is really a situation back; both can play on any down. Both can run for long gains. I do, however, regard Williams as the better short-yardage back. Alternating them for series keeps them fresh and doesn’t telegraph plays to opponents.

The rest of the season

In addition to Williams and Henderson, we’ve gotten looks at the two freshmen backs, Dallan Hayden and T.C. Caffey. (Trivia question: which Buckeye running back has the longest run from scrimmage in 2022? Answer: Caffey, 49 yards. Who’s got the second longest run? Hayden, 45.) With Evan Pryor out for the season, we’ll see more of the freshmen, and, so far, they’ve impressed.

Wisconsin has a good defense (Or at least that’s what we were told). The Buckeye running game shredded it. The Bucks need to stay with the run, mixing nicely with the explosive passing game, rather than merely running on expected downs and situations.

I’d like to see more of an outside running game to take advantage of speed. I believe that the guards can pull this year and get in front of outside plays. Wide receivers can carry the ball. But Egbuka is the only one with a rushing attempt. He’s run the ball twice – for 30 yards and a TD. Give him the ball! And, as previously stated, Henderson should get touches in space, pitches and passes in the flat.

Granted, the Ohio State offense is loaded with talent, loaded with stars. It’s no doubt a delicate matter for Tony Alford and Ryan Day to keep all of the running backs happy. Especially when the forward pass is your favorite weapon. All I’m suggesting here is that the Buckeyes never forget Miyan Williams and the physical game that he brings. His consistency makes down management simpler and allows OSU to control the clock, as they did (again, surprisingly) against the Badgers.

For me, he’s the No. 1 running back so far this season.