Following a 30-0 victory against Illinois in the Big Ten opener for both teams, running backs Dan Herron and Brandon Saine were both named the team's co-offensive players of the week. At his weekly press luncheon, OSU head coach Jim Tressel said the coaches simply could not pick between the two backs.
"They did a good job of carrying the ball and making sure that they handed it to the official," Tressel said. "We thought that they played with good vision and good toughness and on a day where you most certainly were going to need to run, they provided that for us."
Now four games into the season, it appears that the duo of Herron and Saine will continue to split carries for the foreseeable future provided Herron returns to health. Herron has earned double the number of carries Saine has enjoyed to this point and has out-gained him by a 233-181 count. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor leads all rushers with 39 carries for 235 yards – an average of 6.0 yards per carry.
Herron entered the season as the starter while Saine came in primarily hoping to stay healthy and contribute after two injury-plagued seasons. After starting two games in place of Chris Wells last year and finishing third on the team in rushing yards, Herron has struggled to get untracked this year and is averaging only 3.6 yards per carry.
Saine, on the other hand, is averaging 5.7 yards per pop. The Illinois game proved to be a productive one for both backs, however.
Herron's 14 carries for 75 yards equaled out to an average of 5.4 yards per carry, while Saine had 13 carries for 81 yards – an average of 6.2 yards per rush. Both were season-high averages. It adds up to not having one primary bell cow to carry the ball, a fact the head coach said he is comfortable with.
"By committee doesn't bother you because we've all been in circumstances where you didn't have enough tailbacks and you had a lot of injuries or whatever the case," Tressel said. "The more the merrier."
Following the coach's luncheon, Saine said he is fine with continuing to rotate.
"It's not awkward at all," he said. "We're good friends. We don't think of it as competing in that sense. We think that we're making each other better."
The decision about who will go into the game is made by running backs coach Dick Tressel on a series-by-series basis and then relayed down to the players on the field. Now in his junior season, Saine said the players do not plead their cases to the coach for more playing time no matter how good they might be feeling on the field.
"I usually leave that decision up to the coach," he said. "He's up there seeing everything that's going on. I never have lobbied. We don't really lobby for carries."
The question is if not having a primary running back will hurt the offense in the long run. The Buckeyes have had just one 100-yard rusher this season, and that was Pryor (110 yards) against Toledo.
Including a bowl game, the Buckeyes are on pace to rush for 2,353 yards this season – a drop-off of about 150 yards from last season. The closest they would have to a 1,000-yard rusher is Pryor, who is on pace to rush for 763.8 yards this season. That would place him second-worst among leading rushers during Tressel's tenure in Columbus.
Asked prior to the Illinois game if he would be confident in his team's chances for success with Pryor as the team's top ground gainer, Tressel asked how many yards the reporter was talking about.
When the response was less than 1,000, Tressel said, "And he's our leading rusher? I need a little more than that. I need more total yards."
Those yards will have to primarily come from Herron and Saine. Freshman Jordan Hall has emerged as the No. 3 tailback and classmate Jaamal Berry could join the rotation as soon as next week, but the Buckeyes will need continued solid production from their tailbacks as the season progresses in order to have a shot at a fifth consecutive Big Ten title.
Saine said the constant rotation between himself and Saine does not hamper his ability to get into a groove on the field.
"I don't think there's a magic number (of carries)," he said.
The bottom line is that, for the Buckeyes to be successful this year, they will need Saine and Herron to be successful in their rotating roles.
"They would be the two guys that would get the most," Tressel said. "Who would get more a lot of times depends on how they drive and keeping momentum and not wearing a guy out and so forth. We felt going into the spring that those guys were going to be good ones and felt the same way in preseason and after four games, I think they can be pretty good."