Three and Out: Ezekiel Elliott drives Ohio State to first playoff title
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The first season of the College Football Playoff era is in the books, and Ohio State reigns supreme. The Buckeyes beat Oregon 42-20 on Monday night to capture the program’s first national title since 2002.
This Ohio State group was left for dead following a 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6 but rattled off 13 consecutive wins, all behind its second- and third-string quarterbacks.
Here are three thoughts on the Buckeyes’ triumph.
1. Ohio State’s run to the title was one for the ages
Few things would have seemed more unlikely in early September than a Buckeyes national championship. Heisman Trophy hopeful Braxton Miller had been lost for the season with a shoulder injury. The Buckeyes fell to Virginia Tech at home to seemingly drop out of playoff contention. Ohio State was young and unproven and didn’t even appear to be the premier team in its own conference. That distinction belonged to Michigan State, which upended the Buckeyes in the 2013 Big Ten title game.
But then Ohio State grew up. It hung 50 points in victories over Cincinnati, Maryland and Rutgers. It skated by Penn State and rolled past Michigan State. As the season neared its conclusion, the Buckeyes elevated things to an entirely new level: wins over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon in succession, all games in which they were listed as the underdogs.
Of course, there’s the quarterback storyline. Miller went down, and then J.T. Barrett went down against Michigan, and then 6-foot-5, 250-pound Cardale Jones stepped in and led the program to glory. He was certainly impressive Monday, going 16 of 23 for 242 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He also rushed 21 times for 38 yards with a score. Jones was at his best on third-and-long situations, including a 45-yard completion to Devin Smith in the second quarter.
Tailback Ezekiel Elliott was brilliant, and the Buckeyes’ defensive line lived up to the hype. Formerly lesser-known players from linebacker Darron Lee to all-purpose dynamo Jalin Marshall to offensive guard Pat Elfein also played important roles.
Perhaps it’s only fitting: In the most unusual of statistics, Ohio State lost the turnover battle four to one (with Oregon’s lone turnover coming on the game’s meaningless final play) and still won by 22 points. These Buckeyes may not have been the most heralded, but they were the most resilient, and now they are champions.
2. Ezekiel Elliott was simply unstoppable
Elliott was relatively quiet early in the season, combining for 141 yards over the Buckeyes’ first three games. But, boy, did he ever turn it on when it mattered most: The running back raced for 220 yards with two touchdowns against Wisconsin, 230 yards with two touchdowns against Alabama and 246 yards with four scores against Oregon. After Barrett went down with a fractured ankle, Elliott morphed into a virtual superhero.
He generated most of his yardage behind a steady diet of counters and inside zones but found ways to succeed even when facing congestion at the level of Times Square on New Year’s Eve. That was never more evident than on Ohio State’s 12-play drive to close out the third quarter. Elliott carried six times, picked up three first downs and rumbled into the end zone from nine yards out. The sophomore from St. Louis will enter the 2015 season with plenty of Heisman hype, and deservedly so.
3. Oregon is left to wonder if it missed its window
The Ducks’ recent ascent in the college football universe has been nothing short of remarkable. Over the past decade, Oregon has transformed from a middle-of-the-Pac-10 program into a regular threat to win the national title. But this season felt like its best chance to claim the sport’s biggest prize. It couldn’t capitalize.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Heisman winner and the undisputed greatest player in program history, is expected to declare for the 2015 NFL draft. Senior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu will graduate (he missed the title game after injuring his knee before Christmas), as will center Hroniss Grasu and linebacker Tony Washington. For Oregon, all the pieces were in place this year. But it still didn’t happen.
Make no mistake, the Ducks should remain a West Coast power in the years to come. Given their branding, tempo and up-and-coming head coach (Mark Helfrich), they should continue to make their mark on the national landscape. But if there was ever a moment that seemed ripe for Oregon’s transcendence, it was this one. Only it was the Buckeyes rejoicing with the trophy Monday night.