ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Ezekiel Elliott, judged by people who didn’t know him as selfish and a prima donna, apologized again on Saturday even though none of his coaches or teammates thought he needed to apologize for anything. The Ohio State junior tailback popped off last week after the Buckeyes’ loss to Michigan State, and the content of his comments made it easy to understand why someone who didn’t know Elliott might have thought he was a me-first player. After all, he had suggested the Buckeyes lost because they hadn’t given him enough carries.
But Elliott didn’t say what he did because he wanted to carry the ball and rack up stats. Elliott said it—and anyone who has actually watched Ohio State this season can confirm this—because he knew the Buckeyes would have stood a much better chance of beating the Spartans had he carried the ball more. So, on Saturday at Michigan, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and co-coordinators Ed Warinner and Tim Beck gave Elliott the ball more. He carried it 30 times, and he gained 214 yards and scored two touchdowns. In the process, Ohio State steamrolled rival Michigan 42–13 to finish the regular season 11–1. Afterward, Meyer said Elliott deserves to go to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Told of Meyer’s comments, Elliott said something that should dispel any notion that he was thinking of anything other than team success when he unleashed his frustration after the Michigan State game. “It would mean a lot to me and to my family,” Elliott said of the Heisman. “But I just want to have a chance to repeat, to be honest with you. I just pray for the opportunity to go out there and repeat what we did last year. I don’t think there’s any accolade, any award, that can rival holding up that golden College Football Playoff trophy at the end of the year. I’ve just got to pray to God that we get an opportunity to go out there and play in the Big Ten championship and get a chance to play for it all again.”
Elliott knew that Ohio State’s best chance for an opportunity to repeat lay in the hands of Penn State, which had to beat Michigan State on Saturday to give Ohio State the Big Ten East Division title. When Elliott spoke those words, Penn State was trailing by six points in the first quarter and driving. But as Ohio State’s buses rolled south toward Columbus, the Spartans had crushed their dreams again by crushing Penn State. By the fourth quarter of the 55–16 rout, Michigan State was calling a play for center Jack Allen to take a handoff and score a touchdown.
The Buckeyes bounced back Saturday from a potentially crippling defeat. With one operational move, they may have figured out how to unlock their vast offensive potential. And barring complete chaos next week, none of that may matter. Without a miracle, Ohio State’s title defense will die before the playoff begins.
Ohio State played only three Power Five teams that finished this fall with winning records. The Buckeyes went 2–1 in those games. That likely will doom them with the playoff selection committee unless multiple teams ranked ahead of them lose.
That has to be the most frustrating part for the Buckeyes. They weren’t tested enough to realize what they needed to fix until Nov. 21, when they faced a team good enough to expose their flaws and beat them. Had Meyer realized earlier in the season that Warinner needed to move from the sideline to the press box, the Buckeyes might be preparing for a trip to Indianapolis to play Iowa.
Whether Elliott’s comments or the horrible game video the Buckeyes provided the impetus for change Saturday doesn’t really matter. The move, which allowed the Buckeyes to call more appropriate plays faster, unleashed an offense that looked like the one that rolled through the playoff last season. Ohio State ran 54 times and averaged 6.8 yards per run against a defense that had allowed 3.1 yards per carry this season. Why? Because it gave the ball to Elliott, who can take a hole opened by the group the Buckeyes call the Slobs and tack on additional yards by breaking tackles. Because it ran with sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett (139 rushing yards, three rushing scores), whose read-option fakes to Elliott froze Michigan's defenders and allowed Barrett to scamper away. Because with Warinner up in the box, it got the next play in quickly and moved fast enough to force Michigan to play its base defense instead of allowing the Wolverines to get exotic.
Warinner, who coaches the offensive line, had remained on the sideline because offensive line coaching is usually a face-to-face deal. It’s much easier to explain adjustments in person instead of over a headset. But Ohio State has a veteran line. When Warinner tests his players on their assignments every Friday, senior center Jacoby Boren usually answers correctly for all five positions. “You can only do that with a veteran offensive line,” Meyer said. “If you do that with a young offensive line, it's a mess.”
The Slobs had no problems without their coach on the sideline. In fact, they had been begging to speed things up, and this was a means to that end. “We did what the offensive line has been asking for,” senior left tackle Taylor Decker said. “We did a lot of tempo and a lot of tight zone and gap scheme plays. It just wears the defense out. It wasn’t very complicated. It was simple. But it was high execution.”
The offense moved so much faster because Warinner and Beck could choose the plays and get them signaled in much faster. “It reduces operation time. It reduces processing time,” Warinner said of moving to the press box. “When you’re down on the field, you have to see where the ball is spotted. What hash? Is that second-and-six, or is that second-and-two?” The speed worked. Michigan’s defense had to stay vanilla, and the Wolverines wore down. “There was a couple of times there where I was gassed,” Michigan senior defensive end Chris Wormley said.
So, why didn’t Ohio State use this strategy all season? The Buckeyes didn’t realize they absolutely needed it until Michigan State beat them. Unfortunately for them, that realization may have come too late. “You live and you learn,” Barrett said.
Still, Ohio State players and coaches can smile about hammering Michigan in Jim Harbaugh’s first edition of The Game as the Wolverines coach. As the clock wound down, Decker gave Meyer a water-bucket bath. Following the final whistle, Meyer’s wife Shelley boogied with Brutus Buckeye as The Best Damn Band in the Land played. Later, Shelley’s husband proved she isn’t the only Meyer with moves.
Shortly before the Buckeyes gathered to sing “Carmen Ohio,” Decker jogged to hug Warinner, who was crossing the field to meet the team after coming down from the press box. Elliott joined Decker, and the trio ambled over to celebrate the win.
“The biggest thing this meant to me was being able to bounce back and show what our program is about,” Decker said. “If we couldn’t bounce back and win a football game after a tough loss, we’re phony. Everything we talk about—everything we preach, our culture—is phony. So, I think we kind of showed what we’re made of.”
They absolutely did. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, they probably needed to show it a week earlier if they wanted to defend their national title.