For Ohio State, the process for replacing departed running back Carlos Hyde last offseason wasn’t complicated. It required patience. It required giving responsibility to several untested young players. Perhaps most of all, it required a big season out of sophomore Ezekiel Elliot, who showed flashes as a true freshman in 2013.
“All the ingredients were there,” said Ed Warinner, the Buckeyes offensive line coach and run-game coordinator. “We just had to wait and see what happened.”
The wait was worth it. Elliott became the program’s leading rusher this fall by running for 1,402 yards with 12 touchdowns, including posting seven 100-yard games. He should be a major piece of the No. 4 Buckeyes’ game plan heading into their Sugar Bowl semifinal matchup with No. 1 Alabama on New Year’s Day. A win would move Ohio State one step closer to its first national title since 2002. It could also add a telling chapter to Elliott’s legacy as the next great Big Ten running back.
Known as “Zeke” to coaches and teammates, Elliott played a small role in an Ohio State offense that ran all over its competition in 2013. The Buckeyes led the nation with an average of 6.8 yards per carry and were one of five teams to average at least 300 rushing yards per game. The departure of Hyde, a senior, was expected, but it created a glaring hole to fill. Hyde played in 40 games during his career and left Columbus with the sixth-most rushing yards (3,198) in program history.
The question mark in Ohio State’s backfield became even more apparent when quarterback Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in fall camp. Hyde and Miller combined to average more than 215 rushing yards per game last year. Suddenly, coach Urban Meyer’s offense had to find fill-ins for both, along with breaking in four new starters on the offensive line.
By September it didn’t matter whether Elliott was ready for the spotlight. He had to be. Redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett grabbed many of the headlines as Miller’s understudy, but Elliott’s role in the offense would prove just as vital.
“He was very talented and explosive, but he was obviously young and, playing wise, inexperienced,” Warinner said. “We had to see how he would handle those situations -- the week-to-week grind and the physical stress that puts on you.”
Elliott struggled out of the gate, carrying just 27 times for 141 total yards with two touchdowns during the Buckeyes’ first three games. That included a 32-yard outing in a 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6, a result that seemed to eliminate Ohio State from championship contention at the time. Meyer’s new-look offense wasn’t clicking, and it wasn’t just Elliott's experience growing pains; Barrett threw three interceptions against the Hokies.
Then, on Sept. 27 against Cincinnati, Elliott showcased his potential. He rushed 28 times for 182 yards in a 50-28 rout, a coming-out performance that left quite an impression on Meyer. It was the kind of production the coach expected from a player with college football in his bloodline; Elliott’s father, Stacy, was a defensive back for Missouri in the 1990s. “We have a lot of confidence in Ezekiel Elliott,” Meyer told reporters after the game. “I think before he leaves here, he could be one of the great backs of Ohio State.”
In 2012 Elliott had shined as a prep star at John Burroughs (Mo.) High, where he amassed more than 3,000 all-purpose yards and 50 touchdowns as a senior. Two years later, he has transformed into a Big Ten workhorse. He scored eight of his 12 touchdowns and notched five 100-yard games during the season’s final seven contests. At Michigan State on Nov. 8, he rushed for 154 yards with two scores to help Ohio State take control of the conference race. Coaches thought they had a stud in Elliott as a freshman, but he blossomed into a star as a sophomore.
“When J.T. Barrett started to establish himself as a threat running, and those four new offensive linemen started to get game reps, the combination of those two things opened up opportunities for Ezekiel Elliott to have the year that he’s had,” said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who played quarterback at Ohio State from 1989-93. “By the end of the year, he started to be somewhat reminiscent to what we saw a year ago from Carlos Hyde.”
Now, Elliott is hoping to do something Hyde couldn’t: Help Ohio State win a national title. Earlier this month Elliott spurred the team to a 59-0 demolition of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 6. He outshined Badgers tailback Melvin Gordon, the eventual Heisman Trophy runner-up, by finishing with a league title-game record 220 rushing yards. That broke the mark set by Gordon two years ago.
In many ways, Elliott is becoming a fan favorite among the Buckeyes faithful. He spurned the option of signing with Missouri to build his own legacy in Columbus. He wears his jersey rolled up, exposing his stomach, which is similar to former program great Eddie George. (Elliott says he simply doesn’t like the length.) The numbers are adding up, too. Elliott’s 1,402 rushing yards this season rank 11th on the school’s all-time list.
“It means a lot,” Elliott told reporters last week. “All the great running backs that have come through here -- the running back pedigree is ridiculous. It’s kind of crazy to think about it, but I’ve got to thank my O-line. They’ve paved the way.”
Nothing would earn Elliott more recognition than to spark an upset of Alabama. The Crimson Tide boast one of the country’s most ferocious front sevens and allow just 2.81 yards per carry. Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones -- the third-stringer who was thrust into the lineup after Barrett fractured his ankle against Michigan on Nov. 29 -- will make his second career start. That means Elliott’s number could be called often for a program hoping to reverse the Big Ten’s recent postseason futility. Since Ohio State lost to Florida 41-14 in the BCS title game after the 2006 campaign, the conference is 19-35 in bowl games.
But Elliott doesn’t seem afraid of Alabama, or of the burden on his shoulders. In fact, he sounds eager to embrace the next step in his breakout campaign.
“January 1st can’t come soon enough,” Elliott tweeted on Dec. 1.
Ohio State's Road to the National Championship
Ohio State 34, Navy 17 (Aug. 30)
The J.T. Barrett era began with neither a bang nor a whimper, but instead a calm, conservative victory. The redshirt freshman completed 12-of-15 passes for 226 yards with two touchdowns and a blunder of an interception.
Virginia Tech 35, Ohio State 21 (Sept. 6)
Disaster struck early for the Buckeyes as Virginia Tech -- which went on to barely get to bowl eligibility -- took down Ohio State in Columbus, breaking through a porous Buckeyes offensive line for seven sack while limiting Barrett to 9-of-29 passing with three interceptions.
Ohio State 66, Kent State 0 (Sept. 13)
Ohio State took out its frustration from the loss to the Hokies on a hapless Kent State squad, as Barrett tied a school record with six touchdown passes -- five in the first half.
Ohio State 50, Cincinnati 28 (Sept. 27)
Cincinnati quarterback Gunner Kiel kept the Bearcats in it with 352 yards passing and four touchdowns, but the Buckeyes exploded for 710 yards of offense behind Barrett and running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Ohio State 52, Maryland 24 (Oct. 4)
The Buckeyes gave Maryland a cold welcome to the Big Ten in the Terrapins' first home conference game. Barrett continued to show his rapid improvement, passing for 267 yards with five total touchdowns, and Ohio State's defense forced four interceptions.
Ohio State 56, Rutgers 17 (Oct. 18)
The Buckeyes scored 50 or more points for the fourth consecutive game, setting a school record as they trounced the Scarlet Knights. Barrett racked up five total touchdowns with 261 yards passing and 107 yards on the ground.
Ohio State 31, Penn State 24 2OT (Oct. 25)
With Barrett struggling through a sprained MCL, the Buckeyes blew a 17-0 lead but escaped Happy Valley with a double-overtime victory. Joey Bosa picked up 2 1/2 sacks, the last one ending the game by forcing a turnover-on-downs.
Ohio State 55, Illinois 14 (Nov. 1)
After the scare against the Nittany Lions, the Buckeyes took no chances against the Fighting Illini, building a 48-0 advantage en route to the lopsided win.
Ohio State 49, Michigan State 37 (Nov. 8)
In a College Football Playoff elimination game, Ohio State proved its superiority with a dominant victory in East Lansing. Barrett passed for 300 yards, rushed 86 and scored five touchdowns while Elliott tallied 154 yards on the ground with two scores. The Buckeyes never trailed in the second half.
Ohio State 31, Minnesota 24 (Nov. 15)
The Buckeyes picked up their second road victory over a ranked team in as many weeks, surviving heavy snow and a 145-yard, three touchdown effort from Golden Gophers running back David Cobb. Despite Barrett setting the Ohio State record for total touchdowns in a season, the Buckeyes needed a late onside kick recovery to seal the win.
Ohio State 42, Indiana 27 (Nov. 22)
Tevin Coleman (228 yards rushing and three touchdowns) and the Hoosiers gave the Buckeyes all they could handle and might have pulled the stunning upset if not for Jalin Marshall. Ohio State's redshirt freshman score four straight second-half touchdowns, including a 54-yard punt return late in the third quarter that gave the Buckeyes the lead for good.
Ohio State 42, Michigan 28 (Nov. 29)
The joy of a closer-than-expected win over their biggest rival was muted by the Buckeyes' sorrow over J.T. Barrett's injury, a fractured ankle that ended his season. After the quarterback went down on the first play of the fourth quarter, Ohio State scored twice to pull away for the victory.
Ohio State 59, Wisconsin 0 (Dec. 6)
No Braxton Miller and no J.T. Barrett? No problem for the Buckeyes. Third-stringer Cardale Jones engineered an annihilation of the Badgers as Ohio State dominate every facet of the game and leapfrogged TCU while holding off Baylor to earn the No. 4 seed in the playoff.
Ohio State 42, Alabama 35 (Jan. 1)
Jones delivered again for the Buckeyes, picking up 286 yards of offense as the Ohio State stunned Alabama to win Sugar Bowl and advance to the national title game. Elliott's fourth-quarter, 85-yard touchdown run and Tyvis Powell's interception on Blake Sims' Hail Mary helped seal the upset.