In a national title game where most of the pregame focus was on the starting quarterbacks, it was a determined running back who was the star.
Ohio State sophomore tailback Ezekiel Elliott continued his record-setting running with 246 yards and four touchdowns as the Buckeyes rolled to a 42-20 victory over Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff national championship on Monday.
It was the third consecutive game in which Elliott ran for more than 200 yards. After a record 220 in the Big Ten championship in December and a record 230 in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day, he set a mark for the national title contest (including the BCS title games) by making Oregon use multiple players to bring him down. And even that didn’t always work.
At a school that produced the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner — Archie Griffin — and many other star running backs like Keith Byars and Eddie George, only Elliott has rushed for 200+ yards in back-to-back-to-back games.
“We knew (coming into the game) that our O-line was bigger and more physical than their D-line, and we just had to punch them in the mouth,” he said, referring to his blockers. “The line came out and played their butts off. They paved the way for me.”
He told CNN’s Rachel Nichols all he had to do was to run through the holes his line opened and break a couple of tackles.
“I give all the credit to my boys,” he said. “I knew that we were going to be unstoppable.”
Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich gave Elliott credit but also pointed to the big guys who blocked for him.
“He is an exceptional player as is their offensive line,” Helfrich told reporters. “A lot of credit to (all) those guys.”
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, who became the second coach to win national titles at multiple schools, said Elliott is the most underrated running back in the country.
“He’s one of the best post-contact yard guys I have ever been around,” he said.
The quarterback duel between Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Cardale Jones, who only became Ohio State’s starter in their 13th game of the season due to an injury, was a bit of a stalemate.
Mariota had more passing yards (333) and two TD passes to one for Jones, but the Ohio State quarterback also helped steady his team, particularly in the first half, with some key runs. His receivers struggled to get open early but the young Buckeyes’ offensive line eventually overpowered their Ducks’ defensive counterparts as the game wore on and Oregon wore down.
That meant open holes for Elliott to exploit and time for Jones to throw. Ohio State (14-1) overcame four turnovers, including two mistakes that led to 10 points in the second half as Oregon (13-2) closed an 11-point halftime deficit to just one.
But Oregon couldn’t stop Elliott, who carried the ball 36 times.
Meyer said he would never have imagined after spring practice that his team would have been in the national title game.
“But I didn’t quite understand the improvement these guys could make,” he said, also thinking back to early in the season when Ohio State was embarrassed by a home loss to a Virginia Tech team that ended up in the Military Bowl.
Mariota, who would likely be a top pick in the NFL Draft should he choose to leave school early, said he was going to take a “couple of days” to make a decision on whether to stay.
“Obviously (losing) hurts, (and) I’m sure it’ll weigh in a little bit but there’s a lot of other things that have to play into that decision,” he said. “There’s a lot of other things that could bring me back and not just this loss.”