DALLAS — When Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott burst through Alabama’s defense and sprinted down the left side of the field in the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl for an 85-yard touchdown run that proved to put the game out of reach, he was holding the ball in his right hand — the side the defense would most likely come from.
In fact, every time Elliott rushes, he carries the ball in his right hand.
He broke his left hand in the first week of camp and had to learn how to adjust his running style, with his brace making him unable to hold the ball in that hand.
“It’s something I had to get used to as the season went on,” Elliott said. “When I first had surgery, just getting out there and practicing with it and only keeping it in that hand. It’s become second nature, it’s easy.”
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Following Chip Kelly’s departure, Mark Helfrich’s tenure as Oregon’s head coach was filled with expectations. But he rose to the occasion, leading the Ducks back to the title game. How? By embracing Oregon’s philosophy: “Next man up.”
Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer said that he has never seen a back limited in this way, but they came up with ways to work on his handle and minimizing the risk of a fumble. It proved successful, as the fumble against Alabama last week was the first time he lost one all season.
“A lot of times we work in practice at this,” Meyer said. “He’s great at this.”
This has been a breakout season for Elliott, a sophomore, highlighted by the past two games where J.T. Barrett’s injury forced third-string quarterback Cardale Jones to man Ohio State offense in a Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin and the Sugar Bowl against top-seeded Alabama in the first College Football Playoff.
Elliott was handed the ball 20 teams in each game. He ran for 220 yards in the 59-0 win against the Badgers, and tacked on 10 more for 230 as the Buckeyes ousted the Crimson Tide 42-35. He scored two touchdowns and had a long of 80-plus yards in each as he became the first Ohio State player in program history to record two consecutive 200-yard games.
Elliott, a 6-foot 225-pounder out of St. Louis, had a relatively quiet freshman season in 2013. He played mostly on special teams and totaled 30 attempts from the backfield. He showed promise, though — he took those 30 attempts for 262 yards, an average of 8.7 yards per carry. 162 of those yards came in one game, against Florida A&M.
Then Elliott broke his hand before this season. It wasn’t as problematic as it would have been if he broke his right hand, his primary ball-carrying hand, but he still had to learn how to rely on that side completely.
While 2014 was a year of running backs in the Big Ten, with the likes of Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Indiana’s Tevin Coleman putting up monster numbers, Elliott flew a bit under the radar. He had a slow start to the season, averaging 47 yards per game in the Buckeyes’ first three contests. That included a season-low 32 in the Buckeyes’ only loss to Virginia Tech, the only hiccup to date for Ohio State.
Elliott then made headlines against Cincinnati, running for a career-high 182 while adding 51 receiving yards. The next several weeks were a bit of a roller coaster for Elliott as Barrett got the Ohio State offense on a roll, with his carries varying from nine to 26. Then something seemed to click for Elliott in the Buckeyes’ 49-37 win against Michigan State on Nov. 8.
“I think the game that started it was the Michigan State game,” Elliott said. “I had a great game. I showed a lot of acceleration and made a lot of good reads.”
He ended that game with 154 yards on the ground, and has been a vital part of the offense since.
“I just think the increase of game experience, the increased reps,” Elliott said of the reason for his rise. “It gives me an opportunity to be able to anticipate a little better.”
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Elliott is the only player all season to run for 100 yards against Alabama, which had the country’s best-rated run defense. The two 200-plus-yard games have brought his season total to 1,632, vaulting him to fourth on the program’s all-time single-season rushing list. Elliott is 64 yards shy of passing third-place Archie Griffin, and needs 133 to surpass Keith Byars. Eddie George leads the list with 1,927 yards.
As the Buckeyes get ready to play Oregon on Monday in the first College Football Playoff championship game, Elliott will surely be a big part of their plans. Meyer loves not just the way he runs, but his attitude around all parts of the game.
“What adds to him is his selfless approach to the game,” Meyer said. “That’s a mom and a dad that taught their son the right stuff.”
And Elliott has made a name for himself as a guy who doesn’t mind doing the dirty work — expect him to throw some aggressive blocks in protecting Jones against the Ducks’ defense. He knows a lot of the offensive weight will be on him and the ball will end up in his right hand a lot, but he welcomes the challenge.
“It’s a little bit of pressure but I know the big guys in front of me, we call them ‘the slobs’, are going to pave the way for me,” Elliott said. “We’re at our best with a balanced attack when we can pass the ball and run the ball, so we like to establish the run and then be able to run play-action and take shots down the field.”
As for his left hand?
“My hand is all right.” Elliott said. “It’s getting there. It’s kind of reached a point where it won’t get any better. It may get a little worse, but it won’t get better.”
He’ll have another surgery on it after Monday’s game. Until then, Ohio State’s championship hopes could rest in Ezekiel Elliott’s right hand.