Elliott ties Fiesta Bowl rushing TD mark in final game for Buckeyes

Jan 1, 2016, 4:22 PM
Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) breaks free from Notre Dame cornerback Matthias Farley...

Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) breaks free from Notre Dame cornerback Matthias Farley during the second half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game, Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Ezekiel Elliott is a compelling interview in a sports world filled with clichéd or programmed sound bites.

That explains reporters’ fascination with the Ohio State running back, but it doesn’t explain how a player who rips his coaching staff’s play calling after a season-altering loss to Michigan State remains in good standing and faces no discipline.

The explanation for that is far less esoteric. First off, Elliott was 100 percent correct in his assessment, and that was apparent when Ohio State altered its play calling dramatically the following week before a 42-13 win over then-No. 10 Michigan in which Elliott carried the ball 30 times for 214 yards and two TDs.

The other half of the equation? Elliott is good — really good. Coach Urban Meyer wasn’t about to discipline his star running back before a rivalry game.

While running backs have been devalued in recent years at the NFL Draft, some 2016 projections have Elliot going in the top five. His talents were on display in No. 7 Ohio State’s 44-28 win over No. 8 Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl on Friday at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Elliott rushed 27 times for 149 yards and four touchdowns as coach Urban Meyer improved to 10-2 in bowl games and the Buckeyes staked their claim as the best team not in the College Football Playoff. Elliott’s four rushing touchdowns tied a Fiesta Bowl record set by Arizona State’s Woody Green in 1972 vs. Missouri.

“I’m glad I could leave this great university on that type of note,” Elliott said. “The O-line, what can I say about those guys? I had a run where no one touched me. It’s easy when guys block it so perfectly like that.”

Elliott’s biggest run was a back-breaking, 47-yard TD run midway through the third quarter after Notre Dame had pulled within 28-21.

“He’s such a fantastic player once he hits the second level,” Meyer said.

Elliott, a junior, was in the Heisman Trophy conversation until Ohio State lost to Michigan State, 17-14, on Nov. 21 in Columbus and Elliott managed just 33 yards on 12 carries. It was his the only game this season in which he failed to top the 100-yard barrier, and just the second in his last 18 games. Elliott wasn’t happy about it.

“I’m disappointed in the play calling. I’m disappointed in the situations that we were put in, and I wish it all played out differently,” Elliott told reporters after the game. “In the one drive that we had where we kind of had some momentum after we scored on the strip-sack, the plays we ran, we ran a lot of gap schemes and we were gashing them. You guys saw that on that drive. We had a lot of momentum.

“Honestly, we didn’t see those plays for the rest of the game. Those plays weren’t called anymore. I asked for those plays to be called, and they weren’t. It just hurts. It hurts a lot because of how we lost. I feel like we just weren’t put in the right opportunity to win this game. We weren’t put in the right situations to win this game.”

Elliott later issued an apology, but that apology was clearly half-hearted.

“My intentions were not to point fingers at anyone for OUR failures,” he said, despite the obvious finger pointing in his earlier quotes. “I was caught up in emotions. I hope everyone can understand how strongly I love this team and this university and how much I wanted to win that game but I do not regret anything I said.”

The rant had its effect. Ohio State did a better job spreading out the defense against Michigan, and the Buckeyes were a more balanced attack against the Irish.

“Today, we didn’t have eight, nine guys in the box all day and I’m not taking as many hits,” Elliott said. “When we’re passing the ball well I’m a very happy guy.”

Entering the Fiesta Bowl, Elliott led the FBS in rushing yards (3,550) over the past two seasons. He became the first Ohio State running back to top 1,000 yards in back-to-back since Beanie Wells did it in 2007 and 2008.

Elliott has already announced that he will not be returning for his senior season. The Buckeyes rarely lack for top-end talent at the position, and Curtis Samuel is expected to step right in next season without Ohio State missing a beat, but Meyer admitted Elliott will be tough to replace.

“With all due respect to all the other great running backs in Ohio State history, if I had my first-round draft pick I’d pick Zeke Elliott,” Meyer said. “What he does without the ball, his worth ethic in practice, his attitude every day, just the way he shows up and bounces around with us — I love him.

“He’s as great a running back as I’ve ever been around.”

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