Ezekiel Elliott grew up in St. Louis as a Missouri fan. His dad, Stacy, played linebacker there in the early 1990s. His mother, Dawn, ran track for the Tigers.
“I went to the spring game every year, I went to regular-season games,” Elliott said. “Mizzou was the team I followed my whole life. It was my dream school.”
But Missouri didn’t offer Elliott a scholarship, at least not until after Ohio State, and he has never looked back.
Even with Alabama defenders chasing him on his 85-yard touchdown run that clinched the Sugar Bowl victory and sent the Buckeyes into Monday’s College Football Playoff championship game.
“I didn’t have to look back,”said Elliott, a sophomore running back. “I could see them on the video board.”
Elliott was the game’s offensive MVP after rushing for 230 yards and pushing his season totals to 1,632 yards and 14 touchdowns.
A few weeks earlier, he went for 220 against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, becoming the first Ohio State running with successive 200-yard rush games. And this is the school that produced two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin.
The big games coincide with the emergence of Cardale Jones as Ohio State’s starting quarterback. And in large part because of the Ohio State running game, Jones’ transition as a starter has been seamless.
The Buckeyes insist that nothing about the offense has changed with Jones, who stepped in for the injured J.T. Barrett. But Elliott has found another gear, and is the program’s next great power running back.
“He’s tough,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “Maybe a little tougher than I thought he would be.”
Here’s how tough Elliott is: He’s played the season essentially one-handed. He underwent surgery on a broken left wrist in early August and said he hasn’t carried the ball in his left hand all season.
Elliott, who plays with a brace on the wrist, said Saturday that he’ll have more surgery after the season.
“It’s difficult, just breaking tackles mostly,” Elliott said. “I can stiff-arm, but not powerful, I have to jab with it.”
Whatever adjustments Elliott made, they’re working. And he wasn’t going to let the injury interfere with his season. He was tabbed to start, taking over for Carlos Hyde, who rushed for 1,521 yards last year and was a second-round draft pick of the 49ers after last season.
Making a name for himself in the Big Ten wasn’t easy. The league was loaded at running back with the likes of Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Indiana’s Tevin Coleman. But Elliott is the last one playing.
He was special against Alabama, leaping over a defender early in the game, sprinting away from them late. Now, he and the Buckeyes face an Oregon team in a game that figures to be another shootout.
“They have a high-powered offense,” Elliott said. “We have to grind out some long possessions and score every opportunity we can.”
That worked for Arizona, the only team that defeated the Ducks this season. The Wildcats ran the ball 55 times, gaining 208 yards, and it helped them maintain possession for 33 ½ minutes.
Wrist and all, pounding away is a style that agrees with Elliott.
“It’s a mentality you have to have, that you’re going to get those tough yards,” Elliott said.
He could have gotten them for Mizzou and been part of SEC division-winning teams. Elliott, who attended John Burroughs High, took an official visit to Columbia after committing to the Buckeyes.
“I had to be sure,” Elliott said. “Leaving my home state was a big step. It’s a life-changing decision, but I’m very happy with the way things have turned out.”