In the Sugar Bowl last week, Ohio State flogged Alabama’s defense under Nick Saban like no other team ever had.
And before Thursday night, no running back had rushed for 200 or more yards in a single game against the Crimson Tide, whose vaunted run defense struck fear into the hearts of opponents for the better part of the last five years.
Yet after the Buckeyes left the Superdome with a monumental 42-35 win, Alabama — winners of three of the five last national championships — looked mortal and that powerful run defense was gashed all game long.
Sophomore Ezekiel Elliott, who was awarded the game’s Offensive Most Valuable Player, ran for 230 yards and two touchdowns, including an 85-yard backbreaker late in the fourth quarter that put the contest out of reach.
“I think we were confident going in that we were going to be able to run the ball against them. We had a scheme set up and played a little bit more perimeter plays and it ended up being that we were able to run it inside and we were able to move them,” junior tackle Taylor Decker said.
“That’s what people were telling us all (week) leading up to the game: ‘You can't run the ball on them, you can't move them, they are too big and they are too good of run defenders' and that probably just kind of put a chip on everybody's shoulder.
“Why not? Why can't we do that? I think we kind of proved it; we can play at that level for sure.”
As such, it begs the question: What’s stopping Ohio State — which averages more than 260 yards a game on the ground — from doing the same thing to Oregon in the National Championship Game Monday night?
The Buckeyes, like a talented boxer, have a combination of punches they can throw. They jab at a defense middle over and over before exploding for a big run like a heavy right hook.
“I think that is kind of a back-breaker for defenses. You don't want to let teams run the ball on you and 99 percent of the time if you can run the ball consistently you are going to win that game,” Decker said.
“That’s a great feeling seeing an 85-yard run and 50-yard runs and all kinds of stuff against Wisconsin and Alabama. It’s the team, the wide receivers have to block, the tight ends block, we have to execute properly and we know that if we get Zeke to the second level there are not a lot of guys that are going to tackle him one-on-one. He is fast enough to outrun a lot of people.”
Oregon’s run defense, which is ranked 51st in the nation, giving up 156 yards a game, will have to contend between an offense that’s humming along with Elliott, only the second running back to ever run for at least 1,000 yards under head coach Urban Meyer, and a line in front of him that’s dramatically improved since the start of the season.
"I just think the line has really come on. They're definitely opening up some great holes for me to run through,” Elliott said. “I just have to do what the guys give me a chance to do once I get in an open space.”
As for Elliott, the main cog in all of this?
“I’m just going to have to go,” he said. “Run, Forrest, run.”
After all, it’s served Ohio State well so far during this postseason run.