GLENDALE, Ariz. — Ezekiel Elliott took the handoff from J.T. Barrett, busted through the hole and scampered toward the end zone. As Ohio State’s star running back crossed the goal line without being touched 47 yards later, he dropped the ball from his right hand. Elliott then turned his palms toward the roof at University of Phoenix Stadium and shrugged.
Elliott was paying homage to his teammate and close friend, All-American defensive end Joey Bosa, who was ejected in the first quarter of Friday’s Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame after a questionable targeting penalty call. But this particular moment, in front of 71,123 fans on a national stage, was also symbolic of the entire game.
The shrug made it seem like things came easy for Elliott. That was exactly the case.
Elliott ran for 149 yards and four touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ 44-28 rout of the Fighting Irish. And although Elliott is just a junior, he already made his intentions clear for next season: He is forgoing his final year of eligibility and entering the NFL Draft.
Friday afternoon was his final game in an Ohio State uniform. What a show it was.
“I think Zeke, all due respect to all the great running backs in Ohio State history, but my first-round draft pick, I’d take Zeke Elliott,” head coach Urban Meyer said following the game. “What he does without the ball, his work ethic in practice, just his attitude every day, the way he shows up.
“He’s as good a running back as I’ve ever been around.”
Elliott finishes his Ohio State career No. 2 all time in the program’s history in rushing yards with 3,961, trailing only Archie Griffin. His 41 career rushing touchdowns rank fourth all time. Meyer’s point seems like it has some merit.
He has been an instrumental part of the Buckeyes’ 26-2 record over the course of the last two seasons — including the 2014 national championship.
After his performance against the Fighting Irish, Elliott reflected on both the win and his storied career.
“I’m just honored to be a part of this history. None of this would mean nothing without the guys around me. They’re what made these years special and they’re who I thank the most,” he said. “Especially those O-linemen, the five guys from this year and Darryl Baldwin from last year, I’m nothing without those guys. They’re a great unit and I think they were one of the best offensive lines the past two years. Like I said, I really believe I’m nothing without them and they made a lot of runs easy for me.
“I’m going to miss those guys and I’m going to miss this university.”
With all of the long touchdown runs and the eye-popping statistics, though, Elliott’s most memorable moment of the 2015 season came after Ohio State’s stunning loss to Michigan State. The Buckeyes’ star running back blasted the team’s play calling — Elliott had just 12 carries in Ohio State’s 17-14 loss — and declared this year would be his final in Columbus all in the same post-game press conference.
Elliott took flack for it. Many thought it was a selfish act and was a detriment to the team. Would the Buckeyes go into a free fall after that loss to the Spartans?
It was the opposite, though. Elliott ran for 214 yards and two touchdowns the following week in Ohio State’s 42-13 rout of arch-rival Michigan. Then, after a month-long break, he was the best player on the field in the Fiesta Bowl.
Elliott’s teammates defended him in the days following his post-game rant. And when Taylor Decker was asked again about blocking for Elliott following the Fiesta Bowl, the Buckeyes’ All-American left tackle defended him yet again.
“I think it’s a shame that everybody threw [Elliott] under the bus after our loss. He was a little emotional, it’s OK to be emotional. You’re allowed to have opinions about things. That hurts me that people just said he wasn’t a good person and didn’t care about this team,” Decker said. “That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Every single game he’s out there, he’s feeling it even when the ball isn’t in his hands.”
“He’s one of my favorite people I’ve ever met and we’re going to be friends for the rest of our lives,” Decker continued. “I appreciate what he’s done for us and what he’s done for this university. How much he’s thanked us, how much he’s loved us as an offensive line. He’s an incredible player, makes a lot of plays, but he still loves us up and makes sure he appreciates us.”
The Buckeyes will miss Elliott next season. There’s a crop of talented young running backs on the roster — Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel seem like the potential replacements — but it seems farfetched to expect either to step in and accomplish what Elliott did.
Then again, nobody really expected Elliott to be this good and have this type of impact when he replaced Carlos Hyde following the 2013 season.
“That’s my guy,” Barrett said of Elliott. “He does a lot for our program, helps me out a lot getting the running game going and being able to play-action pass. He’s going to be missed, but that’s part of the game. Like I said, I think I was talking to Big Ten Network, you put yourself in a position at Ohio State to come here and put yourself in a position to go play at the next level, that’s why you come to Ohio State. That’s all Zeke did.”
Ohio State fans will remember all of the touchdown runs. They’ll remember the 85-yard touchdown run to seal the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. They’ll remember Elliott flattening defenders in pass protection. They’ll remember that rant after the Michigan State game. They’ll remember the crop top.
But as Elliott was in the locker room following his final game in an Ohio State uniform, he was asked how he thinks he will be remembered. The Buckeyes’ star thought to himself momentarily, then responded.
“All I can say is I’m honored to be a part of this history. I’m honored to continue the running back pedigree at Ohio State. I’m honored to be thought of as one of the best running backs to come through here,” Elliott said. “When you look, you think about the great running backs that came through here — Archie Griffin, Eddie George, Beanie Wells — just to be mentioned with those names is a dream come true and I’m honored.”