My Favorite Things: Episode One, Rearview Mirror

By Ramzy Nasrallah on March 25, 2020 at 1:05 pm
My Favorite Things, Episode One: Rearview Mirror
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Welcome to My Favorite Things.

We're isolated from each other, trying to survive a global pandemic. Each day brings more uncertainty and terrifying news, as we take shelter from an invisible global scourge. A single cough can send your mind to a dark place. Life is paused. Sports are on hold. This sucks.

My Favorite Things is an escape from all of that. The philosophy is simple:

When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad

So let's do that. Today we revisit the 2015 Allstate Sugar Bowl with 3:38 remaining in the game.


EPISODE ONE: REARVIEW MIRROR

As he raced 85 yards through the heart of the South, Ezekiel Elliott separated himself from a lot more than just Alabama's secondary.

It took 12 seconds for Ohio State to free itself from what had been the epitaph of its 2014 season. For 116 days right up until the ball was snapped on this 1st down play, Ohio State players, coaches and fans had heard about Virginia Tech. Constantly.

Sure, this moment put the decisive points on the scoreboard which ended Alabama's season. But it did so much more than that. Each win during 2014 was accompanied by a helpful reminder that the Buckeyes had lost - at home - to the Hokies back on Sept 6. The Alabama game would be the first victory since the opener that was not accompanied by that reminder.

Elliott spent most of Sept 6 on the sideline, having fractured his wrist on a Friday in August during preseason practice. His injury was largely forgotten, because the following Monday evening Braxton Miller played his final snap as a quarterback. Ohio State's coaches eased Elliott into action as a result of his injury, surgery and recovery, allowing him just 27 carries over the first quarter of the regular season.

He had been outrushed by two Buckeyes playing in their first college games - J.T. Barrett and Curtis Samuel - against Navy in Baltimore, and the following Saturday he finished with just 32 yards on eight carries in the loss that - until this moment - defined their season.

Despite playing in the first-ever College Football Playoff, the Buckeyes had failed to separate themselves from that evening with Virginia Tech. Ohio State fans were still missing Carlos Hyde when Elliott finally had his first 100-yard game as a starter against Cincinnati as September closed. The 2014 season had all the markings of a rebuilding year.

Elliott's GAUDY output against the Badgers had been filed AWAY alongside his fractured wrist from August in a cabinet nobody was planning on ever opening again.

Eventually, his wrist healed, that cast came off and the carries increased. He got more touches against the Bearcats than he had in the Navy, Virginia Tech and Kent State games combined. This was Zeke at full strength. It was...just fine.

By the time Cardale Jones was thrust into the starting role, Elliott had upgraded himself into being reliable. A reliable ball carrier who reliably picked up pass rushers and reliably caught passes out of the backfield. There was little gaudy about his production; 109 yards at Penn State, 154 in East Lansing, 107 in the division clincher against the Hoosiers and 121 against Michigan. Just fine.

A couple of special runs at Sparty and another against Michigan had stretched out his stat lines, which was all Ohio State needed. Barrett had been a distributor. Elliott was simply reliable. Every now and then, he might break one open.

Zeke had 145 yards rushing with 3:38 remaining in the Sugar Bowl. That was a cut above being reliable, but the Buckeyes had just chosen Jones' legs to secure the necessary yardage on a critical 3rd and short that kept both possession and the clock moving. Ohio State clung to a seven-point lead and had spent the majority of the 2nd half with its backs against its own goal line.

The previous four drives ended with punts from their own 29, 17, endzone and endzone. Alabama's subsequent short-field drives ended with punt, punt, interception and punt, making the heroes of the moment the Silver Bullets. We were suffering through a classic Hang On, Sloopy scenario. This didn't seem sustainable - not against Alabama.

At this moment, the yardage Elliott had racked up against Wisconsin in Indianapolis was a forgotten metric from a 59-point avalanche. Ohio State had owned every aspect of the evening, so Zeke's rushing performance became just another outlier from an evening of outliers. Outrushing Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon was more novelty than measuring stick.

Gordon was a Heisman finalist. Zeke - with 220 rushing yards, who wasn't even the MVP of that game - was just another name on the B1G's 2014 honorable mention list. That evening was not indicative of who either player was. Until this 1st down handoff in the Louisiana Superdome, Elliott's output against the Badgers had been filed alongside his fractured wrist from August in a cabinet nobody was planning on ever opening again.

The Buckeyes had just gotten their first 1st down of the quarter, and their reward was getting 40 seconds to erase at their leisure. Jones only used 25 of them though, calling for the snap with 15 remaining from the play clock. If Barrett was a distributor and Elliott was reliable, Jones was an enigma. We were only one game removed from thinking of him as an unfortunate Twitter legend. He had rewritten his own epitaph back in Indianapolis.

The enigma had donated 15 extra seconds of survival time to the Crimson Tide. Elliott, Ohio State's reliable running back, then received his 20th and final handoff of the evening.

This was a pin and pull concept, which meant Elliott's patience in waiting for a lane would be as important as the blocking charged with creating one. He would have to wait for it to happen and then go, quickly.

Snapping the ball with 15 seconds left on the playclock sprung a rattled Evan Spencer into action; he later said he was unprepared for the play to begin so prematurely and quickly looked for someone, anyone to hit.

Wait...wait..wait...

The offensive line did its job, creating a hole for Zeke to find.

Wait...wait...waaaaait...

Spencer erased Alabama's linebacker room by himself.

Wait...

Billy Price found Nick Perry at the second level and removed him from the play.

GO.

By the time Elliott reached the Ohio State 20-yard line, there were no more Alabama players in front of him. That transformed a football play into an 80-yard footrace pairing the Crimson Tide's secondary with the 2013 Missouri State Champion in the 100m, 200m, 110m hurdles and 300m hurdles. And he had a running start. 

The Buckeyes' philosophy for breaking down a football strategy into digestible, executable chunks is to define the expectation for each play and for each player. It's an open secret, and the recipe is 4-6, A-B:

“I don’t want a team that’s scared to make mistakes. I don’t want a team that’s thinking,” Meyer said. “I want a team that goes 4 to 6 seconds, and when they put their foot on the ground, it’s A to B, it’s fast and it’s as hard as you go.”

Good things come to those who wait. Elliott waited for his lane to open, and then he stopped thinking. This took twice as long as Ohio State's philosophy preaches; Zeke needed 12 seconds to go from A to TD. It took forever, and yet it happened so fast.

As he raced 85 yards toward the endzone, Elliott separated himself from a lot more than just Alabama's ragged secondary. He put some space between himself and that 2014 Honorable Mention All-B1G designation he had earned a month earlier. After the play, the broadcast booth opened up that cabinet and discovered Elliott's 220-yard performance against the Badgers, which on one play shifted from being an outlier to a trend

Elliott spent those 12 seconds ending Ohio State's dated reputation as a slow midwest team incapable of competing with a fast southern one. The Buckeyes were a fast, punishing team that was running away from the best one the best conference had to offer. Running the table after September 6, destroying Wisconsin and leapfrogging Baylor and TCU to snatch the final Playoff spot did nothing to alter the 2014 season epitaph.

It took Zeke running 85 yards for the Virginia Tech loss to be placed into that cabinet no one would ever open again. One play cured what 11 straight wins had failed to.

As Elliott broke free, he glanced up at the giant Superdome monitor facing him and saw more than just the Crimson Tide fading behind him. He saw his reputation for simply being a reliable back slipping away. He sprinted 15 more yards and looked up again. Everything was smaller. Perry. Nick Vannett, cheering him on. The Hokies.

Fifteen more yards, and another glance. Teammates pointing him in the right direction. Ed Warinner racing down the sideline. The guttural roar of half the stadium paired with the silent shock from the other. Archie Griffin was up ahead of him watching from the endzone, jumping up and down with jubilation in his perfect gray suit. One final glance at the monitor.

Everyone was watching Zeke, including Zeke. 

zeke's jumbotron eyes

Everything was in his rearview mirror. The shadow of the endzone his team couldn't escape for the better part of the 2nd half. Those 15 seconds Cardale had donated when he snapped the ball. The two linebackers Spencer decapitated. His entire team, cheering. The notion that the Buckeyes didn't belong in the Playoff, and were only there for television audience purposes.

His reputation as a reliable college football player. Another damn punt from the end zone. Braxton on the sideline in street clothes. J.T. on the sideline riding a scooter. Alabama. Virginia Tech.

Everything the Buckeyes had been trying to run away from was in Zeke's rearview mirror as he crossed the goal line. Everything was about to change because of those 12 seconds. Nobody was going to beat this team, and nobody would think of Elliott as just a reliable running back ever again.

Touchdown, Ohio State.

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