COLUMBUS – No matter what your vantage point was Saturday night in Ohio Stadium, your view was the same if you were focused on Ezekiel Elliott.
Everybody liked what they saw from the Ohio State running back in the Buckeyes’ 50-28 victory over the Cincinnati Bearcats.
In the stands where she was part of an OSU record crowd of 108,362, nine-year-old Aaliyah Elliott was like a jack-in-the-box, jumping up play after play after play and – according to her dad – “telling everyone around her ‘Ezekiel Elliott, that’s MY brother!’”
In the press box, OSU offensive coordinator Tom Herman may have been a little less exuberant, but he was still impressed: “I was excited to see him running tough, running vertical, breaking arm tackles. The guys up front deserve a lot of credit. It was two, three, four or five yards before he got touched, but then he turned those five yards into 12 yards. What he did tonight, that was encouraging to see.”
On the Bucks’ sideline, head coach Urban Meyer – who keeps individual praise close to his vest – was willing to give this to his 225-pound sophomore back: “We have a lot of confidence in Ezekiel Elliott and I think before he leaves here he could be one of the great backs at Ohio State…But he still has a long way to go.”
Saturday night, though, Elliott did make some strides in that direction…A lot of them.
He carried the ball 28 times for 182 yards and a touchdown. He also caught five passes for another 51 yards.
His 233 yards of total offense wasn’t that far off of what he amassed – 291 yards – all last season.
But last year the Bucks really didn’t need him. They had workhorse Carlos Hyde running the ball and even though he was suspended the first three games of the season, he finished with 1,668 total yards and 11 TDs in 11 games.
Now though Hyde is running the ball for the San Francisco 49ers, who made him a second-round pick in last spring’s NFL draft. And OSU quarterback Braxton Miller, the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, is gone as well, lost to season-ending shoulder surgery.
OSU has needed someone to put the team on its back in big-stage games like the one Saturday night.
Freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett has done his best – and Saturday night he threw for 330 yards and four scores- but he’s young and still learning and needs help.
He got that Saturday from Elliott, who separated himself from OSU’s stable of backs.
“I think I did take a step that way tonight,” he said afterward. “We have a lot of great backs in our room, but we love to get the ball and put the team on our back. I don’t know how many carries I had tonight, but it felt good.
“I really needed a game like this. It gave me some momentum and I think it’ll be all downhill from here.”
Elliott prefaced his assessment with a nod to his offensive line: “Those guys came out and did a phenomenal job. When you’ve got gaping holes like they made for me, it’s not that hard to run.”
While Barrett echoed the praise for the line, he said Elliott is responsible for a lot of his own success:
“He gives you 110 percent on every play. Even when he’s faking, he’ll run 10 or 15 yards even if he doesn’t have the ball.”
This is the kind of game Meyer was looking for out of Elliott when he brought him to Columbus as a four-star recruit out of St. Louis’ John Burroughs High, where he rushed for 3,957 yards and 74 touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons combined.
Not only did he have the stats, but he came with some impressive athletic bloodlines. His dad, Stacy, was a defensive end and linebacker at the University of Missouri and his mom, Dawn, was a track and field athlete for the Tigers.
Elliott took some flak for bypassing his parents’ alma mater and choosing Ohio State. But as he put it Saturday night: “This is what you dream about when you’re a kid. You want to be this kind of guy at a big school like Ohio State.”
Last season Elliott was Hyde’s roommate and his understudy:
“He was patient last year,” Dawn Elliott said. “He practiced hard and roomed with Carlos – who he kind of looked at as a mentor.”
When Hyde was suspended early last year, Elliott got a chance to play against over-matched Florida A&M and ran for 162 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. The rest of the season he ran for just 106 more yards.
“I wouldn’t say I was frustrated last year, it was good for me just to learn from Carlos,” Elliott said. “I played a lot of special teams last year – that’s how I got my game experience – and by the end of the year I had a little momentum.”
That pace was slowed some last month when he underwent surgery to repair a broken wrist he’d suffered Aug. 8 at practice.
He then opened the season with 44 yards and a score against Navy, but managed just 32 yards in eight carries in the Bucks upset loss to Virginia Tech. After that he had 117 total yards of offense in the rout of Kent State.,
“After Virginia Tech, we just wanted to kick somebody’s (butt) and Kent State was a good game for that,” he said. “And I think we added some more to that this game.”
While Cincinnati certainly doesn’t present as staunch of a test as will a Michigan State or maybe even Maryland next Saturday, Elliott said he thinks the 3-1 Bucks are ready for Big Ten play:
“After tonight I think we are, although, I think we still have some stuff to clean up.” He mentioned penalties and the team’s pass coverage, which is the weak link of the OSU effort this season.
Saturday the running back position looked in good hands when Elliott had the ball.
And as was noted before, no matter what the vantage point Saturday, everyone seemed to agree — especially Stacy Elliott, who waited for his son outside the OSU dressing room after the game:
“It was a great feeling seeing him out there tonight displaying the skill set that Coach Urban Meyer brought him here to do. I was really proud of him.”
A lot of people were.