Ezekiel Elliott Shows He Is Key to Ohio State's National Championship Hopes

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterJanuary 2, 2015

Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 230 yards and two touchdowns in a Sugar Bowl MVP performance.
Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 230 yards and two touchdowns in a Sugar Bowl MVP performance.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

At a pair of Sugar Bowl media day appearances earlier this week, Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott saw his name misspelled not once but twice, on name tags used to indicate his podium.

After his performance in the game, it's safe to say that's not a problem he'll have to worry about for the foreseeable future.

The second part of the first-ever College Football Playoff certainly lived up to the hype, with Ohio State and Alabama slugging it out in a Sugar Bowl that Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer described as a "sledgehammer game."  But in a matchup between two college football powers with no shortage of stars on either sideline, it was Elliott who shined the brightest, totaling 230 yards and two touchdowns in Ohio State's 42-35 win over the Crimson Tide.

"We had momentum as an offense," Elliott said in the Buckeyes' postgame celebration. "I really had faith in my boys and I knew that they were going to pave for me."

Ezekiel Elliott celebrates the Buckeyes' Sugar Bowl championship.
Ezekiel Elliott celebrates the Buckeyes' Sugar Bowl championship.Bill Haber/Associated Press

The OSU offense did that—and then some—with Elliott taking advantage of every opportunity that was given to him against Alabama's top-ranked rushing defense. With that, the fourth-ranked Buckeyes advanced to the National Championship Game in Arlington, Texas, where No. 2 Oregon awaits.

"There's a perception out there that we're not [good enough]," Meyer said. "We are good enough."

The play of Elliott has given Meyer plenty of reason to believe that, as the sophomore running back has now rushed for 1,632 yards on the season—the fourth most in Ohio State history. Elliott has been particularly impressive in the Buckeyes' past two games, rushing for 220 yards in the Big Ten Championship Game, which proved just to be a prelude for his record-setting performance in New Orleans.

And while 200-yard rushing performances are beneficial regardless of any team's circumstances, Elliott's emergence couldn't have come at a better time for Ohio State. Down to their third quarterback of the season in Cardale Jones, the Buckeyes have needed all of the help that they could get, which Elliott has provided plenty of.

"A quarterback is the product of those around him," Meyer said when asked about Jones after the Sugar Bowl. "He's got some good players around him."

As Ohio State's improbable postseason run continues, the Buckeyes will need Elliott to continue at the remarkable clip that he played at against Wisconsin and Alabama. The Ducks' rushing defense also leaves something to be desired, surrendering an average of 152.8 yards per game, good for 46th in the nation.

If the 6'0", 225-pounder's latest outing was any indication, the Buckeyes should be in good shape. Against a defense that hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season, Elliott rushed for 100 yards in the first quarter alone, and seemed to seal the Crimson Tide's fate with an 85-yard fourth-quarter touchdown.

Ezkeiel Elliott has proven to be Ohio State's most important and most reliable player.
Ezkeiel Elliott has proven to be Ohio State's most important and most reliable player.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

"He's probably the most underrated back in the country," Meyer said. "Against that defense—I'm not sure what he ran for, but it was a lot of yards."

It was 230 to be exact, the most ever in the Sugar Bowl's storied history. While Ohio State's quarterback situation and stars like defensive end Joey Bosa have dominated the conversation when it's come to the Buckeyes this season, Elliott has quietly emerged as their most reliable—and most important—player.

And with Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota headlining the national title game, and the future of the Buckeyes' quarterback position growing increasingly unclear, Elliott could again find himself as a forgotten man on college football's grandest stage. But if the Buckeyes are going to capture their eighth national championship in program history, count on a big game from their Show Me State native in the backfield.

"We're really thankful for the playoff system," Elliott said. "They gave us a chance to go out there and show that we're one of the better teams in the country and that we deserve to be in the national championship. I think the playoff system definitely helped."

For Ohio State, it certainly did. As did its new star running back.

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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