Navel Warfare

Ezekiel Elliott put together his second consecutive 200-yard performance with 230 yards against Alabama's top-ranked rushing defense. The sophomore was named the Sugar Bowl Offensive MVP.

When the 2014 season began, Ezekiel Elliott was more known for the way he chooses to wear his jersey – tucked under his pads and exposing his stomach – than for anything he had done on the field. With the calendar now flipped into 2015, the Ohio State sophomore is making a name for himself as one of the best running backs in college football.

Against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl Thursday, he set out to prove that he was as good as the Tide’s vaunted tailback tandem of Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon.

“Barry Sanders said before the game there were two great running backs that were going to play tonight, and they both were for ‘Bama,” Elliott said.

“I felt a little bit left out.”

The Buckeyes’ sophomore was certainly the best back on the field in New Orleans, carrying the ball 20 times for a Sugar Bowl record 230 yards, adding two touchdowns. He earned the game’s Offensive MVP for his efforts.

Elliott was Ohio State’s most consistently productive offense player against Alabama. He started the night with a four-yard run on the Buckeyes first offensive play and added a 54-yarder later that drive. On that big run, the sophomore showcased his patience as Alabama stretched the play nearly to the sideline before Elliott could find the hole. When he did, he exploded through it, sidestepped a Crimson Tide defender and didn’t go down until reaching the Alabama five-yard line, setting up a field goal the game’s first points.

He was still at it late in the game when his rush over the left end went for an 85-yard touchdown to cap the Buckeyes scoring. In between he continued to punish Alabama’s top-ranked rushing defense, finishing the night with six rushes of 10 or more yards and a per-carry average of 11.5 yards.

“I mean he's obviously a very, very good player, and we didn't do a very good job of executing what we needed to do to be able to control him in the game, and consequently he made lots of good plays,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said.

“So, you know, it's not really about what you do most of the time, it's really more about how you do it. And they did a better job of executing what they do than what we did.”

Alabama had allowed opposing teams to eclipse 100 yards just five times this season. Elliott hit that mark in the first quarter, becoming the first individual to hit the century mark against the Crimson Tide this season. The previous high individual total against Alabama this season was Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott, who had 82 yards when he faced the Tide, and the top running back total during the regular season was LSU’s Leonard Fournette who had 79 yards.

“I knew going through the game that the Alabama defense front was going to be very tough, very big, very physical,” Elliott said. “It was going to be a little bit hard for our O-line to get some movement off the ball. But they did a great job.

Elliott’s 230 yards were 47 more than any team had amassed this season against Alabama.

Slowed early in the season by a broken left wrist that required surgery, Elliott has gotten better as the season has gone on. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman said that he saw this coming from the 6-0, 225 pound sophomore who has been one of the nation’s best recently.

“That’s the kid that we saw throughout spring and throughout two-a-days as a true freshman,” he said. “This certainly doesn’t surprise me how well he’s playing. He’s running on all cylinders now.”

That Alabama performance came on the heels of his 220-yard night in the Big Ten Title Game and gives Elliott 1,632 yards this year to go with 14 touchdowns. Nearly 28 percent of his yards have come in the Buckeyes two most important games.

While Elliott still shows off his abs on the field, people are starting to take note of what he does with the ball in his hands.

“Wow,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said of the back’s Sugar Bowl. “He’s probably the most underrated back in the country.”

After torching the Alabama defense, he won’t be for long.

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