Long before he took his first handoff in Monday’s dominant rushing performance, Ohio State tailback Ezekiel Elliott addressed the opportunity for the Buckeyes to be an underdog in yet another defining game during the 2014 season. He smiled.
“We’re definitely a team that plays with a chip on our shoulder,” Elliott had said. “We trust each other. We play for each other and don’t want to let each other down out there.”
Once again, that approach proved successful in a postseason run that transformed No. 4 Ohio State from the team that barely made the College Football Playoff field to the squad that celebrated beneath a shower of confetti at AT&T Stadium.
The Buckeyes shook off four turnovers and ran roughshod over No. 2 Oregon 42-20 to claim the national championship in front of an announced crowd of 85,689.
Elliott, the game’s most valuable player, did most of the damage. He rushed for a career-high 246 yards and four touchdowns in helping the Buckeyes (14-1) prevail as a seven-point underdog before slipping into a set of matching black T-shirts emblazoned with the message “Undisputed Champs.”
It marked Ohio State’s third consecutive triumph as an underdog, following a 59-0 rout of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game that propelled the Buckeyes into the playoff bracket and a 42-35 victory over top-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. For the season, Ohio State is 4-0 as an underdog (including a 49-37 victory over Michigan State on Nov. 8) and 6-0 as an underdog in three seasons under coach Urban Meyer.
Of those upsets, Monday’s triumph was the sweetest for Meyer, who won his first national title at Ohio State and third of his career. The first two came at Florida (2006, 2008).
But this one is special, Meyer said, because it came a year before the coach thought his roster filled with young players was ready to achieve at college football’s highest level. It also came despite season-ending injuries to the team’s top two quarterbacks: Braxton Miller (shoulder) and J.T. Barrett (ankle)
Against that backdrop, Meyer embraced the underdog role that fell the Buckeyes’ way on a recurring basis this season. For the fourth time in four opportunities, he pushed the right emotional button before Monday’s game.
“I don’t pull out my underdog script that we have in my file,” Meyer said. “It depends on what kind of team you’ve got, where we’re at [mentally] and who we are playing.”
Against Oregon, the Buckeyes also pulled out a run-heavy game plan that allowed them to dominate time of possession (37:29) by running more plays (84) than the fast-paced Ducks (71). That was especially true down the stretch when the Buckeyes ran 31 of the final 47 plays in the contest.
After Oregon closed a third-quarter deficit to 21-20, Ohio State responded with a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to extend the lead to 28-20. Elliott found the end zone on the final play of the third quarter, then added two more scores in a 14-0 fourth-quarter salvo to seal the triumph.
Oregon, which won the turnover battle by a 4-1 margin, turned only two of the turnovers into 10 points. The Oregon defense surrendered 296 rushing yards and 538 overall. Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones (6-foot-5, 250 yards), who began the season as the Buckeyes’ third-teamer, threw for 242 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 38 yards and another score.
“They just wore us down,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said.
The Buckeyes also made the defining plays. A back-and-forth first half that included 607 total yards swung on a pair of fourth-down gambles by the respective coaches.
Meyer won his when the Buckeyes trailed 7-0. Jones hit Jalin Marshall on a fourth-and-2 shovel pass from the Oregon 35-yard line. Marshall wiggled past the far end of the sticks by a couple of inches. Two plays later, Elliott added his first of four touchdowns runs, a 33-yarder.
Elliott’s score turned the momentum and started a 21-0 run by the Buckeyes. Helfrich attempted to tap the brakes on that surge after the second touchdown when the Ducks drove to the Ohio State 3-yard line. On fourth-and-goal, Helfrich bypassed a field-goal opportunity. But running back Thomas Tyner took a zone-read handoff and was stopped inches short of the goal line by Buckeyes defenders Adolphus Washington and Vonn Bell.
Two possessions later, Ohio State capped the run when Jones found Devin Smith for 45 yards on a third-and-12 play and followed, moments later, with a 1-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown.
Oregon, which marched 75 yards for a touchdown on its opening possession, finally got back on the board on when Aidan Schneider added a 26-yard field goal with 48 seconds left in the half. Despite defending 49 offensive plays from the Ducks’ high-powered offense in the first 30 minutes, Ohio State took a 21-10 lead into the locker room.
Eventually, they blew it open with another 21-0 run to close the game and prove, once and for all, that the Buckeyes had no business being underdogs in this one. Instead, they are undisputed champs.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760