Imagine if the Ducks were faced with a scenario where heading into the homestretch of the season, needing big wins, they needed to turn to Jeff Lockie. Makes you a little uneasy, right? Now imagine if before one of the biggest games in school history and they were forced to start Taylor Allie. That's essentially what the Buckeyes have had to deal with at quarterback and third stringer Cardale Jones. But while Jones has done a tremendous job in his first two career starts, he's not the reason the Buckeyes are playing for a national championship.
Meet Ezekiel Elliott. This season, the sophomore running back has carried the ball 237 times for 1,632 yards and 14 touchdowns. Elliott also has 27 receptions for 221 yards, averaging 8.2 yards per catch. While he put up some impressive performances this season, such as 23 carries for 154 yards and two touchdowns against No. 8 Michigan State, none have been more impressive than his last two games.
Against Wisconsin in the Big 10 Championship Game, Elliott carried the ball 20 times for 220 yards and two touchdowns, helping propel the Buckeyes into the College Football Playoff. He followed up that performance with another huge game against No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, carrying the ball 20 times for 230 yards and two touchdowns, including an 85-yard touchdown run late in the 4th quarter to help lift the Buckeyes into the championship game against Oregon.
If Ohio State hopes to clinch a national title on Monday night, they'll need one more performance like that from Elliott. That's not to say Cardale Jones isn't a talented quarterback. He's certainly had an impressive start to his career, but he's not why the Buckeyes beat Alabama to get where they are today. Against the Crimson Tide, Jones completed 18-of-35 passes for 243 yards with a touchdown, an interception and a QBR of 56.0. While Jones did hit Devin Smith for a go-ahead 47-yard touchdown pass to start the second half, that was the only time Jones was responsible for a score. Two of Ohio State's four offensive touchdowns came from Ezekiel Elliott, while a third came from a trick play where wide receiver Evan Spencer threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas.
Ohio State has often relied on needing to simply outgun their opponents on offense. The Buckeyes defense has looked vulnerable at times. In their only loss of the season, the Buckeyes gave up 35 points to a Virginia Tech offense that finished 96th in the nation in points per game. They needed two overtimes to beat a Penn State team that ranked 113th in the nation in points per game. Ohio State hasn't seen an offense like Oregon's. This game has all the makings of a shootout between two of the most impressive offenses in the nation. But in what could be a night where the scoreboard operator gets paid time and a half, Cardale Jones isn't the key to Ohio State's offense on Monday, Ezekiel Elliott is.
If Ezekiel Elliott didn't deliver another dominating performance against Alabama, the Ducks would likely be playing the Crimson Tide on Monday, and that town in Ohio would've never had to change its name for the week. Cardale Jones had his moments, but it was Elliott that really shone. What this game will come down to is if Elliott can deliver one last epic performance to lead his team to a national title.
While Jones has two huge wins to start his career, he'll have to be mistake free on Monday. Oregon is one of the best teams in the nation when it comes to the turnover margin, something they displayed in the Rose Bowl against Florida State. At halftime, it looked to be anyone's game between the Ducks and Seminoles. Then, in the 3rd quarter, the Ducks forced turnover after turnover as the Seminoles completely collapsed. If the Ducks can contain Elliott and force the Buckeyes to rely on Cardale Jones, Oregon can perhaps force the inexperienced quarterback to make a mistake. And when teams make mistakes against the Ducks, they pounce and go full throttle. Just ask Florida State.
That starts with Oregon's defensive line, a group that has consistently improved as the season wore on. Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner will be the first line of defense. Behind them, guys like Tony Washington and Derrick Malone Jr. will be looking to stuff Elliott before he breaks into the open field. Because if he does, well, we've seen what can happen.
In my opinion, the outcome of this game rests on the shoulders of Ezekiel Elliott. If he can bust out another big game like he did against the Badgers and Crimson Tide, the Buckeyes come out on top. If Oregon finds a way to contain him and force the game into the hands of Cardale Jones, it'll be the Ducks claiming their first national title in school history on Mondy night.