Ezekiel Elliott's post-game comments about his disappointment in the playcalling during the Michigan State loss and his feeling that he "deserve[d] more than 11 carries" left many wondering whether his time as Ohio State's lead running back had run its course. Several sports media types chastised Elliott for his comments, guessing that his "rant" was going to cause locker room strife.
There was this gem:
So @EzekielElliott rips coaches on the way out the door. Dumb, kid. Really dumb.— Jeff Schultz (@JeffSchultzAJC) November 22, 2015
and this equally insightful comment:
Ezekiel Elliott went on a Twitter rant w/o Twitter. No I in team, but there are two in #EzekielElliot— Doug Gottlieb (@GottliebShow) November 22, 2015
As it turns out, Elliott's comments had just the opposite effect. Teammates praised his honesty, noted that he probably said what everyone, including head coach Urban Meyer, was thinking. Joey Bosa spoke out at yesterday's press conference:
Joey Bosa among those who have backed Ezekiel Elliott: "I think he said what some people were scared to say."
And although Meyer didn't go as far as Bosa, he did tacitly admit that the offensive play calling was suspect on Saturday, and announced he'd be taking a more active role in that regard.
To his credit, Elliott issued an apology and promised a "focused and prepared" team on Saturday when the Buckeyes travel to Ann Arbor. Elliott didn't mince words though; Saturday will be his final regular season game as a Buckeye. Elliott's drama this week makes him the offensive player to watch on Saturday.
Weight: 225 lbs.
Stats: 1458 yards and 17 TDs on 232 rushing attempts, 169 yards receiving on 24 receptions
The game situation
The Wolverines rock a defensive line that's similar in strength to Michigan State, although their performance has been a bit up and down of late. Penn State rushed for just 70 total yards against the Wolverines, but Indiana managed to hang 307 on them in an overtime loss the week before.
Michigan State demonstrated that a strong defensive front that limits the effectiveness of QB runs can stymie Ohio State's offense. Assuming Michigan employs the same tactics, it will be critical for Ohio State to establish their power run game to take the pressure off the passing attack that has, so far, failed to impress.
Elliott ran for 121 yards last year against the Wolverines, and that was with Barrett adding 89 ground yards of his own and 176 through the air. Unless Barrett finds a new gear in his passing game or is able to reestablish the zone read as a viable running option, this team will need Elliott to, at a minimum, match his performance from last year. The time has come for November Ezekiel Elliott to rise.
What to watch for
Elliott operated last week at less than 100%, both because he was sick last week (spending a few days in the hospital) and because he was held back by the offensive "game plan." Elliott has also now caused a minor scuttle by publicly criticizing his under-utilization last week. What will happen on Saturday? Will the team and coaches rally behind Zeke and give him the opportunity to run free? Or is there underlying strife in that locker room, or in the RB meetings, or between offensive coordinator Tim Beck and Zeke that will manifest itself in another sluggish running game performance where Zeke is left hungry?
My money is on the MSU game being an outlier, and on Elliott rising to the occasion on Saturday. It's the biggest game of the year for Ohio State, both because it's THE GAME and because a victory is crucial for the Buckeyes to have any shot at the Big Ten Championship and the College Football Playoff. If nothing else, this team learns its lessons and doesn't repeat mistakes. Small, incremental improvements has been the modus operandi this year. Cleaning up the run game plan against a known strong defensive line should be this week's fix.
Ezekiel Elliott's comments bothered lots of Buckeye fans, presumably because they'd prefer that a team's dirty laundry not be publicly aired. I'm willing to give Zeke a pass here. In the wake of a tough loss, with emotions running hot, and the camera lights and microphones bearing down, I'm not sure there are many true adults, let alone college students, who could spout out the company line rather than expressing their frustration and true feelings. If the media and fans really want to know what's going on inside a team's locker room, then players should be free, in as respectfully a manner possible, to share their opinions. Zeke did that, he cleaned up his mess, and now it's time for him to crush the Wolverine's spirit. Let's go #BeatMichigan.