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Ezekiel Elliott's emergence has taken pressure off Ohio State's quarterbacks

Ezekiel Elliott of the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrates

Ezekiel Elliott of the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrates with the trophy after defeating the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Jan. 1, 2015, in New Orleans. Credit: Getty Images / Streeter Lecka

DALLAS - Former Ohio State running back Eddie George, the 1995 Heisman Trophy winner, sat in front of current Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott during Saturday's media day for the first College Football Playoff championship and asked this question: "How does it feel knowing that an Ohio State victory really comes down on your shoulders?"

That should give an idea of just how much pressure Elliott is facing in Monday night's game against favored Oregon. But he brought it on himself with breakout games of 220 yards and two touchdowns in a 59-0 Big Ten title win over Wisconsin followed by a Sugar Bowl-record 230 yards and two TDs in a 42-35 upset of No. 1 Alabama. Elliott's performance included scoring runs of 81 yards against Wisconsin and 85 against Alabama.

"It's a little bit of pressure, but I know the big guys in front of me -- we call them 'The Slobs' -- they're going to pave the way for me," Elliott said, referring to the nickname for the Buckeyes' offensive line.

The focus most of the season at Ohio State has been on the injury problems at quarterback, and that's especially true now that they're down to third-stringer Cardale Jones, who has played impressively in his two postseason starts. But Elliott's emergence as a dominant back with 1,632 yards, a 6.9 average carry and 14 TDs has taken the pressure off everyone around him.

He's had eight games with at least 100 yards rushing, but as he told George, Elliott really came into his own in the biggest regular-season win at Michigan State. He rushed for 154 yards in the 49-37 win that put the one-loss Buckeyes back in the title picture.

"I had a great game," Elliott said. "I showed a lot of acceleration and anticipation . . . I think we've gotten better and better, and this has built up to where we're running on momentum right now.

"I know that every week my 'Slobs' will go out there and block for me. I always have confidence when I'm running behind them. Those holes are bigger, and I'm anticipating better where they're going to be."

No doubt, Elliott's offensive line appreciates the toughness of a running back who broke his left wrist in summer training camp but learned to carry the ball exclusively in his right hand while putting off surgery until after this season.

"I try to be an honorary 'Slob' with my blocking," Elliott said. "They're actually a good-looking group of linemen. They're not big or fat. They're all pretty lean."

After Ohio State gained a 34-28 lead in the Sugar Bowl, it looked as though Alabama might come back. The Buckeyes were pinned inside their 10-yard line on three straight series. But then Elliott broke his 85-yarder, turning on the jets after a key block from receiver Evan Spencer just past the line of scrimmage.

"They're doing a great job opening up those gaping holes," Elliott said of his offensive line. "I just have to break a little arm tackle or a finger tackle. I don't have to do much. They're just wide holes."

Oregon has been vulnerable to big runs between the tackles. Even though the Ducks defeated Florida State, 59-20, in the Rose Bowl, they allowed the Seminoles to rush for 301 yards.

"We watched an explosive-run tape and saw those runs," Elliott said of a tape the coaching staff put together of Oregon's opponents breaking big plays. "Sometimes they get a little overextended, and they're not always the best tackling team. What they are good at is coming from behind and stripping the ball.

"I think Oregon's interior defense is a little undersized. We're a bigger, physical team. If we establish the running game, we'll be fine offensively."

A strong Ohio State running game also would help the Buckeyes by controlling the clock and limiting the amount of time that Oregon's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Marcus Mariota, spends on the field. The Ducks have scored at least 42 points in nine straight games, so the pressure is on Elliott and the Buckeyes to keep pace.

"It's key to score every opportunity we get," Elliott said. "You saw in the Alabama game, we got down there early and couldn't put [touchdowns] on the board. We have to score at every opportunity because they have such a good offense."

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