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Can Ohio State win in the trenches?

Newly updated offensive and defensive line statistics give us some insight into the rebuilt Buckeye lines.

Jonathan Ernst

Earlier in the week I took a look at the Two Teams Up North to analyze why they remain the biggest threats to the Buckeyes this season.

Nothing is as important as the Buckeye offensive and defensive lines in winning those matchups. If you spent any time watching Michigan and Michigan State last night, you know that both defensive lines are stout. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg was constantly harrassed, if not actually being sacked. The Spartans only had two sacks and five tackles for loss against Purdue, but defensive line has been one of the most consistent against the run throughout the season.

Many Buckeye fans have rightly been encouraged by the growth of both J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliot since the Virginia Tech loss. The line seems to be gelling better as well, only allowing five sacks over the last three games. However, as the recently released line statistics show, there is a lot of room for improvement, especially compared to the Wolverines and Spartans.

Below I'll break down the Buckeyes offensive and defensive lines in comparison with their opponents' defensive and offensive lines. All definitions can be seen here. The numbers are rankings, so the lower the better:

The Buckeye offensive line

Adj Line Yards Std Line Yards Opp Rate Power Rate Stuff Rate Adj Sack Rate Std Sack Rate Pass Sack Rate
OSU OL 45 11 2 64 23 113 124 62
UM DL 15 8 6 50 8 65 60 47
MSU DL 1 1 3 109 5 39 27 22

So these numbers don't paint a pretty picture of either the Buckeye offensive line or the matchups with Michigan and Michigan State. Only the two "adjusted" statistics are opponent-adjusted numbers, but the Buckeye offensive line comes across looking like it will be sacked as soon as Barrett receives the snap. Even the run blocking is only average in adjusted line yards and power rate.

This is a huge drop off from last season, where the advanced stats clearly had the Buckeye line as the best in the country. The drop off in pass blocking hasn't been as severe, since the Buckeyes' adjusted sack rate ranking last season was just 71 (though a lot of that was due to Braxton, actually).

But losing four starters to the NFL will do that to you. No doubt the offensive line has improved in run blocking since losing to the Hokies, but how much of that is due to playing Cincinnati, Kent State, and Maryland?

If you go by either of the two opponent-adjusted metrics, the Buckeyes will have some tough sledding on offense against Michigan and Michigan State. Only in standard line yards (unadjusted, per-carry line yardage) and opportunity rate (percentage of carries that gain at least five yards) are the Buckeyes comparable with TSUN defensive line rankings.

My guess is that the adjusted line yard and adjusted sack rate rankings are slightly misleading. The Buckeyes have improved throughout the season -- even if against inferior competition -- and the Buckeyes have been in garbage time offense for large portions of each of the last three games. I haven't calculated efficiency stats in my game reviews for the fourth quarters of any of those last three games, for instance.

The Buckeye defensive line

Adj Line Yards Std Line Yards Opp Rate Power Rate Stuff Rate Adj Sack Rate Std Sack Rate Pass Sack Rate
OSU DL 63 66 89 21 76 17 21 45
UM OL 39 91 54 30 45 53 119 36
MSU OL 54 52 67 102 63 35 26 32

This is where things look a little better for the Buckeyes. The Buckeyes have defensive line advantages in three metrics, including power success rate (percentage of runs on third or fourth down, or with two or less yards to go, that achieved a first down), adjusted sack rate, and standard downs sack rate.

The Buckeye defensive line comes across looking weak against the run here, though they've improved overall from last year. That's likely due to the Navy game (which should never, ever be the season opener, by the way). The Buckeyes look stronger in critical, short-yardage situations and in picking up sacks on standard downs. Michigan predictably is ranked very poorly in standard line yards and standard downs sack rate (which is why you saw plenty of Devin Gardner getting taken down by Mike Hull last night). The Spartans are average across all of the run blocking metrics but have down well pass blocking this season, likely accounting for at least part of Connor Cook's success this season.

Overall the Buckeye lines don't look great so far. There are still games to fine-tune the lines before November 8th, but there doesn't seem to be any doubt that there was a drop off in production from last year's all star cast of linemen.