A decent-sized portion of the fanbase likely believes only one stat matters: 6-1. The Buckeyes remain undefeated in conference play and on track for their showdown with Michigan State in two weeks, Playoff dreams still intact. And, if the Buckeyes are going to play poorly, at least they got the win in a thrilling double overtime road game.
Even though the Buckeyes escaped from Happy Valley on Bosa's back and Barrett's knees, the other half of the fanbase is thinking more about the Buckeyes' suddenly more terrifying date in East Lansing in two weeks, about the seemingly tepid play calling, and about 24 unanswered points. So let's go back to the stats that mattered the most in the pre-game and figure out what went wrong.
Penn State: 104th in Passing Downs Sack Rate; Ohio State: 5th in Front 7 Havoc Rate
If you either suffered through the Penn State - Michigan game or looked at the two stats above, it seemed like the Buckeyes would be fairly successful in creating big defensive plays and limiting Hackenberg. The Penn State offense shouldn't have been much of an issue.
And, for most of the night, it wasn't. The Nittany Lions totaled 16 yards on the ground, averaging .5 yards per rush, while Hackenberg averaged just 4.5 yards per pass and threw two interceptions. Joey Bosa, the obvious star of the game, totaled 2.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss, while Darron Lee had 2.5 tackles for loss of his own and 1.5 sacks. The front seven lived up to their billing and made third downs an issue for Hackenberg, who completed just four passes to three sacks on third down.
In fact, the Nittany Lions had four three-and-outs and scored their only two offensive touchdowns on short fields: one on a Mike Hull interception and the other in the first overtime. The Nittany Lions had 14 points off of turnovers. The defensive effort was extraordinary, especially when the offense did the defense zero favors. Overall the defense held Penn State to just 1.21 points per possession.
Penn State: 8th in Defensive Rushing S&P+
Let's start with the good news. Even though the Buckeyes entered the game on a four game streak of 50+ points and 500+ yards per game, the Nittany Lions were more than a formidable defensive opponent -- they were an elite rushing defense that ranked first in the country in total rush defense. The second-best rush defense, Alabama, had allowed 127 more yards between the tackles. So when the Buckeyes opened the game calling five runs on seven plays during their opening drive, it was clear that the Buckeyes weren't deterred by those numbers.
On one level this speaks to the value of advanced stats like Defensive Rushing S&P+ and Running Back Success Rates, but even then the Nittany Lions were in the top ten in rush defense. Even more, the Buckeyes' aggressive rushing play calling and relative succes running the ball speaks to the coaches' perception of the offensive line and J.T.'s ability to exploit holes in the middle of the Penn State defense.
According to ESPN, J.T. said after the game that, "I just read the play each time (on the option). They were giving us the inside. I was going to do whatever I had to do to get into the endzone." Barrett has been extremely accurate all season in his reads, much like Kenny Guiton last season. Combined with an offensive line that is clearly built to run block instead of pass protect and you've got a formula for a run-heavy night.
Elliot broke the 100 yard mark with 109 yards on 26 carries and Barrett got close, with 75 yards on 20 carries. While Elliot only averaged 4.2 yards per carry, 58% of his runs were successful according to the Running Back Success Rate. Barrett was similarly efficient with a 56% success rate. The Buckeyes were efficient on the ground, picking up yards consistently through the middle on zone read after zone read after inverted veer. But they were far from explosive, with only one run of more than 15 yards (a 21 yard Barrett scamper in the first quarter).
After the game Meyer repeatedly praised the Nittany Lions' defensive front seven, and they demonstrated why they are one of the best units in the country by forcing the Buckeyes offensive line to a 42% Opportunity Rate, which measures the percentage of the time that the offensive line does its job run blocking (allowing a running back to gain at least five yards). In fact, that's why the Buckeyes averaged just 4.3 yards to go on third down (excluding the one 3rd-and-23) Looking at the rushing overall, you have a mostly efficient performance against a good defensive front seven that limited the Buckeyes' ability to pick up any explosive plays.
Ohio State: 3rd in Offensive Passing S&P+
The other thing that limited the Buckeyes' explosive plays was the complete lack of offensive balance. The Buckeyes ran 76 total plays including double overtime, and 75% of those were run plays. J.T. didn't complete a single pass of longer than 14 yards against a Nittany Lions defense that ranked 29th in Defensive Passing S&P+ and 88th in Defensive Secondary Havoc Rate. And that's with their starting safety missing the game. But what's more problematic to me is that while J.T. was 0-4 in passes over 15 yards, he only had four total attempts.
Meyer mentioned in his post-game interview that they didn't feel that the line's pass protection was up to the challenge of protecting any dropback passing because of Nittany Lions' front seven. This is a major problem, especially with Michigan State coming up in two weeks. J.T. had collapsing pockets all night, but there also weren't very many short passes to the perimeter to counteract an aggressive pass rush. If you want to slow down a defense that can heavily load the box, you have to either run effectively outside the tackles, have a high percentage quick passing game, or make the defensive backs play less aggressively by connecting on at least a few deeper passes. Instead, Barrett's longest completion was 14 yards -- the distance of the second-longest run. Michael Thomas and Corey Smith, two players I thought would be primed for big roles, were held to one reception for three yards.
To some degree, Tom Herman was calling plays based on what the defense gave him. J.T. was effective in his reads and the center of the defensive line was weak against the run. But J.T. clearly had problems when the Penn State defense brought a zone blitz, and the play calling seemed especially timid in the second half. That was no more apparent than with approximately two minutes left in the third quarter and the Buckeyes faced third and 23 from their own 17. The play call was another Elliot run up the middle for five yards, followed by a 44 yard punt.
So the pass protection was one issue that affected the play calling, but the Buckeyes' field position was another. The Buckeyes ranked second in the country in Field Position Advantage entering the game and field position is a cornerstone of Urbanball, but Meyer also knew that Penn State's punter was substandard too. The Buckeyes felt like they could put enough pressure on Hackenberg to prevent explosive plays and win the field position battle, so the offensive play calling was designed to simply not lose in a very hostile road environment.
I don't think the offensive strategy will be the same against Michigan State (because it can't be for the Buckeyes to have a chance), but the execution in the passing game absolutely has to be better for Ohio State to stay in that game.