The F/+ projections actually picked Ohio State to win by ten points. They were pretty much the only ones. Vegas had the Buckeyes as four-point dogs, and F/+ doesn't take a thing like an injury to your Heisman-contending quarterback into account. Instead, we got the only shutout ever in a Power-5 Conference Championship game.
The Badgers had the ninth-ranked rushing game (in Rushing S&P+) and even more ominously, the 16th-ranked offensive line in Adjusted Line Yards, going up against Buckeye defensive units that were ranked 56th and 67th respectively in those two categories. When you've got a Heisman-contending running back in Melvin Gordon that had propelled an offense to opponent-adjusted top-ten ranking in both rushing and explosive plays, that's a certain recipe for disaster for Ohio State, right? Didn't they allow Indiana to rush for 281 yards and Navy 370? I thought going in that Gordon would rush for enough to break the Big Ten Championship game rushing record (his own record of 216 yards from last season) -- but instead Ezekiel Elliott, ol' crop top, took the record for his own. Instead, the Buckeye defense held the Badgers to 1.9 yards per rush. Oh, and Ohio State's third-string quarterback completed 71% of his passes for 257 yards and no interceptions.
Let's break this down in more detail.
The defensive line rejects Melvin Gordon
We knew in the preseason that the defensive line would be great, even with the loss of Noah Spence. And the line was great -- in its pass rush. In run defense, however, the Buckeye defense was 67th in Adjusted Line Yards, right in the middle of the pack for the entire country in run defense. That wasn't a good matchup against the Badgers' offensive line and Melvin Gordon.
Gordon entered the game as the country's leading rusher, averaging 188 yards per game and 7.9 yards per rush. The Silver Bullets (they've earned the title this week) held a frustrated Gordon to 2.9 yards per rush and 76 total yards. Without huge contributions from Gordon -- and with a huge defecit even early on -- the Badgers' offense is simply not built for any major comeback. Gordon's running back success rate, a measure of rushing efficiency that places emphasis on whether a run contributed to a getting towards a first down, was just 44%. Gordon had 31 rushes of 20+ yards this season and averaged 2.6 per game, but was held to a long run of just 13 yards. Really, if you didn't watch the game and only knew that stat -- that the Buckeyes didn't allow a single explosive run to the Badgers -- you would know that it was a blowout.
The Buckeyes racked up nine tackles for loss between the deep rotation that Fickell, Ash, and Johnson employed last night. That's 24% of the Badgers' 37 rushing attempts -- almost a quarter of the Badgers' runs went for a loss. Ten of Gordon's 26 carries went for either no gain or loss. A special shoutout here to Michael Bennett, who finished with four tackles for loss and two sacks in his biggest spotlight to date.
The Silver Bullets forced six three-and-outs out of the Badgers' offense in addition to securing three turnovers.
The secondary did its job too
The Buckeye pass defense was expected to have an advantage over the Badgers and Joel Stave, ranking eleventh in Passing S&P+ compared to the Badgers at 42nd in Offensive Passing S&P+. However, an early lead forced the Badgers into comeback mode all night. Joel Stave -- heck, any Wisconsin quarterback -- should never have 43 passing attempts. Stave completed under 40% of those passes, including throwing three interceptions and averaging 4.3 yards per attempt. Eli Apple and Doran Grant were ready for primetime, with two tackles for loss from Apple and two interceptions and two pass breakups from Grant. The closer we get to the end of his final season, the more I think we realize how much this defense will miss Doran Grant.
Welcome to the national spotlight, Ezekiel Elliott.
But really, Elliott better share this with the offensive line. Elliott blew up for 20 carries for 220 yards -- an average of eleven yards per carry -- against the 27th-ranked rush defense (Rushing S&P+). This was a defense that was 33rd in Adjusted Line Yards and fifth in Success Rate, but the Buckeyes could do absolutely anything they wanted on the ground all night.
According to ESPN's Stats and Information Dept: "Ohio State gained 271 of its 301 rushing yards on zone-read runs, its second-most in a game this season. Ezekiel Elliott led the way, gaining 207 of his career-high 220 yards on zone-read rushes. Wisconsin came in allowing a Big Ten-low 3.4 yards per rush on zone-read runs." That means that the Buckeyes were running their base plays -- absolutely nothing fancy -- and still had three explosive runs. This was Elliott's most explosive performance of the season: 15% of his runs were explosive and he had a running back success rate of 55%.
Also, Bri'onte Dunn sighting!
Some thoughts on Cardale Jones
Zach Smith has to be very happy with his unit. We knew that Cardale Jones had a huge arm and could throw the ball down the field, but most expected Herman and Meyer to play it safe and stick to short, high-percentage screens -- to let his playmakers do the rest. But Jones was called to take deep shots to Devin Smith and Michael Thomas repeatedly, clearly taking advantage of Badgers defensive backs that were not of the same caliber as the Buckeye receivers. Jones was 12-of-17 for 257 yards, but most importantly, he had zero turnovers. I will say that his receivers (i.e., Devin Smith) won a number of jump balls that I don't think Alabama defensive backs would give up so easily, but none the less, Jones was efficient and explosive. I expected the "tuck and run" from Jones, where Jones would quickly tuck the ball and try to run through defenders if his first read wasn't there, but he instead trusted his receivers to make a play. And they did.
Maybe the best thing about the offense is that they continued season-long trends despite the quarterback change. Ohio State has been insane in their first possessions of each half, and that was no different this week. The Buckeyes went 77 yards for a touchdown to open the game and then another 77 in their first drive of the third quarter. These fast starts have been instrumental in setting the tone of each game this season. The Buckeyes averaged 4.42 points per drive in the first half (while the game was still kind-of competitive).
So what happens now?
In a few hours, the Selection Committee will release their top four, and there's a decent chance that the Buckeyes will be left out despite their dominant performance on Saturday. Working for the Buckeyes are:
- Conference championship, which neither TCU or Baylor can claim
- Two wins over teams in the F/+ top-15. TCU has one (Oklahoma), and Baylor has two (Oklahoma and TCU).
- Highest ranked F/+ of the four (including TCU, Baylor, and Florida State) even before the win over Wisconsin
- Momentum. Ohio State's scoring margin since November first is +24.7, TCU's is 23.2, and Baylor's is 22.8.
- Two dominant wins over their best two opponents. Ohio State outscored Michigan State and Wisconsin 108-37, while Baylor outscored TCU and Oklahoma 109-72, and TCU outscored Oklahoma 37-33.
- National brand and fanbase. It shouldn't be part of the Committee's criteria, but it's possible the Buckeyes' national brand and much larger fanbase would make a Playoff game more interesting and lucrative for college football's media powers. However, the case for the Buckeyes if fairly strong even without this last point.