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Ohio State-Oregon, Championship Game 2015: Defensive advanced stats preview

The Buckeyes upended Alabama, but now have one more test: the Oregon Ducks, who are fresh off of a 59-20 destruction of Florida State. Yet another Heisman winner leads this offense -- can the Buckeyes shut Mariota down too?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We previewed the offensive advanced stats a few days ago, but few are too concerned about the Ohio State offense's ability to score despite facing the 9th-ranked F/+ defense. Instead, most pre-game concern revolves around whether the Buckeye defense can stop Mariota and the Oregon tempo.

With the second-ranked F/+ offense and the Heisman Trophy winner, it's easy to see why. The third-fastest tempo offense in the country, the Ducks use tempo, Mariota's accurate throwing, and efficient running to overwhelm opposing defenses. The Oregon offense is efficient and successful in nearly every conceivable advanced metric, ranking in the top five in all but Adjusted Sack Rate:

When Oregon has the ball

Overall Ohio State Oregon
Record 13-1 13-1
Overall F/+ 1 2
Field Position Advantage 4 7
Offensive F/+ 3 2
Defensive F/+ 6 9
Special Teams F/+ 23 10
When Oregon has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 4 3
FEI 11 3
Rushing S&P+ 52 2
Passing S&P+ 7 5
Success Rate 31 4
IsoPPP 24 2
Adj Line Yards 59 1
Adj Sack Rate 10 45
Value Drives 3 1
First Down Rate 9 1

Again, the first six rows are overall advanced metrics for reference. Click here or here for definitions and explanations of these terms.

For years Oregon has been known not only for the program's speed of play, but also its innovative spread-to-run offense. The Ducks rank second in Rushing S&P+ this season, so there hasn't been any drop-off in rushing efficiency since running backs Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner took over, but there has been an increased focus on the passing game in 2014. With Marcus Mariota behind center, it's obvious why that's the case. At fifth in Passing S&P+ and second in IsoPPP, Mariota leads an explosive passing game that is just as efficient as the bar-setting running game.

Freeman and Tyner lead the charge

But even with Mariota, the Buckeyes' primary defensive concern will likely be the Oregon run game. A quick look at the table above and you can see why: the Ohio State defense is ranked in the fifties in both Rushing S&P+ (52nd) and Adjusted Line Yards (59th). Those are both opponent-adjusted measures that capture different aspects of per-play rush defense.

But wait, you say. Didn't the Buckeyes shut down Melvin Gordon, the Heisman runner-up, in the Big Ten Championship game and hold him to just 2.3 yards per carry and 76 total yards? And didn't the Buckeyes prevent Alabama's rushing duo from gaining 100 yards (holding Henry to 95 and Yeldon to 47)?

Well, yes, but that doesn't actually give us too much to go on for predicting their response to Oregon:

  1. Wisconsin's offense is very one-dimensional. The Buckeyes could completely focus on stopping Gordon without too much fear of Joel Stave making them pay. Stave averaged only 4.3 yards per pass and threw three interceptions, allowing the Buckeyes to shift their defensive strategy to stop Gordon.
  2. While Derrick Henry didn't crack the century mark, that was literally only because Lane Kiffin inexplicably turned away from him as the game went on. Henry averaged 7.3 yards per carry and had an insane 77% Success Rate (despite averaging a season-long Opportunity Rate ranked just 29th among running backs). In short, the Ohio State defense never really had an answer to Henry and the Alabama defensive line's run blocking.
  3. While Melvin Gordon is an efficient runner who runs behind a hearty run-blocking offensive line, his primary strength is his explosiveness, which the Buckeye defense is particularly well-suited to limit. Henry, on the other hand, is a bruising and efficient runner who ran behind an even better run-blocking offensive line.

All together, Oregon is the worst combination possible for the Buckeyes. With Mariota and the passing offense, there is simply no way that the Buckeye defense could focus exclusively on run-stopping without being lit up in the passing game. While neither Royce Freeman nor Thomas Tyner are particularly intimidating on their own (averaging 5.6 and 5.1 yards per carry respectively), they are efficient runners, which is maybe deadlier than being explosive for the Buckeyes. The offensive line finally gelled as well, improving to become the top-ranked offensive line in the advanced metric for run blocking, Adjusted Line Yards. Further, neither Wisconsin nor Alabama had running quarterbacks like Mariota, who is an efficient runner in his own right. Mariota, is with all spread-to-run quarterbacks, challenges opposing defenses by upsetting the tackler-to-blocker ratio that is usually in favor of the defense.

This is a tall order for this year's edition of the Silver Bullets. It's likely that if either Freeman or Tyner average over six yards per carry then the Buckeyes will have to match Oregon score-for-score.

Pressuring Mariota

We've already sung Mariota's praises: he's accurate, makes great decisions with the football, never turns the ball over (only three interceptions this season), and is an efficient runner as well. However, there are three things that Buckeye fans can watch for a little optimism.

First, the Ohio State pass defense actually is very good. After being a mediocre unit last season that gave up countless dink-and-dunk yards, Chris Ash has turned the pass defense into a swarming, interception-hungry team that is fourth overall in interceptions gained (24). The Buckeyes are 7th in defensive Passing S&P+ due to a combination of defensive line pressure, gang tackling, new defensive scheme, and an aggressive secondary.

Second, the one advanced metric that is actually in favor the Buckeye defense is Adjusted Sack Rate, where the Buckeyes rank 10th to the Ducks' 45th. The Buckeyes have to take advantage of this disparity with continuous pressure to Mariota. He doesn't get rattled easily or make many mistakes when he is, but it's imperative that Bennett, Bosa, and Darron Lee continue to generate sacks and quarterback pressures.

Finally, the Ducks are without two of their top three receivers in Devon Allen (unfortunately lost to a knee injury) and Darren Carrington (who failed a drug test). This leaves Byron Marshall and Dwayne Stanford as the two main receivers. Both are extremely capable: Marshall, a hybrid running back, is first in the country in RB RYPR (a measure of wide receiver value) with a 73% catch rate, while Stanford is 62nd overall in RYPR for wide receivers. Still, the Ducks nonetheless lost Carrington, who had 165 receiving yards against Florida State, and Allen, who was the team's second-most targeted receiver.

Putting it all together

It will be extremely difficult for Ohio State to slow down Oregon's offense, but the key is in balancing against the efficiency of the Oregon run game while still pressuring Mariota. That's even more difficult because the Ducks pass nearly as often as they run on standard downs (44%), making it difficult to simply send an extra edge rusher on third down or load the box on early downs.

The Buckeyes will have to play sound, assignment football with effective gap control to stop the Oregon rushing offense, with the secondary and linebackers keeping both an eye on Mariota while looking for opportunities to come in on run support. The defensive line will need to overpower and out-rush the Ducks offensive line and be in Mariota's face all night, especially if he is without several of his top targets.