With a win like that, and a season like the Buckeyes have had, it's impossible to nail down a single most meaningful statistic. Ohio State won the first-ever Playoff Championship Game because of rushing success, a dominating offensive line, a seemingly-endless supply of quarterback talent, a much-improved linebacking core, an attacking secondary, a defensive line that gave relentless pressure, and a coaching staff that was on target for the entire season.
Ohio State's season was supposed to have been done multiple times: after Braxton's injury, after the Virginia Tech loss, when J.T. Barrett went down, when the Buckeyes were matched up with the Crimson Tide, and even before the Michigan State game, when few picked Ohio State to win. But incredible coaching, resiliency, and the cumulative effects of recruiting pushed the 2014 Buckeyes ahead.
There's plenty of off-season now to digest the season from every advanced stats angle possible, but for now we can just concentrate on the deciding factors from the Championship Game.
Just feed Elliott
Unlike Lane Kiffin's play calling with running back Derrick Henry in the Sugar Bowl, Tom Herman kept it simple, stupid: just feed Elliott (Zeke even brought Hyde's cereal bowl). Elliott's final stats:
|Attempts||Yards||Avg.||TDs||Success Rate||Highlight yards|
Elliott started the game with four inefficient carries, while Oregon never saw a third down in their first touchdown drive. Things looked a little bleak -- if the offensive line couldn't get a push against Oregon's somewhat undersized defensive line, then that would not only disrupt the offense's base inside zone run game, but also the explosive constraints like play action passing. But then Ohio State switched from running primarily inside zone to inverted veer (Jones still makes a read, but Elliott's run action is to the outside on a perimeter run instead of right on the guard's heal).
From there, Herman's job was simple: just give Elliott the ball as much as possible. In the second half, Elliott had 25 carries -- 19 of those were successful runs. The offensive line visibly wore down the Oregon front seven in the second half. Elliott didn't have a single run for a loss and only had one carry for no gain.
So certainly a large part of Ohio State's success was on the offensive line, but Elliott also took advantage of the opportunities he was given for explosive plays, often breaking multiple tackles to create explosive runs. Elliott averaged 6.4 Highlight Yards per Opportunity against Oregon (which is the total number of Highlight yards, or yards after the five that the offensive line is responsible for, divided by the total number of runs over five yards), meaning that if the offensive line did its job to get Elliott his first five yards, then Elliott averaged over six yards (and several broken tackles) after that. Elliott's runs were punishing, and it seemed like no Oregon defender expected him to run with such a powerback style.
Turnovers, and points off of turnovers
Before the game, our staff roundtable almost unanimously agreed that turnover margin was the most important statistic for Ohio State to have a chance to win... and then the Buckeyes went (essentially) -4. Whether it was nerves, bad luck, or sloppy ball handling, the Buckeyes fumbled three times and Jalin Marshall dropped a pass for a fluke interception.
If not for those three turnovers, the Ohio State offense would have been completely unstoppable. The Buckeyes punted three times, but every other possession was either a touchdown or a turnover as they averaged 3.23 points per possession, but 6.4 yards per play. According to Bill Connelly's data, teams with a +4 turnover margin win 93% of the time -- but Ohio State was in that 7% in the Championship Game.
That was due to two factors. First, the Ohio State offense was nearly unstoppable on every other drive that didn't end in a turnover. On all nine drives that didn't end in a turnover, the Buckeyes averaged 6.6 yards per play and 44 yards per possession. Second, the defense played a heck of a game despite coming on the field early four times due to turnovers. Part of this is because the Buckeyes managed to turn the ball over in Oregon territory so that the Ducks only started one drive on the Buckeyes' side of the ball -- turnovers were almost like punts for the Buckeyes. Three of the four Ohio State turnovers were on scoring opportunities (when Ohio State entered the Oregon 40 yard line).The Buckeyes scored touchdowns on exactly 2/3 of their scoring opportunities, with the other three ending in turnovers. Since the Buckeye defense stepped up, Oregon only had ten points off of four Ohio State turnovers, after getting 34 points off of five Florida State turnovers in the Rose Bowl.
|OSU Pts/poss||OU SFP||OSU SFP||OSU Pts/Scoring Opp||OU Pts/Turnovers|
*SFP = Starting Field Position
Ohio State's third down defense
Ohio State's defense did something few really expected it to do: stop Oregon's run game. Apart from the first drive, when Oregon never met a third down and five of the Ducks' seven runs were efficient, the Ducks only had six more successful rushing plays out of 26 attempts. This was really unexpected considering that Ohio State was ranked 52nd in Defensive Rushing S&P+ and 59th in Defensive Line Adjusted Line Yards, while Oregon was ranked second and first in both of those metrics. It was the worst Oregon rush performance since 2013 Stanford loss. Ohio State simply won on first down. After that first drive, Oregon had only eleven successful first downs out of 23 attempts.
But it wasn't just on third downs, but also Ohio State's red zone defense. Of Oregon's five scoring opportunities, they kicked two field goals and had one drive end on downs. Oregon was 41st in red zone touchdown percentage this season. Simply, the Ohio State defense stepped up when it was needed most. Over the last two games, Ohio State held Alabama and Oregon to 4/25 on third downs. Including Wisconsin, the number is 9/43, which is 21% and easily the best average in the country if it were all-season long (as it is, Ohio State's defense was 13th in opponent third down conversion percentage at 34%). In fact, while Oregon had several explosive plays, the defense only broke on the one 70-yard Mariota touchdown pass following the interception.
After downing three Heisman finalists in a row, there is no doubt that the Buckeyes were the country's best team in 2014. The Buckeyes overcame injuries and an early loss to turn in one of the most incredible college football performances of all time.