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Ohio State-Alabama, Sugar Bowl 2015: Advanced stats review

Ohio State keeps winning and now has a chance to play for the first-ever Playoff Championship. You watched the game and saw the regular stats, but what do the advanced stats have to say about the Buckeyes' win over Alabama?

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In one of the best football games anyone could have hoped for, between two coaching titans in Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, the Ohio State Buckeyes won and will advance to the College Football Playoff Championship Game.

The game wasn't decided until the final eight seconds of the game as Alabama quarterback Blake Sims heaved a last-ditch hail mary into the end zone, only for Tyvis Powell to ensure yet another victory with a game-ending end zone interception.

The Buckeyes have ten days to prepare for the Ducks and a rematch of the 2010 Rose Bowl, but first let's dig in to the victory over Alabama.

Ohio State Alabama
Yards per play 6.9 5.8
Yards per point 12.8 11.6
Points per play 0.54 0.5
Points per possession 3 2.33

Turnovers and points off of turnovers

Ohio State won the turnover battle +1, but for the first half it looked like Alabama points off of turnovers could do the Buckeyes in. It's very difficult to win against an opponent like the Crimson Tide when you give them two turnovers on your side of the field. But that's what happened after the Crimson Tide turned two first-half turnovers (one an interception by Cardale Jones and the other a fumble by Ezekiel Elliott) into touchdowns.

Even though the Buckeyes won the turnover battle, they finished with fewer points off of turnovers, after two Blake Sims interceptions didn't turn in to Buckeye points (though to be fair, one of those was the game-ending interception by Tyvis Powell). Steve Miller won seldom-awarded the Solomon Thomas Sugar Bowl Big Man Interception Award with his athletic pick-six in the third quarter.

Field position matters

Ohio State and Alabama were fairly evenly matched according to the advanced statistics, but the one big advantage they had was in Field Position Advantage, where the Buckeyes ranked third to the Tide's 87 (Alabama's starting field position was their own 28.7 yard line). That was due to both a -1 turnover margin and a 55th-ranked kickoff return game.

However, Alabama completely flipped the script on the Buckeyes: Alabama's starting field position was the 30.7 yard line, while the Buckeyes averaged starting on the 18.2 (and it would have been the 15.8 yard line if not for the final possession on the onside kick recovery). This was detrimental to the Buckeyes' overall possession efficiency, as the Buckeyes had five possession begin from behind their own ten yard line -- and only one of those drives ended in Buckeye points.

And the red zone offense was a little lacking

The Buckeyes first two trips to the red zone were a little concerning as both ended in field goals. With a -2 turnover margin and poor field position, settling for field goals simply wouldn't cut it for the rest of the game.

Ohio State offense Alabama defense
S&P+ 1st 1st
FEI 9th 5th
Red zone TD % 69.60% 38.64%

Luckily this trend wouldn't last because of Ohio State's explosiveness and defense, but it was a little concerning during the first half.

But the Buckeyes were too explosive

Speaking of the Buckeyes' offense, one thing we noted before the game was that Ohio State needed to challenge the Alabama secondary similar to how they challenged the Badgers in the Big Ten Championship. Ohio State's recipe for success was for Jones to replicate Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall's passing in the Iron Bowl, plus Elliot had to maintain his high Opportunity Rate. Ohio State's offense had three advantages over the Crimson Tide defense according to the advanced stats: Passing S&P+ (1st to 26th), Success Rate (1st to 14th), and Adjusted Sack Rate (69th to 94th).

So how did they do? Jones passed for 243 yards on 6.9 yards per attempt (after starting hot 0-5) and threw four explosive passes: two 26-yard strikes to Jalin Marshall and the two requisite bombs to Devin Smith for 40+ yards a piece. Ohio State then averaged 6.9 yards per play, and had a 48% Success Rate running the ball. Finally, and even though the Buckeyes were ranked a low 69th in Adjusted Sack Rate on the offensive line, the Buckeyes only allowed three sacks. Elliott was obviously the star of the game, recording three huge explosive runs and a 55% Success Rate of his own. The Buckeyes' ability to run the ball successfully on the top-ranked Rushing S&P+ defense ultimately decided the game, with the Zeke Streak being the lasting image in many Bama fans' minds. Finally, the Buckeyes' third down efficiency was incredible: 10/18 against an Alabama defense that was fifth in Defensive FEI.

Make no mistake: this was an elite defense -- and maybe the best in the country -- and the Buckeye offense still averaged three points per possession and a roughly 50% Success Rate overall.

And how about that second-half defense

But what was most heartening to see was the effort the defense gave to win the game, despite the sometimes difficult field position that the offense put them in. The defense was successful because of insane third down efficiency and from its ability to create turnovers.

Obviously the lasting image for the defense will be in Steve Miller's pick-six, but there were plenty of other moments that were just as important. According to ESPN's Stats and Information, Ohio State held Alabama to a season-low 15% third down conversion percentage, despite averaging just 4.8 yards to go compared to the Ohio State's average 6.9 yards to go. Blake Sims also threw two interceptions on third down, while Ohio State recorded two touchdowns.

Buckeye fans should be extremely happy the ball-hawking Vonn Bell decided to come to Columbus instead of Tuscaloosa, as his interception was particularly important since the Crimson Tide started with the ball at the Ohio State 23 yard line.

Darron Lee led with two sacks, but Michael Bennett, Bell, and Steve Miller all played outstanding games as well. And how about moving Eli Apple on to Amari Cooper? Sure, Cooper had two touchdown receptions, but the country's top receiver was held to just 71 total yards and 7.9 yards per reception.

Finally, that is how you defend a hail mary. Good work, guys.

Looking to the championship game

Now the Buckeyes have to prepare for an Oregon team that smoked the defending national champion Seminoles, 59-20. Mariota is a big problem for any team, but the early advanced stats suggest that the Buckeyes defense will need to be just as aggressive in creating turnovers (against the NCAA career leader in fewest interceptions per pass attempts) as it has been over the last two games. The offense should enjoy an advantage in rushing efficiency against the 42nd-ranked S&P+ run defense as well.