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The Buckeyes find an answer in the red zone vs. Penn State, but defensive concerns persist

Ohio State crossed its second big hurdle of the season in maybe its best performance yet.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State, a loss to Temple or not, is actually a fairly good football team. The defense ranked 17th in the S&P+ and Bill's stats actually projected the 31st-ranked Nittany Lions to upset the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe on blackout night.

But some insane red zone efficiency -- likely the best we've seen all season -- and efficient rushing kept the Buckeyes from falling to "too country" Penn State.

The passing game disappeared, but the Buckeyes were better situationally

3rd down % Exp. pass Exp. rush Scoring opps 3-and-outs Rush success Rush opp rate Cardale pass success Sacks
45% 0 7 7 (64%) 3 (27%) 54% 50% 40% 2

The Buckeyes may be one of the most consistent teams in the top-30 S&P+ overall, but their particular strengths and weakness have changed fairly dramatically week-to-week this year acording to the advanced stats. One week it's an explosive passing game, the next it's an explosive run game. Then the Buckeyes are efficient per play, but not situationally, where the offense bogs down in the red zone and on third downs.

  • That trend of constant change continued this week as Cardale Jones couldn't find any rhythm in the passing game -- with only a 40% passing success rate and no explosive passes -- but the run game was both efficient and explosive enough for one of the best red zone performance of the season. While the Buckeyes averaged slightly more points per scoring opportunity against Maryland last week (six points per opportuntiy to 5.4 points this week), they had better drive efficiency overall, creating scoring opportunities on nearly two thirds of their drives.
  • The only scoring drives where the Buckeyes didn't score touchdowns was the field goal at the beginning of the fourth quarter and the first drive of the second half where Jones was sacked on third down.
  • While the Buckeyes' offensive strengths and weaknesses have changed seemingly week-to-week, one thing has stayed the same: slow starts to both halves. So is this a game planning issue where the scripted plays are off and it just takes a while for the coaches to adjust, or is this related to the players not being up to start the game?
  • One of the funny things from this performance was how explosive the Ohio State run game was -- but it was almost sneaky explosive. Both Zeke and J.T. crossed the hundred yards threshold, but none of the runs were big breakouts where either player just raced away from the defense. This could be because Penn State tries to take away explosive plays at all cost -- and they're darn good at it. They rank 12th overall in defending explosive plays (defensive IsoPPP) and they are 21st in adjusted line yards. So the fact that the Buckeyes created seven explosive runs -- even if they were of the 15- to 20-yard variety -- was pretty remarkable.
  • Part of the issue was undoubtedly a defense that tried to take away Cardale's explosive passing ability, part was the comparative efficiency of the ground game, and part was just how good Penn State was against the pass overall (4th in passing S&P+ and 4th in passing IsoPPP), but there was a definite reason Cardale was benched and J.T. and the zone read ground attack were the focal points of the second half. A 40% success rate and no explosive plays won't cut it against Michigan or Michigan State. But my takeaway was that this team seems to finally have identified Braxton and Michael Thomas as the go-to receivers, with Jalin Marshall as a close third.

Overall, the Buckeyes thrived situationally -- in the red zone and on third downs. And if they can play like that against Penn State's defense (with J.T. Barrett behind center), then the offense should be in good shape for the rest of the season.

But there seems to be a real issue with defending explosive plays

3rd down % Exp. pass Exp. rush Scoring opps 3-and-outs Rush success Rush opp rate Pass success Sacks
8% 2 3 4 (33%) 4 (33%) 43% 46% 33%

Penn State's offensive performance was the exact opposite of Ohio State's -- entirely built on explosive plays with very poor situational offense otherwise. But the Buckeyes allowed five huge explosive plays that clearly show Ohio State has a weakness on defense to explosive plays.

  • Three plays -- the two long bombs to Chris Godwin plus Saquon Barkley's 56-yard run -- were almost exactly 50% of Penn State's total offensive production. There were signs this was coming. In our preview, we noted that the numbers suggested Penn State could have some explosive ability in the air and on the ground, so those were their offensive strengths (sixth overall in rushing IsoPPP and 45th in passing IsoPPP) as well as Ohio State's defensive weakness. And just like Saquon Barkley's efficiency and explosiveness numbers projected (9.4 highlight yards per opportunity and a 55% success rate), he was the difference in the Penn State offense.
  • Otherwise, the Nittany Lions averaged 2.5 points per scoring opportunity, only managed four scoring opportunities the entire game, and converted just a single third down attempt. This was remarkable efficiency by the Buckeyes, but really poor explosive play defense -- the Buckeyes are essentially a break-don't-bend defense now. Ohio State forced as many three-and-outs as they did scoring opportunities!
  • But overall the Nittany Lions were unable to move the ball efficienctly and took away Christian Hackenberg as an efficient threat to move the ball. That doesn't excuse the pass defense's two big explosive plays, but it does help zero in on the issue.
  • Also weird, all three of those explosive plays happened on first down from deep inside the Penn State side of the field. Is the defense just not ready mentally for the drive to begin?
  • Joey Bosa ended with three tackles for loss and a sack and Adolphus Washington had two tackles for loss and two sacks.
Overall this was an encouraging game for Ohio State. Bill Connelly wrote,
"Ring the alarm bells: Ohio State has been consistent in the exact same way that Florida State was last year -- always a good team but never the elite team that we expected to see. The Buckeyes still have time, obviously, but this is a concern. Their max performance is actually the lowest of anybody in the top 30 ... and their minimum performance is one of the highest. That's how you survive a season without any major upsets and then get pummeled by a really good team down the line."

But if there's reason for optimism, it's that a lot has changed week-to-week, and more could still change -- at quarterback, for instance.