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Ohio State's extremely efficient run game and smothering defense overwhelmed the Illini

The Buckeyes didn't light up the scoreboard, but how about that defense?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

New week, same story: the offense didn't reach its peak efficiency levels, but the defense totally shut down a Big Ten opponent. And, like previous weeks, it's worth noting that Illinois has a solid defense that is even ranked tenth overall in the defensive S&P+ rankings. But can Illinois defensive efficiency really account for the Buckeyes' offensive drive inefficiencies?

Efficient running was all the Buckeyes needed

3rd down % Exp. pass Exp. rush Scoring opps 3-and-outs Rush success Rush opp rate Pass success Sacks
31% 0 5 8 (62%) 3 74% 69% 50% 1

  • Ohio State created scoring opportunities fairly easily, with 62% of their drives reaching at least the Illinois 40 yard line. But the Buckeyes averaged just 3.5 points per scoring opportunity (like they did last week as well). With two turnovers following an overturned-touchdown-turned-missed-field-goal, turnovers and penalties were devastating to the Buckeyes once they got within striking distance. Ohio State's explosive plays were typically not scoring plays themselves, so red zone inefficiency becomes even more vital.
  • This was one of Zeke's best games as a Buckeye. With a 74% rushing success rate, Elliott was extremely consistent even if the offensive line was challenged by a solid Illinois front four. The Illinois defensive line was 25th in havoc rate, which should have been an indicator that they were talented heading in to the game, but nevertheless the strength of the Illinois defensive line (particularly on the right side) makes Zeke's performance even more impressive. Zeke even totaled a similar rushing opportunity rate (69%) suggesting that the offensive line more or less did their part at least when it comes to run blocking. Not to be outdone, J.T. had a 62% rushing success rate as well.
  • The thing about the run game is that there were very few inefficient but positive runs (i.e., runs of 1-4 yards, depending on the down and distance). Instead there were mostly efficient, 5+ yard carries, with a number of tackles for loss. Out of 50 total carries, the Illini had six tackles for loss. This isn't a new thing, or something particular to the Illinois game -- Ohio State ranked 87th with a 21% stuff rate entering the game.
  • Another run game trend -- the Buckeyes had five explosive runs, but none of them were longer than eighteen yards (that means there were five carries between fifteen and eighteen yards). While Ohio State frequently breaks runs to the second level, poorer wide receiver/offensive line blocking down field hasn't sprung many 40+ yard runs this season.
  • It might not have shown up in the stat sheet, but the Illini front seven pressured J.T. and forced a number of shorter passes. Of course, it's kind of a chicken-or-the-egg thing, as the Buckeyes never challenged Illinois deep (as Chris Spielman was frustrated by), so Illinois had no reason to move out of the box, either. The right side of the offensive line seemed to struggle in particular.
  • The passing game started hot, with J.T. completing four efficient passes in a row, including one for a touchdown. The goal early seemed to be to pass to set up the run, as Zeke often was used in non-rushing (i.e., lead-blocking, receiving) capacities in the first half. This strategy -- open things up in the first half, then grind out a quick second half with lots of efficient runs -- almost makes me think that one secondary goal was to be fairly vanilla ahead of Michigan State/Michigan over the next two weeks. J.T. wasn't asked to do very much on third down, for instance, only passing four times (and converting one of those four attempts).

Ohio State made the Illini extremely inefficient

3rd down % Exp. pass Exp. rush Scoring opps 3-and-outs Rush success Rush opp rate Pass success Sacks
29% 3 1 5 (46%) 1 27% 18% 28% 2

  • Raise your hand if you expected the Ohio State offense to have two more three-and-outs than Illinois, but for Illinois to not score a single touchdown? Further, who expected the Illini to have scoring opportunities on nearly half of their total drives, but still not get a touchdown? The answer wasn't in an insane turnover margin either, as both teams had two. But the Illini did have two drives that ended on downs, as well as two drives that started inside the Buckeyes' forty yard line due to turnovers -- the Illini were just extremely inefficient on offense.
  • Once again the Ohio State pass defense held an opposing quarterback below a 50% completion percentage. Luke Fickell and Chris Ash are totally content allowing a number of passing yards as long as the passing is inefficient overall, rarely ends with explosive play touchdowns, and offers the chance for turnovers by the aggressive Silver Bullets. And the Buckeye defense followed through, holding Lunt to a 28% passing success rate. But the Illini offense had to pass as frequently as they did because the run game was inefficient and because of the potential for an explosive play. One of those -- the 38-yarder to Geronimo Allison -- was the result of a rare missed tackle for Gareon Conley. Eli Apple had an excellent day overall, only showing up on the stat sheet to record a tackle for loss.
  • Speaking of the Ohio State run defense, Ohio State allowed just four efficient carries the entire game. Josh Ferguson's 27-yard run was almost literally the entire rushing production for the Illini all night. Ohio State's defensive line overwhelmed the line of scrimmage and the Buckeyes finished with an astounding 10.5 tackles for loss. Illinois was 36th in stuff rate before facing Ohio State. Three of those tackles for loss were from Joey Bosa.