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Ohio State blew out Michigan thanks to an explosive run game

Running the dang ball worked out okay

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

It was a fitting end to a tumultuous regular season. The Buckeyes finally blew out an opponent a week after one of the most frustrating losses in recent memory, and against a top-ten opponent in one of the most highly-anticipated editions of The Game in recent memory.

So what happened and where was this elite offense for the rest of the season?

Zeke was right: Just give him the ball

3rd down % Exp. pass Exp. rush Scoring opps 3-and-outs Rush success Rush opp rate Pass success Sacks
54% 2 6 7 (78%) 1 62% 41% 57% 1

Michigan's run defense, and their defense overall, was ranked higher in almost every advances statistical category than Michigan State's. You could say that the Spartans have a great defense, but Michigan had an elite defense. But this week, the Buckeyes' offensive game plan was excellent, as were their in-game adjustments and play calling. It's no secret that the play-calling process was one of a number of factors hurting the Buckeyes' offense this season, but can it really all be traced back to Ed Warinner now calling plays from the box as opposed to the field?

In our preview, we noted that the advanced stats had Michigan with the ninth-rated overall, opponent-adjusted, run defense. That was largely a function of their high run success rate, with opposing run games only having one efficient carry for every three or so runs (fourth-best rate in the country). But they were significantly worse in preventing explosive runs, ranking 108th in defensive rushing IsoPPP. The Buckeyes exploited that Michigan weakness all day, with three explosive runs each from Barrett and Elliott. Both Elliott (62%) and Barrett (67%) were incredibly efficient running the ball, even if the Michigan defensive front more or less did a solid job preventing most runs from reaching the second level with a 41% rushing opportunity rate (Michigan was sixth in the country in defensive rushing opportunity rate heading in to the game).

The explosive run game turned out to be all the Buckeyes needed. Ohio State ran the ball 54 times in the game, and a little more than one in ten runs were explosive. But combine that with excellent starting field position and an explosive-enough passing attack, and the offense was able to roll.

The key differences in the offense to me were first in the nature of the explosive runs and second in the overall drive efficiency of the offense. First, not all explosive runs are created equal. The advanced stats threshold for explosive runs is 15 yards. For most of the season, Elliott's explosive runs were the 85-yard variety from the Buckeyes' 2014 post-season, but 15-yard carries that didn't break it past the defensive secondary. Elliott instead had several runs that were 25-yard and longer, including his 66-yard run in the first half.

Second, Ohio State averaged six points per scoring opportunity, largely due to the insane rushing efficiency that allowed the Buckeyes to average just 4.6 yards to go on third down. With that efficient production on first and second down, Ohio State was able to convert over half of their third down attempts with only a single three-and-out, score touchdowns on all but one scoring opportunity (the drive that ended in downs following Bosa's interception in Michigan territory), and create scoring opportunities on nearly four-fifths of their non-garbage time drives. That's incredible drive efficiency, averaging six points per scoring opportunity.

J.T. didn't pass often with only 15 attempts, but he was fairly explosive by squeezing two explosive passes in to those 15 attempts and still averaging 7.5 yards per attempt. With a run game that was performing like it was, there was simply no need to lean on the passing game more.

So what made the difference? Was it the switch to putting Warinner in the box? Was it the motivation from the loss last week? Or simply a better matchup with Michigan's defense that allowed the Buckeyes to be explosive running the ball? Or the rushing offense that relied on reads in the run game? Or maybe even the weather being better this week? It's probably a combination of all of these factors, but it's a shame it didn't all come together for Ohio State before their twelfth game of the season.

But don't forget about the defense

3rd down % Exp. pass Exp. rush Scoring opps 3-and-outs Rush success Rush opp rate Pass success Sacks
50% 2 0 4 (40%) 1 35% 21% 40% 2

Like the announcers (and advanced stats) said, the Ohio State defense has been elite all season, so it wasn't much of a surprise that they were incredibly effective against Michigan.

Yes, Jake Rudock got his yards (263 total passing, averaging 8.2 per attempt), but he was the entire Wolverine offense. Michigan was totally one-dimensional, averaging 2.3 yards per rush, with a long run of eight yards for Jabrill Peppers.

The most impressive thing about the defense was their ability to bend and not break. Ohio State's defense was seventh in overall defensive efficiency and 55th in explosiveness overall entering the game, and those trends held up with Michigan's relative explosiveness, but the key was that the Silver Bullets were tenth in points allowed per opponent scoring opportunity. In general, the Buckeyes tighten up when opposing offenses enter or near the red zone, and that was no different for Michigan as the Wolverines had four scoring opportunities but just one touchdown. The Wolverines put together five drives of at least seven plays, so they chewed a lot of clock but didn't get very much out of it on the scoreboard.