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Slow starts and a tough defense kept Ohio State-Minnesota low scoring

Minnesota might have the second-best defense Ohio State sees all year. What does that mean for the OSU offense?

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

It wasn't pretty one. Ohio State had just three offensive touchdowns, with one coming with under two minutes left in regulation as the Buckeyes held off Minnesota for another win. As we wrote earlier, Cardale was fine, but the offense didn't operate with the same efficiency as with J.T. at the helm.

Scoring opportunities, sacks, and slow starts

3rd down % Exp. pass Exp. rush Scoring opps 3-and-outs Rush success Rush opp rate Pass success Sacks
44% 2 (9%) 4 (9%) 6 (50%) 2 41% 39% 50% 4

To start off, the Minnesota defense is very good. They're 24th in defensive S&P+ and excel at shutting down explosive plays (eighth in IsoPPP) and against the pass overall (eleventh in passing S&P+). With that in mind, the Buckeyes still had plenty of areas for improvement.

  • Ohio State generated as many scoring opportunities as they did in their last week against Rutgers, but there are two key differences. First, they only generated scoring opportunities on 50 percent of their total drives, punting seven times with two three-and-outs. Second, when they did create a scoring opportunity, they averaged just 3.5 points per opportunity. Against Rutgers, they averaged 5.8 points per scoring opportunity. Yes, the Rutgers defense overall is far, far worse than Minnesota's. But amazingly, the Rutgers defense is actually statistically better in the red zone than Minnesota's, allowing an average of 4.8 points per opponent scoring opportunity (79th) compared to Minnesota's 5.2 (108th). Part of the inefficiency was due to a missed field goal and a fumble following two promising drives.
  • Again, Minnesota's defense is excellent, but the Buckeyes didn't do enough with their excellent starting field position. Meeting their season average for offensive starting field position (their average drive against Minnesota started at their 34.4 yard line), the offense nonetheless punted on over half of their total offensive drives. Ohio State is fourth in the country in average starting field position this season.
  • Ohio State started slow in both halves, generating 55 total yards of offense to start the game in 21 plays and four drives (2.6 yards per play). The Buckeyes opened with another punt in the second half, in a drive that totaled thirteen yards on four plays.
  • Sacks were huge drive killers as the Buckeye offensive line allowed four on the night, one of which ended in a fumble. Two were on passing downs, and the other two eventually led to punts.
  • Ohio State was less efficient running the ball than you might have expected, with a 41% rushing success rate and slightly lower opportunity rate. I believe this was a huge reason, along with the sacks mentioned above, for the poor overall drive efficiency. Cardale's passing success rate was on par with his season average even against the excellent Minnesota pass defense, but the per-play rushing efficiency hurt the Buckeyes overall.
  • Despite Minnesota being excellent preventing explosive plays, the Buckeyes nonetheless generated six of them, at roughly one in ten for both explosive passes and runs. What's interesting is that neither explosive pass resulted in a score. While Ezekiel Elliott scored on the play following Jalin Marshall's 44-yard reception, the drive with Braxton's 45-yard catch ended with a missed field goal.

Overall the offense did enough to beat a solid defense, but the performance was about on par with the rest of Cardale's season. Part of that was due to sacks, part due to a less efficient run game, and part due to some situational inefficiencies.

Great against the run and poor against the pass, but excellent drive efficiency overall

3rd down % Exp. pass Exp. rush Scoring opps 3-and-outs Rush success Rush opp rate Pass success Sacks
37% 3 (7%) 0 4  (31%) 6 (46%)! 4% 4% 44% 1

  • The Buckeyes defense forced an astounding  six three-and-outs, which was 46% of Minnesota's drives. That's almost impossible to overcome, but Minnesota hung in there nonetheless. Minnesota was shut out untl the fourth quarter, creating just four scoring opportunities and only averaging 3.5 points per scoring opportunity overall.
  • I can't talk enough about the Buckeyes run defense. The Silver Bullets allowed just a single successful run and a single carry of over five yards. Funny enough, these weren't the same play. The successful run was a one-yard pick up on second-and-four, while the carry over five yards was on third-and-long, so it wasn't a considered a successful play. That's an incredible performance. The Minnesota rushing offense wasn't great to begin with, ranking 85th in rushing S&P+, but they were third in adjusted line yards -- so give credit to the run-stopping defensive line here.
  • The defense seemed content to allow a high passing success rate if it meant shutting down the Minnesota run game and preventing explosive running plays. While ideally the defense doesn't allow 7% of Mitch Leidner's passes to be explosive, it was clear that Minnesota went pass-heavy to try and take advantage of Ohio State's relative weakness of defense.