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Ohio State won with second-half J.T. Barrett and first-half red zone defense

The Buckeyes proved they could win a close one.

The Buckeyes had to grind out a win in Madison in their first real lose-able game of the season. The Badgers were incredibly impressive, generating far more explosive plays than their offense had previously shown able to do after ranking 115th in overall IsoPPP.

But the Buckeye defense saved the game in the first half by bending but not breaking, forcing three field goals, then hardly even bending in the second half by allowing just one scoring opportunity during regulation. The Ohio State offense was sluggish through the air in the first half, but a second-half surge allowed the team to be far more effective both creating and capitalizing on scoring opportunities in the second half.

OSU 1H OSU 2H OSU Total UW Total
Rushing success rate 47% 50% 49% 52%
Rushing exp plays 2 1 3 (7%) 6 (13%)
Passing success rate 36% 60% 48% 46%
Passing exp plays 2 2 4 (14%) 5 (18%)
Red zone TDs 0% 60% 43% 33%
Scoring opps efficiency 3 4.8 4.3 3.8
Drive efficiency 33% (2) 100% (0) 64% (2) 50% (2)
Points off turnovers 0 7 7 0

In the table above, scoring opportunity efficiency looks at the average points scored per scoring opportunity -- drives with a first down past the opponents' 40 yard line Drive efficiency looks at the percentage of drives that were scoring opportunities. The number in parentheses is the number of three-and-outs the offense had. This week, because of how much better the offense performed in the second half, I broke down the OSU stats by half. The second half stats include overtime too, so each team got a free scoring opportunity in the second half.

In the advanced stats preview we noted that three advanced stats would matter most:

1. Defensive finishing drives. One of Ohio State's biggest defensive advantages is in points allowed per scoring opportunity, where the Buckeyes average a full point less per scoring opportunity than the Wisconsin offense typically scores. If the Badgers put a drive together, look for more field goals from Wisconsin than touchdowns.

2. Standard downs success rate. Ohio State has been the best in the country at efficient standard downs, but has been poor on passing downs. Wisconsin has been elite on passing downs, creating sacks and generating havoc. The Buckeyes must avoid passing downs when possible and not get behind schedule.

3. Passing success rate. The passing game is back to being the biggest concern for this Ohio State team, and Ohio State must be efficient through the air to keep pressure off of the run game. The weather might make this difficult.

The defense finished drives in the first half, didn't bend in the second

The Wisconsin offense as a whole was far more effective than anyone expected them to be. Part of their success was due to the extra week of preparation and part was due to poor tackling by the Buckeye defense. But the Buckeyes defense was still able to limit the Badgers to field goals in the red zone more often than not.

The Buckeyes' first half was terrible, but the best thing that can be said is that they limited explosive plays from becoming touchdowns. On six first-half drives, the Badgers had four scoring opportunities, but were held to just 4 points per scoring opportunity due to three field goals. In the second half, the defense was much better about limiting scoring opportunities in the first place. In six second-half drives, Wisconsin was held to just two scoring opportunities for one touchdown, or 3.5 points per scoring opportunity. So the first half was bend-don't-break defense, while the second half was more or less just don't bend at all.

What was completely unexpected was how effective the Badgers were at creating explosive plays. The Ohio State defense was 20th in raw IsoPPP heading in to the game, but they allowed big plays (12+ yard runs or 20+ yard passes) on 13% of runs and 18% of passes. Wisconsin was 107th in rushing IsoPPP and 99th in passing IsoPPP. The Badgers hadn't shown much of any big-play ability against the Buckeyes, but a brilliant game plan that used multiple shifts and motions confused the Buckeyes and allowed the Badgers to get the edge on the defense.

But the big plays were fewer and farther between in the second half. For example, Wisconsin's Jazz Peavy had 93 total yards at halftime, but 55 in the second, with 36 of those coming on one play. Corey Clement had 110 rushing yards in the first half, but only 54 in the second.

This is the first game that the defensive front has been weak against the run, but the Badgers' rushing success, both between the tackles in the second half and outside them in the first, makes this an area to watch with the Buckeyes going to face Penn State's Saquon Barkley next week.

The defense can be encouraged by how much pressure they were able to get on the Badgers offense, particularly in the second half. After recording two first-half sacks, they had two more in the second half (including the game-winner) along with four tackles for loss and three for no gain.

The second half offense was far more effective

In the stats preview it seemed like standard downs success rate would determine how effective the Buckeye offense would be. While there weren't more efficient standard downs offenses in the country, the Badgers had a terrifying third down and passing downs defense, while that was the Buckeye offense's one weakness. So, it made sense that the Buckeyes would need to be as efficient as possible to avoid third downs and obvious passing situations when possible.

Overall the Buckeyes were 6/15 on third downs, but became much more efficient on standard downs in the second half. Really, the importance of the second-half offensive adjustments cannot be understated. The Buckeyes averaged 7.3 yards to go on third down in the first half but just 4.6 in the second half. Even if you take out the two highest third down distances per half, then the Buckeye offense still had an average of 2.3 fewer yards to go in the second half compared to the first.

Complimenting the increased standard downs efficiency was the Buckeyes' fourth down success twice in the second half. On Ohio State's first touchdown drive of the game, which began with almost eight minutes left in the third quarter, the Buckeyes converted two fourth-and-ones to extend the drive. Meyer trusted Mike Weber with both carries on a night when he hadn't gotten as much work as usual (those two fourth down carries were 17% of his total carries).

Barrett was more efficient throwing on second half standard downs

Besides the defense's second-half improvement and first half red zone resilience, J.T. Barrett's second half passing was really responsible for Ohio State's gritty win.

J.T. started off looking not much better than he had against Indiana. Multiple drives stalled as J.T.'s  first half passing success rate was just 36%. But the passing attack was 67% more effective in the second half as J.T. had a 60% second half passing success rate. Eight different receivers caught a pass against Wisconsin, but most critically, the Buckeyes' top three receivers stepped up to lead the team in receiving: Curtis Samuel, Dontre Wilson, and Noah Brown. Barrett extended multiple drives with his feet as the more traditional passing game was still difficult, but he also faced significant pressure from defenders like Jack Cichy, who had 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack.

The big difference between the two halves seems to be in J.T.'s standard downs passing success rate. He was just 4/11 in successful passes on first or second down in the first half, but was 7/11 on second half standard downs (he was also 1/3 on third down passing in the first half and 2/3 in the second half).