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Ohio State lost the explosive play battle, then blocked kicks sealed the upset

It was a perfect storm of direct causes -- blocked kicks -- and indirect cases -- explosive plays, red zone inefficiency, and havoc.

Ohio State’s defense held Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley to a 30% passing success rate and star running back Saquon Barkley only had 12 carries. Ohio State won the turnover battle (at least on the box score) and gained over 125 more total yards than the Nittany Lions.

But despite all of that, the Buckeyes are dealing with their first loss of 2016.

What went so wrong?

Ohio St Penn St
Rushing SR 41% 39%
Rushing exp plays 4 (10%) 6 (18%)
Passing SR 26% 30%
Passing exp plays 2 (5%) 4 (17%)
Red zone TDs 33% 50%
Scoring opps efficiency 3.8 4.25
Drive efficiency 36% (3) 33% (3)
Pts off turnovers 5 7

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.

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

1. Offensive rushing opportunity rate. Ohio State's offense should be able to run the ball efficiently, with a high number of 5+ yard runs, and with a decent number of those efficient runs that gain much more.

2. Defensive havoc rate/stuff rate. The defense has a clear advantage in creating negative plays, especially on the ground. They'll need to keep the Penn State offense off their game through negative plays. It's especially important to take advantage of passing downs, where Penn State allows a high percentage of sacks. The Rushmen have to get to their target.

3. Defensive rushing and passing IsoPPP. The Nittany Lions offense has been inefficient and inconsistent, but has hit big plays almost every time they get an opportunity. And they've been getting more successful as the season has gone on. The Buckeye defense clamped down in the second half against Wisconsin, but this might be the critical difference between a blowout Ohio State win and a close game like last week.

4. Defensive finishing drives. The Buckeyes have an apparent advantage in keeping the Nittany Lions out of the end zone on scoring opportunities. They'll have to prevent explosive plays from becoming six points.

Ohio State won just one of those four key metrics.

The direct cause of the loss

Special teams were the unlikely direct cause of the loss. The Buckeyes' special teams have been stellar all season, with the second-ranked special teams S&P+ rating in the country. But two critical fourth quarter blocked kicks directly led to the last two Penn State scores.

The first was the blocked punt with Ohio State up by a touchdown. That gave the Nittany Lions the ball on the Ohio State 28. The defense held despite the situation they were put in, forcing a field goal. But on the very next possession, Penn State blocked a rushed field goal attempt and returned it for a touchdown.

Those ten fourth quarter points ultimately sealed the win for Penn State, but ultimately four other factors put the Buckeyes in a position to lose in the first place:

The Buckeyes lost the explosive play battle again

In our stats preview we noted that the whole Penn State offense -- from gunslinger Trace McSorley to Saquon Barkley behind a tenuous offensive line -- was extremely inconsistent and fairly inefficient, but they were explosive when they did have an opportunity. For instance, the passing game was 92nd in passing success rate, but fifth in passing IsoPPP (how explosive successful plays are).

Penn State definitely wasn't efficient here -- they had just a 39% rushing success rate and a 30% passing success rate -- but they won the explosive play battle with ten explosive plays to Ohio State's six. The had explosive plays on 18% of runs and 17% of passes. Trace McSorley only completed 8 passes, and if you count a 19-yard gain (20 is typically the explosive play line), then five of his eight completions were for big gains.

Penn State only had two scoring drives that weren't due to the fourth quarter blocked kicks. On those two drives, the Nittany Lions had half of their total explosive plays. Three explosive plays accounted for all but one yard on the first touchdown drive, as well as 80% of their fourth quarter touchdown drive.

The Buckeye defense played extremely well for the other ten Penn State drives, but it only took two off drives for the Nittany Lions to capitalize with explosive gains. Each member of the secondary seemed to have a blown man coverage on the explosive plays.

Declining offensive efficiency

Three of the four key metrics I mentioned in the preview were about the defense. I didn't expect the offense to have too much trouble establishing the run and at least having an efficient rushing attack. But the offensive line was overwhelmed, allowing eleven tackles for loss and six sacks.

The running game never really got going, and the passing game struggled again too, so the result was an offense that had a 41% rushing success rate and a dismal 26% passing success rate. Some bizarre notes:

  • Barrett's 43 passing attempts were the most in a single game in his career. In fact, his second-highest number of attempts came against Cincinnati in his redshirt freshman season. Given the passing game's efficiency struggles, that's not a good sign.
  • Barrett's total yards were good -- 245 passing yards with a touchdown and no interceptions looks like exactly the kind of balance Meyer talked about at the beginning of the year. But a crazy percentage of those completed passes weren't efficient because they didn't get to a first down: Barrett completed eleven passes on third down attempts, but only five of them resulted in a first down -- more than half were still short of the first.
  • Ohio State had only two explosive passes -- Marcus Baugh's spin-move for a touchdown and Noah Brown's catch-and-run (three if you count Terry McLaurin's 19-yarder). That's just 5% of Barrett's overall attempts.
  • Barrett had to pass so frequently in part due to so many third-and-longs. The Buckeyes were a top-5 rushing team on passing downs (averaging 4.4 adjusted line yards per carry on passing downs), but they faced an average of 7.4 yards to go on third down.

Barrett is not the primary issue. Outside of a few off passes and missing a few receivers downfield, Barrett did what he could, converting a few critical third-down throws to Dontre Wilson and Curtis Samuel on the final drive.

Besides, he was constantly running for his life in the backfield, avoiding pressure due to a monstrous performance from Penn State's front seven. Ohio State's offensive had been one of the best in the country in pass protection, with a 24th-ranked adjusted sack rate despite having a dual-threat quarterback, but they allowed 17 havoc plays to Penn State. That includes 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss to Garrett Sickels -- who only played a half. It's not much of a stretch to say that if he hadn't entered the game then Ohio State scores another touchdown.

The last bullet point may be the most shocking. This team, and most of Meyer's successful offenses, have been built on an efficient rushing attack. But the Buckeye rushing offense couldn't shoulder its load on standard downs tonight, leading to far more passing situations. The Penn State defense was aggressive, often sending an extra rusher to overwhelm the offensive line in passing situations and plug holes for the run game. Without running room, the Buckeyes passed more often, but the passing game often couldn't exploit the holes opened by sending extra pass rushers. Some bizarre rushing stats:

  • This is the third-straight game that Ohio State running backs haven't gained 100 yards on the ground. Weber's totals from Indiana on: 4.7 yards per carry, 4.2 yards per carry, and 3.4 yards per carry. Samuel's: 9.1, 3.8, 35.5.
  • Curtis Samuel's role in the offense is still a mystery. He's clearly the most dynamic playmaker on the team and he averaged 35.5 yards per carry against Penn State, but he only had two carries.
  • With twelve runs for no gain or a loss, Penn State's stuff rate was an absurd 30%.
  • Maybe the most concerning trend is the Buckeyes' declining rushing success rate this season. From the Penn State game back to Bowling Green, here are the Buckeyes' rushing success rates: 41%, 49%, 57%, 66%, 43%, 73%. That's a declining rushing success rate in four straight games.

Finally, as a result of that per-play inefficiency, the Buckeyes couldn't take advantage of red zone and scoring opportunities. Ohio State had been one of the best teams in the country when they created a scoring opportunity, averaging 6.17 points per scoring opportunity. That means that nearly every time they got a first down in an opponent's 40 yard line, they scored a touchdown. But against Penn State, they averaged just 3.8 points per scoring opportunity and created only five scoring opportunities total.

This is not the end of the Buckeyes' season. It doesn't necessarily derail them from playoff contention, either. But unfortunately this loss wasn't just due to freak accident special teams mistakes, but mutli-game trends of declining offensive efficiency and allowing explosive plays. There's hope, though: the issues are obvious and the talent is there for Ohio State to fix the problems.