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Ohio State's decline in efficiency and explosiveness continued against Northwestern

Ohio State's offense had another underwhelming performance against Northwestern

Overall, an underwhelming offensive performance kept the game close for Ohio State once again, as the familiar issues of poor rushing and passing efficiency and no explosive passing game kept things tight.

Ohio St Northwestern
Rushing SR 49% 39%
Rushing exp plays 5 (14%) 5 (18%)
Passing SR 45% 43%
Passing exp plays 1 (3%) 3 (7%)
Red zone TDs 75% 50%
Scoring opps efficiency 4.8 5
Drive efficiency 56% (2) 44% (2)
Pts off turnovers 3 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.

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

  1. Rushing success rate for Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel: Will the declining rushing efficiency continue even against a mediocre run defense?
  2. Passing success rate (on standard downs): After last week's abysmal passing performance, the Buckeyes will have to show some improvement to stay in the playoff hunt. Adjusted sack rate would be the key metric here, but Northwestern only has one proven pass rusher.
  3. First down S&P+: The Ohio State offense is elite on first downs (except for last week), and Northwestern's defense is terrible on first down but elite on second and third. Ohio State will need second- and third-and-short.

The run game was still inefficient

At first glance, my top area to watch -- rushing success rate -- seemed to marginally improve against Northwestern. After a dismal 41% against Penn State, the Buckeyes ran with a 49% success rate against Northwestern's markedly worse run defense.

However, the rushing opportunity rate tells a different story. Opportunity rate is the percentage of runs that are for five or more yards, and here the Buckeyes had just a 35% opportunity rate. The opportunity rate is designed to measure how effectively the line blocks (the line is theoretically responsible for around five yards of a run), so that means that the line only did its job on roughly a third of the runs against Northwestern. The difference between the opportunity rate and higher rushing success rate is mostly due to successful later-down runs on second- or third-and-short, where the Buckeyes would pick up the first down but still not run for five or more yards.

Ohio State had the top overall rushing opportunity rate and the second-ranked rushing success rate going in to this game, but those rankings are largely dependent on dominant early-season performances (i.e., before the Indiana game). Since then, Ohio State's rushing success rates have declined from a high of 73% to a high of 49% over the last three games.

Against Northwestern the Buckeyes tried to mostly out-athlete the Wildcats, going to the edge frequently with quick-hitting flares and multiple speed options (that were particularly hard to watch). But runs up the middle were largely ineffective.

This is the fourth-straight game without a 100-yard rusher as well.

Passing was more efficient, but still lacks explosive plays

The passing game was more efficient than last week's 26% success rate performance (with a 45% success rate this week), but the passing game only had a single explosive pass -- the strike to KJ Hill in the fourth quarter (there was a near-explosive 19-yarder to Curtis Samuel as well). So in 32 attempts, Ohio State only had a single explosive pass.

Last week the Buckeyes struggled to hit most passes, but didn't seem to take advantage of the short passing game. The offense seemed determined to change that this week by targeting the edge with passes closer to the line of scrimmage, but there was still absolutely no deep threat to stretch the defense vertically. Without stretching the defense vertically, the Wildcat defense was able to contain the inside run game -- the horizontal passing game wasn't enough to relieve the pressure on the interior of the line.

For the most part J.T. had plenty of time to pass, at least. The Wildcats recorded only one sack and Big Ten sack leader Ifeadi Odenigbo was held in check.

Ohio State didn't win first downs

The final key stat to watch was first down success rate, where the Buckeyes appeared to have a notable advantage. Especially at the beginning of the game, the scripted portion of the Buckeyes offensive gameplan was focused on early-downs passing -- and that was successful, with Ohio State's first three drives all ending in scores.

But overall the Buckeyes had just a 31% passing success on third down (36% success rate on first down overall), and they threw on 46% of first downs (and threw on 44% of all downs). The goal was clearly balance, but a low early downs success rate stalled drives in the second and third quarters.

Northwestern was explosive on offense

It was somewhat surprising that Northwestern managed eight explosive plays and the Buckeyes again lost the explosive play battle 6 to 8. As the announcers repeated after multiple long runs, Ohio State's man coverage left some holes for Clayton Thorson, and some missed assignments led to big gains for Northwestern. That's been an issue (to some degree) for three weeks now, as Wisconsin was far more explosive than expected, and Penn State was their usual degree of explosiveness as well.

Obviously, the defense played extremely well and is further along than we would have expected in the preseason. But a slight decline in offensive efficiency and a lack of offensive explosiveness, combined with the occasional explosive play allowed on defense, has kept four games closer than expected so far this season.