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Ohio State beat Michigan because of turnovers and late-game rushing efficiency

It was easily one of the best editions of The Game ever.

The 2016 edition of the The Game will go down as one of the best in the entire series, with as many dramatic turning points as any game could ever want. It easily surpassed the hype from a 5-hour special edition of ESPN's College Gameday and was a fitting 10-year anniversary for the last time these teams were ranked in the top-5.

The advanced stats more or less nailed this game. Some metrics favored Michigan by a few points, and others took Ohio State by a field goal (Vegas closed with Ohio State -4 or so, S&P+ had Michigan by 2, F/+ had OSU by 2, Power Rank had OSU by 2.5, etc.).

But the stats nailed the critical parts of how the game would play -- turnovers (turnover margin favored Ohio State), field position (field position advantage was a wash), the rare explosive play on offense or defense (IsoPPP was more in favor of UM), and special teams (Special Teams S&P+ highly favored OSU) would ultimately determine who squeaked by.

Ohio St UM
Rushing SR 50% 34%
Rushing exp plays 7 (17%) 1 (3%)
Passing SR 28% 52%
Passing exp plays 0 (0%) 2 (6%)
Red zone TDs 25% 50%
Scoring opps efficiency 2.0 4.25
Drive efficiency 42% (3) 31% (4)
Pts off turnovers 14 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. The Pts off turnovers row includes scores following turnovers on downs.

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

  1. Offensive adjusted sack rate -- especially on standard downs. Ohio State has to avoid taking sacks from the adjusted sack leading defense (the Buckeyes are 67th). If they take negative plays, particularly on early downs, there is little evidence to suggest that the Buckeyes can create enough explosive plays to get them out of long-distance situations.
  2. Standard downs success rate -- especially rushing success rate. It's hard to predict a great day for the passing game, but the Ohio State run game vs. the Michigan run defense will be strength-on-strength, so this matchup will likely determine most of Ohio State's offensive success.
  3. Defensive passing IsoPPP. The Buckeyes only real weakness on defense is that they can allow explosive plays every now and then. The Wolverines don't have the best passing game in the world, particularly with John O'Korn, but a big play or two could be enough to swing the game.
  4. Defensive stuff rate. Ohio State's biggest advantage might be in stuffing the Michigan run game, where they are 1st to Michigan's 57th.

The offenses and defenses were more or less evenly-matched

The things at the margins -- like special teams, field position, and turnovers -- ultimately decided who would win, but that was only because both teams were roughly equal in efficiency. Ohio State ended with a 41% offensive success rate to Michigan's 34%.

Michigan was obviously much more successful through the air and the Buckeyes were more efficient (and explosive!) on the ground, but on the whole, the offenses and defenses were more or less a wash.

It wasn't like that for most of the game, however. Beginning with Ohio State's first drive of the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes averaged a 56% rushing success rate compared to 47% earlier in the game. That stretch included four runs of 9+ yards, including Barrett's 41-yard run through the middle. By that point, it seemed like the coaching staff had finally figured out how to attack the Michigan front, but the Wolverine defenders were also more tired, noticeably keeping their hands on the hips between plays. It's no coincidence that the Buckeyes were finally able to have their first long drives since their opening one.

What was surprising from the numbers was how many explosive runs the Buckeyes had -- 7 in total, for four more total explosive plays than the Wolverines managed. Both Barrett and Samuel contributed some explosiveness, with Barrett attacking the middle of the line and Samuel (usually) being used on more outside runs. Mike Weber's numbers were poor (11 runs for 26 yards, 2.4 yards per carry) until you look at the rushing success rate numbers, where he equaled his team's rushing efficiency at 50%. Weber was just used in more short-yardage situations -- six of ten runs were for three or fewer yards to go. He's clearly not the explosive option for this team.

Things were mostly reversed for Michigan's offense. Following two strong opening drives of the second half for Michigan's offense -- where Ohio State forced a fumble on the two-yard line and then allowed a touchdown following a failed fake punt -- Michigan's drives were: interception, punt, punt, punt for a total of 30 yards.

Standard downs and the passing game

Entering the game, the most important offensive statistic was likely standard downs rushing success rate. That matchup was strength-on-strength with Michigan's run defense, while things didn't look promising for the Buckeye passing game against the Michigan secondary. That more or less went as expected, with a 50% rushing success rate and a 28% passing success rate (which is in line with the passing attack's efficiency against Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan State).

But while the rushing attack was solid, the Buckeyes were terrible overall on standard downs for most of the game, leading to very tough third downs and an awful drive efficiency due to red zone ineffectiveness.

The Buckeyes' average distance to go on third downs was 8.5 yards, so it's no wonder that Ohio State was only 3/16 on third downs. A strong reason for that may have been because of the relatively high amount of passing on standard downs. 24 of Ohio State's 32 pass attempts were on first or second down (that's 75%), while the Buckeyes average a 64.9% standard downs run rate on the season. So not only was Ohio State incredibly inefficient through the air, but they passed more often on early downs, putting them in difficult situations on third downs.

Terrible field position

One of the most shocking things about The Game was how the Buckeyes were completely dominated in the field position battle. The Buckeyes typically are the ones dominating in this category, ranking 7th and 4th in offensive and defensive starting field position, but that trend was completely reversed against the Wolverines.

If you take out one outlier possession for each team (following turnovers in opponent territory), Ohio State's average starting field position was the 17.4 yard line, while Michigan averaged the 33.5 yard line. Six of Ohio State's possessions started behind their own 20 yard line, with three inside their own ten. Just comparing their two average field positions, Michigan needed over 15 fewer yards to go for a touchdown! When neither team has much of an advantage in offensive efficiency, those field position yards take on increased importance.

Special teams and scoring opportunities

In close-looking games, scoring opportunities and special teams are obvious areas that can make the difference in the outcome. In both cases, Ohio State won despite itself. Due to red zone inefficiencies (the Buckeyes actually created more scoring opportunities than Michigan did, despite the difference in field position), the Buckeyes had to kick three field goals -- and due to both their inability to score touchdowns in the red zone and the two field goal misses, the Buckeyes averaged just two points per scoring opportunity on five total scoring opportunities during regulation.

That is the same scoring opportunity efficiency that Alabama had in their win over LSU, for some context.

Turnovers and Tom Herman

I've mentioned many times that Tom Herman once said (via Podcast Ain't Played Nobody) that a team who wins the explosive play battle and the turnover battle will win 98% of the time. While the game ultimately came down to a fourth-down conversion in double overtime, this game fit in the 98%: Ohio State won the explosive play battle 7:3 and the turnover battle 3:1.

Not only did the defense hold Michigan to a 34% rushing success rate, but they also produced incredibly important explosive plays of their own. First, they managed to generate 4 three-and-outs. Second, they produced yet another pick-six (please stay one more year, Malik Hooker!), a goal-line fumble, and another interception in Michigan territory that led to another score. The Buckeye defense was easily more responsible for more of Ohio State's points than the offense was.

Plays in the backfield

Two of our four most important metrics focused on creating negative plays -- offensive adjusted sack rate (i.e., avoiding sacks) and defensive stuff rate. Both of these were critically important to Ohio State's win.

Michigan's front seven completely dominated the Ohio State offensive line for an astounding eight sacks and 13 tackles for loss. That absolutely has to be shored up for whoever the Buckeyes play next. Michigan may have one of the two or three best defenses in the country, but there's a strong likelihood that the Buckeyes' next opponent won't be far behind.

The 13 tackles for loss were much more surprising than the sacks. Ohio State is just 67th in adjusted sack rate, but they are 3rd overall in stuff rate, with only 12.3% of runs going for a loss entering the game, compared to 26% against Michigan. But Michigan was ranked third in defensive stuff rate and first in adjusted sack rate, so something we expected to be a wash -- stuff rate -- ended up as a huge advantage for the Wolverines.