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Why Ohio State lost to Clemson

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Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Just about nobody saw it coming: 31-0 Clemson was a result that was seemingly barely on the table at all.

The boxplot of performance volatility I posted in the advanced stats preview doesn’t even really capture the offensive performance we saw on New Year’s Eve — Ohio State’s worst bowl loss since 1920 and Urban Meyer’s largest margin of defeat ever as a head coach. In many ways it felt similar to the 2006/7 41-14 National Championship loss to Meyer’s Gators (I’d argue that was worse, but that’s another story) in terms of embarrassment on a national stage.

But now it’s 2017, and Ohio State has the opportunity to dig in to what went wrong against Clemson, make the necessary adjustments, reel in a top-3 recruiting class, and prepare for another shot at the playoff for 2017.

Ohio State vs. Clemson Advanced Stats

Metric OSU Clemson
Metric OSU Clemson
Rushing SR 50% 49%
Rushing opp rate 50% 38%
Rushing exp plays 1 (6%) 5 (14%)
Rushing stuffed rate 31% 24%
Passing SR 29% 50%
Passing exp plays 1 (4%) 4 (11%)
Overall exp rate 4% 12%
3rd down % 17% 47%
Avg starting field position 29.3 35%
Red zone TDs 0% 75%
Scoring opps efficiency 0 4.4
Drive efficiency 33% (4) 54% (2)
Pts off turnovers 0 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. Rushing opportunity rate is the % of runs that gained 5 or more yards. Rushing stuff rate is the % of runs that were for no gain or a loss. Explosive plays are 12+ yard runs and 20+ yard passes here. This table only includes non-garbage time numbers, and I set garbage time at Clemson’s final touchdown with 8:51 left in the game, following OSU’s last interception.

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

Rushing opportunity rate. Ohio State has to maintain its biggest offensive advantage — efficient rushing. Without an efficient run game, Ohio State will be forced into obvious passing situations, heavily benefiting Clemson.

Ohio State’s sacks allowed. The biggest mismatch for the Ohio State offense -- outside of the passing game overall — will be the offensive line in pass protection against Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins. It’s unlikely that Ohio State will win allowing 6+ sacks again.

Interception margin. Deshaun Watson will find some success passing -- he’s too good not to, no matter what secondary he’s facing — but the key will be creating at least one interception. Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore, and Gareon Conley have to play their absolute best against this loaded Clemson passing offense.

Wayne Gallman’s rushing success rate. For Ohio State to slow the Clemson offense down, they’ll need to completely remove Gallman from the offensive gameplan. As good as Watson is, stopping the run should be the first goal. Ohio State has to force Clemson to doubt whether they can rely on Gallman to pick up critical short yardage -- and as it is they’re 86th in power success rate.

Ohio State defense: Stopping Gallman and forcing turnovers

Key stats:

  • Defensive stuff rate 24% (41% including 1-yard gains)
  • Defensive explosive play rate allowed: 12%
  • Third down %: 47%
  • Gallman rushing success rate: 44% overall, 22% in the first half
  • Overall explosive play ratio: 9:2, in favor of Clemson

Probably the biggest key I saw was stopping Gallman, making Clemson one-dimensional, and then forcing turnovers. Those three things were all interrelated based on Clemson’s worst performances this year — while Deshaun Watson is obviously prolific, I wasn’t confident in the Tigers’ ability to consistently move the ball without an efficient ground game.

For a quarter and a half -- until Clemson started their 8-play, 83-yard drive with 6 minutes left in the first half — the Ohio State defense stayed on script. They’d forced two interceptions out of Watson, including one on his first throw of the game, and Wayne Gallman even ended the half with just 22 yards on 9 carries (2.4 yards per carry) with only 3 carries of 5 or more yards. If you add stops for just 1-yard gains, the Ohio State defense had a 41% stuff rate, which is even higher than the Buckeyes’ country-leading average. Until the game was essentially decided, the Clemson run game was held in check.

But then two things changed that ended up leading to all of Clemson’s four touchdowns. First, the Tigers had two touchdown drives that began in Ohio State territory (and another that ended in a missed field goal). Clemson had about a 5-yard field position advantage over the course of the (non-garbage time) game. The reasons for Ohio State’s field position disadvantage were varied — sometimes they were due to turnovers (like following Van Smith’s 86-yard interception return) and sometimes they were due to poor offensive drives that simply failed to move the ball down the field.

Second, Deshaun Watson and his limitless supply of elite receivers created explosive plays. Clemson’s opening field goal was spurred by a 37-yard Mike Williams catch-and-run. Their first touchdown included a 26-yard Williams reception too. Their second touchdown had a 33-yard Watson run as well as a 30-yard wheel route touchdown. Their third quarter touchdown drive, which started at the Ohio State 40, had a 17-yard Watson run followed by a quick 12-yard run by Gallman. Their final touchdown drive started at the Ohio State 7-yard line, so an explosive play wasn’t even possible.

The 2016 Ohio State defense was excellent — probably the best in recent memory — and the Fiesta Bowl was their first time allowing over 30 points in a game this season. The field position issues certainly weren’t on the defense. But while we expected a certain number of explosive plays allowed — after all, Clemson averaged an explosive play in one of every four snaps this season and Ohio State — we couldn’t have really expected the Tigers to essentially maintain their explosiveness with a 21% explosiveness rate.

Ohio State offense: Negative plays and turnovers

Key stats:

  • Rushing stuff rate: 31%
  • Rushing success and opportunity rates: 50%
  • Overall negative play rate: 22%
  • 3rd down rate: 17%
  • 3rd down average yards to go: 8.25 yards
  • Scoring opportunities/total drives: 4/12
  • Three-and-outs/total drives: 4/12

Anyone who follows college football could’ve told you that Ohio State’s passing game could’ve been a liability against Clemson. Ohio State had the 54th-ranked passing attack by passing S&P+ and was 90th in passing success rate entering the game. But I thought sacks allowed and overall interception margin between Watson and Barrett would be the two keys, along with maintaining their seemingly decisive advantage in efficient running. Ohio State went 0/3 in these three metrics.

First, both Watson and Barrett threw two interceptions. Watson’s first came on his first throw, giving the Buckeyes the ball on the Clemson 33-yard line for their first scoring opportunity of the night (which ended in a missed field goal). His second came in Ohio State territory on a 3rd-and-7 just inside the scoring opportunity range. Essentially the only costs to those turnovers were missed opportunities for the Clemson offense.

Both of Barrett’s second-half interceptions came inside a scoring opportunity. One was on the Clemson 27 and the other was a 4th-and-27 on the Clemson 33. While the second pick came on a play with a low probability of success anyway, it resulted in the 86-yard return and resulting score, which ended up icing the game for Clemson. While the score sheet shows a push on interception margin, it’s easy to make the case that Ohio State’s interceptions were more costly than Clemson’s.

Second, and third, Ohio State allowed an absurd number of negative plays. We expected this for the passing game. Clemson ranked 4th in both overall havoc rate and adjusted sack rate, while Ohio State ranked 79th in adjusted sack rate on offense. The right side of the line in particular was prone to allowing pressure on passing downs. But while pressure on J.T. was a problem, Clemson only managed three sacks on the night. Going by Ohio State’s other season-long offensive trends, that wouldn’t be enough to sink the offense.

Instead, the real problem was that the offense allowed an absurd number of tackles for loss in the run game. All told, 10 of Ohio State’s 45 non-garbage time snaps were for a loss and nearly 13 of their rushing plays were for no-gain or a loss. That’s completely counter to season trends for both teams — and the biggest surprise factor that cost the Buckeyes the game. During Ohio State’s regular season, which included games against tough defenses like Michigan and Wisconsin, Ohio State was third in the country in stuff rate allowed, at just 12.6% of runs. They were second in opportunity rate (5+ yard runs) at 47.8%. Clemson, meanwhile was just 39th in stuff rate at 21.2% and 12th in opportunity rate at 32.5%. So in the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State’s stuff rate was 146% worse and Clemson’s was 46% better than their season averages.

Rushing efficiency overall wasn’t the problem — it was inconsistent line play and play calling that led to the disastrous rushing performance. Looking at the overall rushing success rate (which looks at progress towards first downs: 50% on 1st, 80% on 2nd, 100% on 3rd) and opportunity rate, Ohio State averaged 50% efficiency in both stats. That’s a little below their average rushing success rate and a little above their average rushing opportunity rate on the season. But negative plays and the early deficit led to just 21 runs the entire game, and only 5 for Mike Weber. On standard downs, the Buckeyes typically run 64.7% of the time — against Clemson, they ran just 39% of the time total.

As a result, the Buckeye offense was behind the chains and behind the scoreboard nearly the entire night. In non-garbage time, they averaged 8.25 yards to go on third down. Even if you take out two outliers due to penalties (of 17 and 18 yards to go), they still averaged 6.4 yards to go on third down. Ohio State is not built to convert third and longs — they ranked 74th in passing downs success rate — which is why rushing and standard downs efficiency was so important. But when 9 of 12 third down attempts were with 5 or more yards to go, this offense didn’t really stand a chance.

So all in all, the Buckeyes managed just 45 non-garbage time plays. 10 of those plays, or 22%, were for a loss. They had 12 offensive possessions in that time — four were scoring opportunities (which went: missed field goal, missed field goal, interception, interception), and four were three-and-outs.

What now?

The offensive staff has a lot to think about over the offseason. The passing game has had two years of regression — from second in passing S&P+ in 2014 to 26th last season, to 54th this season before averaging 3.8 yards per attempt against Clemson. The offensive line has replaced multiple starters in each of the last three years but has still been a strength of the team, but couldn’t handle elite pass rushers this season. Wide receivers often failed to get separation despite their elite speed. And the team was overly reliant on efficient running, without the ability to quickly come back from a deficit or effectively generate explosive plays.

But there is a lot of reason for optimism, too — certainly enough for Buckeye fans to be optimistic heading in to 2017. The Buckeyes are likely going to have a senior starting quarterback. The offensive line will be largely intact, and buoyed by a few key recruits and healthy players. They’ll actually return some experience at wide receiver (the Buckeyes had the lowest returning experience of any Power-5 team this season). The secondary might lose a number of players early, but will at least get an infusion of freshman talent on signing day. So there are strong reasons to like the Buckeyes’ chances of a repeat playoff appearance next season too — and hopefully with better results this time around.