Ohio State’s biggest game, at least on paper, is this weekend. They’re hosting a rival (yes, it’s a rival, don’t @ me Penn State Twitter), the No. 2 team in the country, with the clear path to a division title and, likely, a playoff bid on the line. By virtually every account, it should be a very competitive game.
And then I saw an absolutely crazy stat from my friend Ben Jones, who is on the Penn State beat. I had to triple check it, because it seemed so outlandish, but folks, the math checks out. It’s true.
Over their last two games against Ohio State, Penn State has converted exactly three third down attempts. They are 3-25. That’s 2-13 last season (and 0-1 on 4th down), and 1-12 in 2015 (and 0-2 on 4th down). That’s horrific.
And yet, Penn State WON one of those games! And the other was still reasonably close until the 4th quarter.
And those metrics aren’t aberrations for Penn State. Their offense is near the bottom of the country in power success rate and stuff rate, meaning that they’re not so effective at running the ball in third and short situations (a critical skill to converting on third down), and they take a large amount of sacks in passing down situations (118th in the country). Overall, Penn State converts 38 percent of their third down chances, good for 68th nationally.
Being unable to regularly convert third downs is a problem for lots of reasons, but it should be an especially big problem against a team like Ohio State. Regular third downs, especially third and longs, shrink your playbook and force you to become more predictable. And if you’re a team with only an average offensive line like Penn State, facing a team with a very deep defensive line that likes to send multiple defensive ends at once on obvious passing downs (like Ohio State), you typically have a recipe for sacks, interceptions, and mistakes.
All of this is true. And yet, Penn State’s offense is awesome. And that’s what makes this game potentially terrifying.
One way to avoid having to convert on third down is to be explosive enough to never even get a third down, and Penn State’s offense rates in the top 20 in explosiveness. Paced by perhaps the best offensive player in the country, running back Saquon Barkley, plus matchup nightmare Mike Gesicki and an offense that is unafraid to go deep and be aggressive, the Nittany Lions are a threat to pick up chunk plays regardless of down and distance.
Penn State is also +7 in turnover margin, and has demonstrated they know how to take advantage of big plays on special teams. After all, that’s how the Nittany Lions won last season, in a game where Ohio State outplayed them for most of the game, thanks to two massive special teams blunders by the Buckeyes. I know Penn State fans chafe at this argument, but I don’t think it takes anything away from their team last season, and at the end of the day, it’s the final numbers on the scoreboard, not on the S&P+ spreadsheet, that count in the standings.
In a conventional game, a team with a pass rushing advantage that is consistently able to force the opposing offense into uncomfortable, off-schedule down and distance situations, should have an overwhelming advantage. And that may very well be why Ohio State wins this weekend. They are, after all, the Vegas favorites, and the S&P+ favorites. And Ohio State’s defense is one of the best in the country at preventing explosive plays.
But Penn State’s ability to win games despite a failure to convert on 3rd and 3, 3rd and 6 or 3rd and 9, is a great equalizer. It’s emotionally demoralizing for a defense, difficult to plan for by a coaching staff, and can erase carefully built up advantages over the course of the game.
Penn State has the individual playmakers to turn the math on its head. And that should give us a hell of a football game this weekend.