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Ohio State blows out Penn State... with a one point win

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Ohio State’s incredible comeback was due to a dominant defense that set up J.T.’s fourth quarter

Penn State v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Before jumping into the numbers, it’s worth just appreciating how incredible of a game that was. J.T. and the receivers, the defensive line, and the fourth-quarter coaching were absolutely insane in this game.

Due to special teams, turnovers, and penalties, this became a very, very improbable win:

Things were so dire that Ohio State had a 2.7% win probability according to ESPN with under eight minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Ohio State faced the second-ranked team in the country and essentially gave them a 21-point handicap due to special teams errors.

I’m very tempted to say that the better team won the game, and that the Buckeyes showed that they were actually much better — but that wouldn’t really be accurate. I do think Ohio State showed that they were the better team, but special teams is one of the three parts of the game, so their special teams performance can’t just be written off. Nor can their two fumbles or ten penalties for 79 yards.

I track 16 major game-defining stats in the table below. Ohio State won 11 of those head-to-head metrics.

OSU vs. PSU

Metric Ohio State Penn State
Metric Ohio State Penn State
Rushing SR 51% 26%
Rushing opp rate 49% 26%
Rushing exp plays 8% 6%
Rushing stuffed rate 8% 38%
Passing SR 54% 41%
Passing exp plays 15% 14%
Overall SR 53% 33%
Overall exp rate 12% 10%
3rd down % 42% 47%
Red zone TDs 57% 67%
Scoring opps efficiency 4.88 6.2
Drive efficiency 62% 42%
Three-and-out drives 2 3
Pts off turnovers 0 7
Havoc rate allowed 12% 25%
Avg. Starting Field Position 32 41

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. Rushing opportunity rate is the % of runs that gained five 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. No surprise, but this was the first game since Oklahoma that the Buckeyes didn’t have any garbage time.

Here are the takeaways that I said would be most important in the preview on Thursday:

  1. Ohio State’s pass defense is just 38th in passing S&P+, against the 9th-ranked passing S&P+ offense.
  2. Ohio State should be able to create a lot of negative plays, both in run stuffs (7th vs. 117th) and sacks (7th vs. 105th).
  3. Penn State’s relative weakness against the run (5th vs. 50th in rushing S&P+)
  4. The little things will matter a lot: turning Penn State scoring opportunities into field goals instead of touchdowns (5th vs. 45th in finishing drives, in OSU’s favor), field position (Penn State is 1st compared to OSU at 36th in offensive average field position), and turnovers always make a huge difference.

Of those stats, Ohio State was better in passing success rate, havoc rate/stuff rate, and rushing success rate. And they were much worse in all of the little things: scoring opportunity efficiency (touchdowns instead of field goals), field position, and turnover margin.

Offense:

The offense had a 53% overall success rate against the Nittany Lions’ 9th-ranked S&P+ defense (and a 20% success rate margin!). That stat alone, combined with an edge in explosive plays, would lead to a dominant win in almost any game. But the fourth quarter is where the offense really shined:

Things were shaky early on, even outside of the special teams errors, but it’s a testament to the team’s resiliency that they were able to hang in the game. Their first four drives, which ended the first quarter, were a fumble in OSU territory, a three-and-out, a field goal, and a turnover on downs. It went about as badly as it could’ve gone. Ohio State did just enough for the rest of the game to hang on.

But outside of the rough start and the incredible ending, the offense’s performance in the middle was strong as well — and the run game in particular.

Ending with a 51% rushing success rate, J.K. Dobbins rushed 13 times for 6.8 yards per carry and Barrett added 17 carries for 95 yards. Dobbins could definitely do with more carries, but the run/pass balance is defensible given both the offense’s overall success against a talented defense and the game state (i.e., trailing for ~97% of the game).

Penn State’s defense is usually very strong at creating negative plays, similar to Ohio State’s defense: they ranked 22nd and 38th in stuff rate and adjusted sack rate, respectively, coming into the game. So Ohio State’s 12% havoc rate allowed (6 tackles for loss, one sack, one pass defensed, and two forced fumbles) was actually a very strong performance given how attacking Penn State’s defense was.

One final thing to note: While the Buckeyes’ fourth quarter comeback was extremely improbable, Penn State’s season average defensive S&P+ in the first three quarters was 14th — but they average just 62nd in fourth quarter defensive S&P+.

Defense: Dominant, given the field position

Penn State’s 42% drive efficiency equates to five scoring opportunities on twelve drives. Of those five, three were directly related to starting with the ball in Ohio State territory due to special teams or turnovers. Given the starting field position that the defense started with, their performance against Penn State — the 10th-ranked S&P+ offense in the country — was remarkable.

The defense’s performance can be summarized by these stats:

  1. Ohio State offensive success rate: 53%. Penn State offensive success rate: 33%.
  2. Saquon Barkley’s rushing success rate: 19%.
  3. Barkley’s yards per carry besides the 36-yard run: .4 YPC.
  4. Percentage of Barkley’s carries stuffed: 43%.
  5. Overall stuff rate: 38%.

I want to be clear that those stats in no way undermine how incredible of a player that Barkley is — after all, he did house the opening kickoff, added 4 catches for 23 yards, and showed his speed and vision on the 36-yard touchdown run. But if you could boil down Ohio State’s win to one single factor outside of J.T.’s insane fourth quarter performance, it was the defense’s ability to completely shut down Barkley. Because of the defensive line, Barkley had more than twice as many tackles for loss than he did successful runs.

And coming into the game, the stats suggested that Ohio State’s defense could do that, too: Ohio State was 7th in stuff rate compared to 117th for Penn State’s offensive line.

The defense should show highlights of the last 4:20 for years. On those final two Penn State drives, which ended in a three-and-out punt and a turnover on downs, Penn State had two tackles for loss, three incomplete passes, a sack, and one five-yard run on third-and-long for a 0% success rate on 7 plays. Ohio State’s defense kept the Buckeyes in the game, giving J.T. and the offense the opportunity to get the comeback win.

Penn State was also much less explosive compared to last season. While they allowed just a 10% explosive rate this year, they had an 18% explosive rate in last year’s upset.