Lost in the Ohio State football team's skyward trajectory these last six weeks, between J.T. Barrett's hero-ball performances and the defensive line's ability to destroy opposing teams' will to carry on, is that the Buckeyes haven't been a particularly explosive offensive team in 2017. That might seem surprising, given a) the highlight reels of players like J.K. Dobbins and Parris Campbell and b) the sheer amount of points Ohio State has generated since the Oklahoma game, but it's true.
They're better than average, certainly; the Buckeyes rank 39th nationally in explosive pass plays and 48th in explosive run plays. But how can a team this good rip off such a pedestrian number of huge gains, relative to the rest of college football?
The answer, as usual, comes from the brain of SB Nation advanced stats wizard Bill Connelly: despite its popular acceptance as the best measure of how good an offense is, "explosive plays" is a thorny thing to parse out, and one as susceptible as anything to the ways that average can bury the real truth.
Simply looking at explosiveness, however you care to define it, misses this key step. Take the yardage of 20 plays from two (completely unrealistic) data sets, for instance:
Set No. 1: 80, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1
Set No. 2: 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5
In both sets, the offense gained 100 yards in 20 plays. In the first set, those 20 plays resulted in an almost certain touchdown (the 80-yard gain) and about six three-and-outs. In the second set, the offense converted on second-and-5 every single time and moved the ball at will. The median gain in Set No. 1 was one yard; in Set No. 2: five yards.
Need proof? Your three most explosive FBS offenses, through nine weeks: Mizzou, Oklahoma, Ole Miss.
So if the popular consensus for what makes an offense extraordinary is wrong, how do we figure out what makes it so? The truth, as usual, is way less sexy than the fiction: efficiency, baby.
Name: Mike Weber
Height/Weight: 5'10, 214 lbs.
Line: 55 carries, 248 yards, 5 TDs; 8 catches, 72 receiving yards
Ripping off explosive plays is great, but unless that tendency is partnered with the ability to operate efficiently (and a defense that can ever get off the field), well, you're 3-5 Mizzou.
The good news for the Buckeyes is that they have been ruthlessly efficient with the ball since the sputtering disaster that was the Oklahoma game. Sophomore RB Mike Weber has been the paragon of efficiency minus explosion for the Ohio State offense: he's churning out 4.5 steady yards per carry, reliably moving the chains for Urban Meyer's offense in between J.K. Dobbins' home run attempts. (Dobbins, for his part, is up at 7.6 yards per carry—even when he's not ripping opposing defenses open, he's still getting chunk yardage.)
The Weber and Dobbins duo has its own sort of analogue in the passing game, where Parris Campbell (39 targets, 14.1 yards/catch, 410 rec. yards, 2 TDs) has functioned as the Buckeyes' rocket-boosted full-field threat, and K.J. Hill (53 targets, 9.4 yards/catch, 376 rec. yards, 3 TDs) has been the steady mover of chains that the Buckeyes can count on play after play.
Kirk Ferentz' Iowa team (5-3) has made its bones this year by choking the life out of other teams with the 16th-best defense in all of football. Their specialty has been—you guessed it—limiting the explosive potential of their opponents, a category where they rank ninth overall. All three of their losses, including to Saquon Barkley and co., have been by a touchdown or less; they held Penn State (No. 17 in explosive plays) to just 21 points in one of the season's most exciting games to date.
Middle linebacker Josey Jewell is the clear star of the Iowa defense, racking up 61.5 tackles (the best on his team by a full 22), including an astonishing 9.5 TFLs, 14 run stuffs, and four pass breakups. He's exactly the kind of do-it-all player than can shut down an opposing team's ability to break big plays. He's got help from defensive end Anthony Nelson, who boasts eight TFLs, six sacks, and four run stuffs to go with his outstanding 13.8 percent success rate (the percentage of successful plays the opposing offense gets when a given player is the one making the tackle).
What to watch for
Where the Hawkeyes fall short is exactly where the Buckeyes excel, though: efficiency. Iowa is a pedestrian 71st in defensive efficiency, while Ohio State is the 2nd-most efficient offense in all of college football. That's bad news for Kirk Ferentz and great news for Buckeye fans. It might take the Buckeyes a little longer to get going than in the other games where they were the clear favorites, but at the end of the day Iowa doesn't have the horses to get Ohio State's offense off the field quickly or painlessly.
J.T. Barrett has been shredding defenses with his arm and his legs of late, and there's no reason to think that won't continue against the Hawkeyes. Between Weber, Dobbins, and Hill, there are plenty of top-tier weapons to get the ball to and keep the chains moving. While Jewell and Nelson are talented enough that one or two ugly early turnovers wouldn't be surprising, the Buckeyes will more likely than not leave Iowa City with a three-score win.