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Ohio State’s explosive plays eventually wore down Michigan’s elite defense

The Wolverines have maybe the best defense in the country. But who would’ve expected their offense to have that much success?

Ohio State v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

This edition of The Game was a nail-biter up until Jordan Fuller caught John O’Korn’s pop-fly — that’s evident in the two teams’ success rates: 43.3% for Ohio State, and 41.3% for Michigan. Both teams were also 50% on third down success rate, scored touchdowns on all of their red zone attempts, averaged roughly 5 points per scoring opportunity, and averaged similar havoc rates allowed:

Ohio State vs. Michigan

Metric OSU Michigan
Metric OSU Michigan
Rushing SR 44.4% 48.4%
Rushing opp rate 42.2% 38.7%
Rushing exp plays 13.3% 6.5%
Rushing stuffed rate 24.4% 16.1%
Passing SR 40.0% 34.4%
Passing exp plays 26.7% 9.4%
Overall SR 43.3% 41.3%
Overall exp rate 16.7% 7.9%
3rd down % 50.0% 50.0%
Red zone TDs 100% 100%
Scoring opps efficiency 5.17 5.00
Drive efficiency 50% 30.8%
Three-and-out drives 41.7% 15.4%
Pts off turnovers 7 0
Havoc rate allowed 16.7% 14.3%
Avg. Starting Field Position 28.3 34.4

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 those that gain 15 or more yards.

Here are the takeaways that I said would be most important in the game preview. Don’t underestimate the Wolverines:

  1. Michigan’s defense rarely allows efficient plays, but when they do, they tend to be pretty explosive.
  2. Michigan’s pass defense is elite, and their run defense is ranked seventh overall. But there are indications that Ohio State may be able to find some running room against Michigan, as long as they avoid enough negative plays.
  3. The Wolverines’ greatest defensive strength may be how much havoc they cause.
  4. John O’Korn has performed worse than either Brandon Peters or Wilton Speight this year, but the Wolverines have gotten a lot of their passing production from their two tight ends, who could be a poor matchup for the Ohio State defense.
  5. Michigan’s run game is explosive, despite being fairly inefficient.

Offense: Finally got rolling in the second half

Following the run game’s success against Michigan State and Iowa, we were maybe a little too optimistic about the offense relative to what the season-long stats projected for The Game. Michigan’s defense was just too good. After all, S&P+ projected a 32-21 win for Ohio State.

And for a lot of the game, the two teams followed the script set by the advanced stats. J.T. Barrett had completed just 3/8 passes for 30 yards, 25 of which came on one play. The run game was hampered by the lack of a passing threat. And Don Brown’s aggressive defense kept putting the offense behind the chains due to some incredible defensive play calling. And as a result of three three-and-outs to start the game, Barrett, the offensive line, and Ohio State’s offensive play callers couldn’t get into any kind of rhythm or carry out a coherent strategy in the face of the Wolverines’ front seven. (I’m very ready for Don Brown and Rashan Gary to head to the NFL.)

So, Ohio State’s first successful pass was the 25-yard touchdown to Marcus Baugh with about 6 minutes left in the second quarter. Haskins found a lot more success, throwing successful passes on 5 of his 7 attempts. From the first watch, it seemed like Haskins’ relative success was due in part to Haskins’ unique throwing ability (the throw to Austin Mack, who has proved he’s the go-to guy for tough catches), the play calling (we finally saw successful mesh plays that allowed K.J. Hill to out-run mismatched defenders), and Michigan’s defense getting tired (and injured) as the game went on.

Overall, Ohio State had just six successful passes on the day — four of six of those were for 24 yards or more. It was all or nothing against the Michigan defense (26.7% explosive passing rate), just like the stats suggested: Michigan’s defense is top overall in defensive passing success rate, and 93rd in passing IsoPPP.

The run game was about as expected given the opponent’s defense (7th in defensive rushing success rate allowed, 32.9% on the year, and 116th in IsoPPP) and the lack of a consistent passing threat for most of the game. 44.4% is fine overall given the opponent, but the 24.4% stuff rate was just abysmal.

Oh, and on Barrett’s high number of carries — he had a 67% rushing success rate, so it’s no surprise they kept giving him reads.

Overall, drives either went nowhere — with five three-and-outs on 12 drives — or they had an explosive play that allowed for a scoring opportunity. On the 5 three-and-out drives, 4 of the 5 drives had at least one major tackle for loss. The offense wasn’t efficient enough overall (43.3%) to consistently move the ball without a big play.

The Buckeyes’ offense also got more successful as the game went on — the last four drives all created scoring opportunities, where just 2 of the previous 8 did before.

Defense: Tight ends and pro-style running backs

Who would’ve expected Michigan’s running backs to have a higher success rate (48.4%) than Ohio State’s (44.4%)?

They were half as explosive as Ohio State’s, but they moved the chains more consistently, too. Where the Buckeyes had five three-and-outs, Michigan only had two on their 13 drives despite similar overall success rates. Ohio State’s defense — and linebackers in particular — clearly has issues against some of these power-run teams that have effective pulling linemen. Michigan averaged 2.8 yards per carry overall, but Higdon and Evans averaged 5.5 yards per carry together. That was due in no small part to poor tackling by the Ohio State defense.

Michigan was one of the worst teams in the country in allowing negative plays — 47th in stuff rate and 118th in adjusted sack rate — and while Ohio State racked up 9 havoc plays (14.3%), this again was lower than Michigan’s, and two of the five sacks came on Michigan’s failed final drive in a must-pass situation.

Michigan’s points per scoring opportunity was similar to Ohio State’s — 5 to 5.17 — but the difference was that Michigan created fewer scoring opportunities overall compared to Ohio State — 30.8% compared to Ohio State’s 50%. And one of Michigan’s scoring opportunities was due to the punt return with fantastically bad tackling.

Overall, you got the sense that Michigan could’ve scored almost as well as Iowa if John O’Korn had been more accurate, because he often had open receivers, and especially tight ends and running backs. That’s a serious concern moving forward for next week against Wisconsin.