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Ohio State’s explosive plays, dominant run defense edge Wisconsin

The Badgers took advantage of turnovers, but also had narrow advantages in success rate, explosiveness rate

Big Ten Championship - Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Ohio State’s 27-21 win over Wisconsin was fueled by four explosive plays and a run defense that held Big Ten Running Back of the Year Jonathan Taylor to 15 carries for 41 yards. But Wisconsin actually had a narrow edge over Ohio State in passing efficiency and explosiveness, and even more critically, scored 18 points off of three turnovers.

What felt like it should have been a blowout in the first half, if not for missed opportunities, turned in to a nail-biter in the fourth quarter as the Badgers defense shut down Ohio State’s explosive plays.

Ohio State vs. Wisconsin

Metric Ohio State Wisconsin
Metric Ohio State Wisconsin
Rushing SR 40% 38%
Rushing opp rate 23% 28%
Rushing exp plays 5% 0%
Rushing stuffed rate 8% 21%
Passing SR 35% 44%
Passing exp plays 8% 12%
Overall SR 38% 41%
Overall exp rate 6% 7%
3rd down % 38% 31%
Red zone TDs 33% 33%
Scoring opps efficiency 3.25 3.50
Drive efficiency 43% 31%
Three-and-out drives 36% 31%
Pts off turnovers 7 18
Havoc rate allowed 7.6% 11.4%
Avg. Starting Field Position 23.4 30.5

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.


And here were the takeaways from my stats preview from earlier in the week:

  1. Wisconsin’s defense is incredible, ranking 9th against the run and the pass, and best in the country in finishing drives and red zone touchdown percentage.
  2. The Badgers aren’t the best at piling up run stuffs though, ranking 63rd.
  3. Opposing offenses have tended to pass heavily against the Badgers’ defense — their defense has the 116th-highest standard downs run rate.
  4. Jonathan Taylor is every bit as good as J.K. Dobbins (47.7% opportunity rate, 6.7 highlight yards per opportunity), and has a much higher carry volume.
  5. Alex Hornibrook has been surprisingly efficient, with the 9th-overall passing S&P+ offense and averaging 7.9 yards per attempt.
  6. The Badgers offensive line is 80th in adjusted sack rate and Hornibrook does have 13 interceptions.

Offense: Reliant on 4 big plays

In the first half it seemed like Ohio State would have run out to at least a 28-point lead if not for Wisconsin’s Andrew Van Ginkel, who scored on a pick-six and forced and recovered Mike Weber’s fumble on the Ohio State 11-yard line. As it was, the Buckeyes took a 21-10 lead into halftime.

The Buckeyes seemed unstoppable in the first half due to three plays of 53+ yards:

  1. Terry McLaurin’s 84-yard touchdown on a deep ball
  2. Parris Campbell’s 57-yard screen that he took down the sideline
  3. J.K. Dobbins’ 77-yard run that was downed at the one-yard line
  4. Then, with nine minutes remaining in the third quarter, Dobbins took another carry 53 yards to the Wisconsin 12

But besides those four plays, Ohio State ran 62 plays for 178 yards, or 2.9 yards per play. Obviously you can’t discount those explosive plays, but it does make the overall success rate comparison between the two teams — 38% for Ohio State and 41% for Wisconsin — make more sense.

Dobbins was absolutely electric, showing his cutting ability and vision for 130 yards on those two carries alone. But the Wisconsin defense also proved why they’re 9th overall in rushing S&P+ (which again, like all other stats with a “+”, is opponent-adjusted), holding him to 3 efficient runs on 15 other carries. J.T. took over the run game despite his recently-operated-on knee, leading with 19 carries for 60 yards. But while his 3.2 yard per carry average isn’t that impressive by itself, he had a 53% rushing success rate because of how often he was used for successful third down conversions. On 16 total third down situations, J.T. successfully got the first down on four of his six carries. He also got that incredible 4th-and-one run when everyone in the stadium knew what was coming (that was arguably the case on every third-and-short situation).

Barrett was obviously hit-and-miss, like the few missed deep balls with wide open receivers at the end of the first half, but the fact that he was able to shoulder that kind of load after surgery this week was just incredible.

Ohio State scored one touchdown in only three red zone attempts (when Dobbins ran for 77 yards and was tackled at the one) for a 33% red zone touchdown rate, but did manage to create a scoring opportunity on 43% of drives. Ohio State’s 3.25 average points per scoring opportunity was well below the Buckeyes’ 5.34 season average, and much closer to Wisconsin’s average of 2.93 — which also leads the country.

Looking forward — whether that’s a playoff game or just the bowl game — Ohio State will likely need to work on red zone playcalling, especially in short-yardage situations, and more short and intermediate-passing, since any potential playoff opponent will likely have a defense just as good as Wisconsin’s.


Defense: Incredible performance given the turnovers

The Ohio State’s defense won’t get a lot of credit from people who just look at the box score, but their performance was pretty incredible, holding the Badgers offense to just 14 points and Taylor to 2.7 yards per carry (and a 33% success rate).

Ohio State’s three turnovers on offense were really killer, giving Wisconsin a pick-six, the ball on the Ohio State 11-yard line, and the ball at midfield. The Badgers managed just a single field goal without the help of those turnovers.

The Buckeyes were disruptive, creating havoc plays on 11.4% of Wisconsin’s snaps. It’s hardly surprising that Wisconsin’s tight ends, full back, and running backs accounted for 157 of Hornibrook’s 238 passing yards. Besides freshman receiver Danny Davis (who came up with a few big plays), their fullback, Ramesh, and tight end, Fumagalli, alone accounted for 7 catches for 90 yards. The Badgers’ second half gameplan was essentially just running back screens, many of which were successful. Expect Ohio State’s next opponent to similarly target their running backs and tight ends in the passing game.

Overall, the defense played one of its best games of the year given how poorly Ohio State has played against similar offenses this season. Even though Hornibrook moved the ball fairly efficiently (with a 44% overall passing success rate), the defense still held him under a 50% completion rate — and he was leading the 9th-ranked passing S&P+ offense coming into the game.

Ohio State has played in a number of close games this year, but now has wins over four teams ranked in the S&P+ top-30. Hopefully that will be enough to get into the playoff.