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Sacks, turnovers, and an inefficient run game made for a strangely low-scoring Cotton Bowl

It didn’t go as expected, but Ohio State nevertheless got a 17-point win over a top-10 team

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Ohio State vs Southern California Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It feels like the end of an era at Ohio State with J.T. Barrett playing his last game and a significant percentage of the Rushmen moving on to the NFL.

But it was a fitting end to the era, and largely representative of Ohio State football since the end of the 2014 season: an underwhelming offensive performance, lots of J.T. running, and still a double-digit win over a top-ten team.

It was also a surprising snoozer of a game. Despite both offenses ranking in the top-15 of the offensive S&P+ rankings, all points but one Ohio State field goal — or 90.3% — followed turnovers. And the second half was entirely scoreless.

Ohio State’s win can be described almost entirely by three stats:

  1. +3 turnover margin
  2. 32% defensive havoc rate
  3. 1.4 points allowed per USC scoring opportunity

Ohio State vs. USC

Metric OSU USC
Metric OSU USC
Rushing SR 39.3% 40.9%
Rushing opp rate 44.4% 38.1%
Rushing exp plays 17.9% 9.5%
Rushing stuffed rate 14.3% 36.4%
Passing SR 37.5% 35.5%
Passing exp plays 18.8% 19.4%
Overall SR 38.6% 37.7%
Overall exp rate 18.2% 15.1%
3rd down % 16.7% 31.6%
Red zone TDs 50.0% 33.0%
Scoring opps efficiency 5.67 1.4
Drive efficiency 33.3% 45.5%
Three-and-out drives 22.2% 0.9%
Pts off turnovers 21 7
Havoc rate allowed 9.1% 32.1%
Avg. Starting Field Position 28.7 28.2

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. The entire fourth quarter was filtered out due to garbage time adjustments kicking in, with Ohio State up by 17 points.

Here are my takeaways from the Cotton Bowl preview:

Ohio State should be able to run on the Trojans defense, which ranks 53rd in rushing S&P+.

The Buckeye offense should also create some big plays, since the Trojans rank 115th in plays of 20+ yards allowed.

The Trojans pass defense is good though, as they rank 12th in opponent-adjusted passing S&P+.

Sam Darnold is a great quarterback leading the 8th-ranked passing S&P+ offense in the country, so the key to stopping the Trojans offense might be in creating negative run plays (USC is 54th in stuff rate and Ohio State is 15th).

Forcing field goals should be a top priority, as USC is just 74th in red zone touchdown percentage.

Ultimately though, Ohio State has been highly volatile this season. So while on average the Buckeyes have been the better team, motivation to be there should be the game’s deciding factor.

Offense: What happened to the run game?

The most obvious mismatch seemed to be the Ohio State rushing offense vs. the USC defense. It seemed like the Buckeyes could just run the ball all day and be in good shape. And maybe that would have happened, but the run game, like the offense overall, was incredibly disjointed all night.

Ohio State had a sub-40% rushing success rate. Barrett had 16 carries while Weber and Dobbins combined for 18. Parris Campbell had 42 rushing yards, more than either Weber or Dobbins.

Part of that lack of success is due to the USC defense focusing on stopping the run. But the offensive line also failed to open big holes, and so Ohio State’s base run plays never really got established. Without establishing the basic inside zone, the run game morphed into the familiar Barrett-centric offense.

Barrett was easily the most reliable runner in the game, averaging 4.1 yards per carry to Dobbins’ 3 and Weber’s 3.6. Dobbins and Webers’ longest carries were for just 7 yards, while Barrett ripped off that 28-yard touchdown run. But without a reliable run game from Ohio State’s running backs, the offense as a whole couldn’t build drives by layering on constraint plays. That was very surprising given that USC ranked 53rd in rushing S&P+.

The end result was an offensive performance that saw just two converted third downs, despite averaging only 5.3 yards to go, a 38.6% overall offensive success rate, and only creating scoring opportunities on a third of offensive drives.

One final note — Barrett actually had a slightly better passing success rate than Darnold: 37.5% to 35.5%.

Defense: Dominant performance from the Rushmen

This was the most dominant that the Ohio State front seven has ever been. According to Eleven Warriors, Ohio State recorded more sacks than any game since the 2007 season. Overall, the Buckeye defense created a havoc play on 32% of USC’s offensive snaps — an incredible percentage.

The defensive line’s pressure on the USC offensive line — which ranked a solid 26th in adjusted sack rate heading in to the game — was responsible for the turnovers. From the fire-zone blitz that resulted in Damon Webb’s pick-6, to Tyquan Lewis’ and Jalyn Holmes’ strip-sacks, the Buckeye defensive line played an absolutely elite game. Without going back and charting each defensive play, I’d guess that this was the most blitz-heavy defensive gameplan that Greg Schiano has called since coming to Ohio State (at least until the fourth quarter when the Buckeyes mostly stuck to just 4 pass rushers).

And honestly, they kind of needed to, given how explosive Sam Darnold was through the air. Darnold had just a 35.5% passing success rate, but 55% of Darnold’s successful passes were explosive. If you include 14-yard completions (explosive plays are typically counted as 15+), then that percentage grows to 91% (and with a 32% overall passing explosiveness rate). Essentially, if Darnold completed a pass at all, then it was for more than 14 yards, and about a third of Darnold’s passing attempts overall were for 14 or more yards.

When Darnold did have time to throw, the Ohio State secondary often looked mismatched. USC has a very talented group of receivers, but Okudah and Arnette were successfully targeted multiple times. It will be important for the secondary, and those two especially, to regain some confidence over the offseason.

Finally, the defense was incredible at bending but not breaking. USC had a respectable 45.5% drive efficiency (the percentage of possessions that result in a scoring opportunity), but only averaged 1.4 points per scoring opportunity — one touchdown after five trips inside the Ohio State 40-yard line.

Looking to 2018

We have an entire offseason to talk about whether Ohio State can make the playoff and contend for a national championship again in 2018, but here are my big questions heading in to the offseason:

  1. Can Ohio State’s secondary rebuild after losing another first-round draft pick at corner and a senior safety? There was a big dropoff between Ward and everyone else this year.
  2. Does Ohio State have enough depth at defensive end? This may be somewhat answered by how they can close out the recruiting class, but outside of the top 3 of Bosa, Young, and Cooper (all former five-star recruits), there’s pretty much no one. Does Ohio State move a slimmer tackle outside or try to bulk up an outside linebacker? Or will a freshman get immediate playing time?
  3. Will Haskins, Burrow, or Martell grab hold of the starting job in the spring or will the competition continue into fall camp? How will the offensive playcalling change to suit the new quarterback?
  4. What will the offensive line look like next season and can the Buckeyes be dominant enough up front to call non-read running play to running backs and still be effective?
  5. Is there a dominant, go-to receiver on the roster?