Minnesota does not have a good offense. They rank 111th in offensive S&P+, which is opponent adjusted. But Ohio State allowed the Gopher offense to drive down the field more consistently — with a 45 percent success rate — than almost everyone expected.
This ended up being a much different game than I expected. We knew heading in that Minnesota had a good defense overall, but it had also allowed 40+ points in their only two Big Ten games this season. Their offense was nothing special, to the point that I didn’t really focus on it directly in my advanced stats preview. I expected a 45-14-ish win.
Let’s get to the stats:
- Scoring opportunities are drives with a first down past the opponents’ 40-yard line.
- Drive efficiency looks at the percentage of drives that were scoring opportunities.
- Points per trip scoring opportunity is the average points scored per scoring opportunity.
- Rushing opportunity rate is the percentage of runs that gained four* or more yards.
- Rushing stuff rate is the percentage of runs that were for no gain or a loss.
- Explosive plays are those that gain 15 or more yards.
- Success rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.
- I also do havoc rate a little differently than Bill C. does. I only count sacks, tackles for loss, interceptions, and fumbles, leaving out passes defensed because they don’t show up in play-by-play data. I also only count non-garbage time plays.
Ohio State didn’t have any garbage time against Minnesota (womp womp). If you do want more information on garbage time anyway, see this post.
OSU vs. Minnesota
|Rushing success rate||48%||55%|
|Rushing opportunity rate||48%||52%|
|Rushing explosive plays||0.0%||12.9%|
|Rushing stuffed rate||21%||16%|
|Passing success rate||55%||48%|
|Passing explosive plays||19%||22%|
|Overall success rate||53%||45%|
|Overall explosive rate||12%||15%|
|3rd down %||43%||44%|
|Red zone TDs||0% (0/2)||67% (2/3)|
|Points per scoring opportunity||4.3||2.8|
|Pts off turnovers||10 (3)||0|
|Havoc rate allowed||9.2%||9.7%|
|Average starting field position||23.5||22.8|
What determined the game
Even though the game played out differently than I expected, we still saw most of the same issues that the team has experienced all season:
- Poor red zone efficiency (just two successful plays out of eight total in the red zone this week)
- A less-effective run game, particularly as measured by stuffed runs and a lack of explosive runs
- Unreliable short-yardage rushing efficiency
- Allowing explosive plays on defense
- Allowing fairly efficient passing
There were also a few new(-ish) concerns:
- Susceptibility to RPO passes in the middle of the field
- Offensive line struggles
- Fewer negative plays created on defense
All that said, the defense still held Minnesota scoreless in the second half and Haskins threw for over 400 yards again, putting him third in the country in total passing yards.
We’ll get to most of the above weaknesses in the questions below, but I want to highlight the defense’s susceptibility to RPOs. In the postgame press conference, Grinch said, “Very few times do you say the slant loses you a football game. But on the same token, it’s frustrating and it leads to drives and it can lead to points, so it’s never OK either. It’s something where we’ve got to continue to mix up coverages and put pressure on quarterbacks and coordinators.”
This sentiment is reflected by the fact that Minnesota managed a 48 percent passing success rate, even though the Gophers entered the game at 85th in marginal explosiveness, and that five of Annexstad’s 11 successful passes were for 15+ yards, even though almost every one of those was an RPO slant. However, despite those ugly stats, basically nothing else in the passing game worked, since the Buckeyes had six pass breakups and two interceptions on the few times that he attempted a deeper pass.
So it’s a mixed bag. Ideally, Schiano’s aggressive man-coverage scheme allows an elite defensive line to consistently get pressure on the quarterback, which allows superior defensive backs to be in a position to create turnovers. But, it also leaves you susceptible to some underneath throws:
Slant after slant after slant. Either OSU corners have to not allow inside leverage or they have to have linebackers deeper to at least obstruct the throws. Or both.— Bill Rabinowitz (@brdispatch) October 15, 2018
Alright, we should be able to address most of the other issues in our review of my preview questions:
Is Minnesota’s defense legit?
Yes, probably. At least enough to effectively slow down the Ohio State offense. Carter Coughlin, who had two sacks, is tied for seventh in the country in sacks for a reason.
But, it’s also reasonable to push back that most of Ohio State’s offensive problems have been present all season.
For example, even though Ohio State entered the game ranked fifth overall in average points per scoring opportunity (averaging nearly six points), they’re a middle-of-the-pack offense in terms of red zone touchdown percentage (61st, 65.6%). The Buckeyes are highly effective for most of the field, but struggle a little bit more when the field shrinks.
For example, even though the Buckeyes managed to create a scoring opportunity on seven of 10 drives, only two of those scoring opportunities included a first down inside the 25 yard line. In those two red zone drives, Ohio State ran just two successful plays in eight total.
You can see this trend in the (pre-Minnesota) season-long stats, too. Ohio State ranks eighth in success rate between the 21-30 yard line, but 31st and 32nd between the 11-20 yard lines and inside the 10. Their goal line success rate is 71.4 percent, or 55th. None of those are terrible rankings, but they’re clearly a step down from the offense’s performance in “open field” play.
Against Minnesota, a good example of this was Ohio State’s opening drive, where Haskins hit K.J. Hill for a 42-yard play near midfield, giving the Buckeyes first-and-10 at the nine-yard line. Apart from Dobbins’ four-yard run on first down, the offense went nowhere because of a dropped pass in the end zone by Austin Mack.
It was a similar story against TCU on their opening possession — big play to Austin Mack, but the Buckeyes couldn’t close inside the 10-yard line.
A big chunk of this problem goes back to the run game — mainly, that the run game is unreliable, especially in short-yardage situations. In previous seasons, short yardage plays were a near-lock for Ohio State, because J.T. Barrett could almost always pick up the necessary yardage.
Before we race to install a Tate Martell red zone package, I’d caution that Martell might be a different kind of runner than Barrett. While the QB run game obviously re-equates the numbers (solving that problem at least), we don’t know for sure that Martell has Barrett’s efficiency — he might be a more Braxton Miller-like explosive runner.
Will the run game get going?
No, not really. Although I will say that the run game was more efficient (48 percent rushing success rate and opportunity rate) than I expected it would be just watching the game.
But, even with a 48 percent rushing success rate, the main run game problems continued: allowing too many stuffed runs and not getting almost any explosive runs, either. Ohio State was stuffed at, or behind, the line on 21 percent of its carries, but didn’t have a single run longer than 12 yards.
This comes back to a theme we’ve seen all season — opposing defenses stacking the box, and unblocked defenders making run stuffs:
Here's Dobbins' first run play. Looks like play has a chance but OLB comes unblocked because Minnesota has outnumbered OSU in the box. Think this will be a common theme -- and explains why Haskins threw for 412, too.— Bill Rabinowitz (@brdispatch) October 15, 2018
When it comes to explosive plays, last season Dobbins had a 10+ yard run on 19.6 percent of his runs, and a 20+ yard run on 8.2 percent. This year, he’s down to 11 percent and .9 percent. He’s only had a single run of 20+ yards all year.
Will the offense get touchdowns in the redzone?
Without a run game to rely on for third-and-short and in the red zone, defenses will take their chances with Haskins and the passing game, hoping for turnovers, third down stops, or red zone stops because the Buckeyes can’t fall back on a reliable run game.
The Buckeyes went 0-for-2 on true red zone possessions, and averaged just 4.3 points per scoring opportunity.
I think Doug Lesmerises nails it with this observation: “So maybe future opponents don’t have to stop Haskins. They just have to stop an OSU run game, stand tall in the red zone and hope Haskins throwing the ball all over the field doesn’t lead to a ton of points.”
Can the pass rush get back on track?
Not really. Ohio State had just two sacks, and neither was by a defensive end. It’s tough to get sacks when every pass is a quick-strike RPO slant, and the defensive line has really felt the injuries they’ve picked up recently, but still — the defensive line was mostly negated.
I will say that the two interceptions are encouraging, despite the limited pass rush. On very few downfield passing attempts, Kendall Sheffield and Isaiah Pryor demonstrated why the aggressive scheme can be so dangerous. When the Buckeyes had Malik Hooker, they essentially dared opposing quarterbacks to throw deep and risk a turnover. If Ohio State can have that athletic, field-crossing safety play, and disciplined technique from their corners, then that would be one big step in fixing the defensive problems.