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Advanced Stats: How much will Day’s 2019 Buckeyes resemble the 2018 Big Ten Champs?

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The passing offense was even more impressive than expected, but a slow run game and lackluster defense continued to be hallmarks of the 2018 Buckeyes.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference-Football Championship-Northwestern vs Ohio State Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Between winning the Big Ten for a second straight year, missing the playoff, and Urban Meyer’s retirement, it’s been a heck of a week for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

The actual Big Ten Championship game itself feels a little inconsequential at this point, since we know it didn’t affect the Buckeyes’ playoff chances in the short term, and the program is going through longer term changes with Ryan Day’s promotion.

But we’ve still got some advanced stats to look through ahead of the Rose Bowl.

Stats definitions

Here’s the full advanced stats glossary.

  • 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.
  • There wasn’t any garbage time to filter out this week, but I did filter out the last play of the first half and the last Ohio State clock-killing drive of the game.

Ohio State vs. Northwestern

Metric Ohio State Northwestern
Metric Ohio State Northwestern
Rushing success rate 45% 48%
Rushing opportunity rate 45% 48%
Rushing explosive rate 0.0% 19.0%
Rushing stuffed rate 18% 19%
Passing success rate 57% 38%
Passing explosive rate 29.5% 19%
Overall success rate 51% 41%
Overall explosive rate 16% 19%
3rd down % 59% 33%
Red zone TD % 67% 67%
Points per scoring opportunity 5.0 4.8
Drive efficiency 64% 33%
Three-and-out drives 14% 40.0%
Pts off turnovers 0 0
Havoc rate allowed 14.6% 20.6%
Average starting field position 34.4 24.6

Here are my questions from the advanced stats preview:

Here’s how Northwestern could keep it close

Limit explosive pass plays

Limit rushing efficiency

Force field goals

Win passing downs on defense

Take advantage of good situations on offense (third-and-short, short fields, turnovers)

And here’s how Ohio State wins big

Consistently move the chains with efficient passing

Shut down Northwestern’s run game

Prevent explosive plays

Shut down the red zone

Overall, the difference in the game came down to Haskins and the wider receivers’ ability to create explosive passing plays. Northwestern limited the Buckeyes’ run game, but failed to force a lot of field goals, win passing downs, convert third downs, or take advantage of turnovers.

But the Buckeyes also didn’t blow out the Wildcats because they didn’t entirely shut down the Northwestern run game or the red zone, and they didn’t prevent explosive plays.

Ohio State must steadily move the ball through the air, without becoming unbalanced offensively

Ohio State’s major advantage coming in to the game was that they looked like they’d be able to pass efficiently. Northwestern’s defense was poor in passing marginal efficiency but solid in passing marginal explosiveness, suggesting that the Buckeyes could move down the field with steady, high-percentage passing. As long as they converted their red zone attempts, they should have a decent drive success rate.

Not only did they have efficient passing, with Haskins completing 83 percent of his throws at 10.5 yards per attempt, but it was also an incredibly explosive performance for how well the Wildcats typically limited big plays. Roughly 30 percent of Ohio State’s passing attempts went for 15-plus yards, and their passing IsoPPP of 1.73 was solidly above the national average, indicating that their successful passing plays were decently explosive.

Further, Northwestern didn’t slow down Haskins on passing downs, as he went 18-of-21 for 288 yards, leading to a 13.7 yards per completion. That’s six yards per attempt better than he was on standard downs, and he didn’t have any sacks or interceptions on passing downs compared to four sacks and a pick on 20 standard downs passing attempts. Those are pretty crazy numbers considering that the Wildcats defense has been better on average on passing downs than on standard downs this season.

Looking ahead to next season, one of my biggest concerns will be replacing the talent in the wide receiver room. Going by pure talent, the Buckeyes shouldn’t experience too much of a drop off, except maybe at H-back (especially if K.J. Hill leaves early). There was never a go-to, dominant receiver outside of Parris Campbell’s obvious speed and Hill’s team-best hands. And the underclassmen receivers who are next in line were similarly talented as recruits.

But returning receiving yards is the stat most correlated with overall offensive S&P+, so experience seems to really matter in the wide receivers room. Three of the top four receivers against Northwestern are leaving — Johnnie Dixon, Campbell, and Terry McLaurin. We’ll get in to this issue more during the offseason, but we should at least be encouraged that Chris Olave has started to really emerge in Austin Mack’s absence.

The Buckeyes did become unbalanced, though. Even though Haskins threw for 499 yards with a 57 percent success rate, they only had a 45 percent rushing success rate with Dobbins and Weber averaging four and three yards per carry, respectively. Dobbins was efficient but not explosive, with a 53 percent success rate and with the same percentage of his carries going for four or more yards, but he only averaged 2.62 highlight yards per opportunity. And 18 percent of the Buckeyes’ runs were stuffed at or behind the line.

All in all, it was a similar rushing performance as we saw for a lot of the season — relatively similar efficiency-wise, but with a higher percentage of stuffed runs and fewer explosive runs, too. This is another thing we’ll dig in to more during the offseason: are those two changes (more run stuffs, fewer explosive runs, but a similar percentage of efficient, four-yard runs) due to Haskins/passing focus, the offensive line being a step below previous years’ lines, or Day’s offense?

Ohio State has to win the red zone

Ohio State was fine here, averaging five yards per scoring opportunity and 67 percent red zone touchdown rate on offense, and allowing nearly identical numbers on defense (4.8 and 67 percent). My concern heading in was that the offense would be able to move the ball fairly well

The bigger difference ended up being in drive efficiency. Ohio State only allowed a third of Northwestern’s drives to get a first down inside their 40 yard line. Forty percent of their drives were three-and-outs. That’s impressive, but it was undone by big plays and relative efficiency inside scoring opportunities.

Ohio State’s defense should benefit from Northwestern being weak in areas where the Buckeyes are too, but must watch out for their situational defense

Coming in, Northwestern looked like a very not-explosive offense — they’re still 123rd and 121st in IsoPPP and marginal explosiveness. But that didn’t stop the Buckeyes from allowing a 77-yard run and for seven different Northwestern receivers from having a 15-plus yard catch. Thankfully, all but one of those seven receivers had a long reception of between 15-17 yards, so it’s not like all of them were huge explosive plays, but the Wildcats still ended up with a higher overall explosiveness rate (19%) than Ohio State did (16%), because the Buckeyes didn’t have any explosive runs.