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Advanced Stats Analysis: Is the offense this good and the defense this bad?

Oregon State is probably one of the worst P5 teams, but we can still learn a lot from the numbers.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Ohio State Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

We need to significantly caveat all of the stats that follow. First, Oregon State is likely the worst team on Ohio State’s schedule, and probably one of the worst Power Five teams in the country. It’s possible that Oregon State’s new head coach, Jonathan Smith, has breathed some life into the Beavers offense, and that they’ll be better than the 91st S&P+ offense that they’re projected to be. But we can’t count on that just yet.

Second, teams usually improve the most between weeks one and two, and everyone always overreacts to week one results. That can work both ways — we might be overrating the offense and underrating the defense. The 2016 opener against Bowling Green is a good comparison: the Buckeyes scored 77 points, while J.T. Barrett threw for 349 yards (11.1 yards per attempt), posting an 89.3 QBR and six touchdowns while the offense hit a school record 776 yards. You probably don’t need a reminder, but the passing game was decidedly not fixed despite that output, and the season ended in a shutout loss to Clemson in the playoff.

Even with that comparison, there were encouraging signs that the passing offense really will be different with Dwayne Haskins at the helm. And the defense was mostly solid apart from a handful of big breakdowns.

So let’s get to the numbers.

Stats definitions

Here’s the full advanced stats glossary.

  • In the tables below, scoring opportunity efficiency looks at the average points scored per scoring opportunity — a.k.a. 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 percentage of runs that gained five 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.

Garbage time kicked in immediately after the Buckeyes’ first score of the second half, putting them up 49-14, so the data below only includes seven Buckeyes drives and nine Oregon State drives.

Offense: This is the passing game you’re looking for

Ohio State offense

Metric Ohio State
Metric Ohio State
Rushing SR 65%
Rushing opp rate 55%
Rushing exp plays 2 (10%)
Rushing stuffed rate 10%
Passing SR 74%
Passing exp plays 32%
Overall SR 69%
Overall exp rate 21%
3rd down % 88%
Red zone TDs 100%
Scoring opps efficiency 7
Drive efficiency 6 (86%)
Three-and-out drives 1
Pts off turnovers 14
Havoc rate allowed 1 (2.6%)

Keeping in mind both that this only includes seven drives (stopping after Terry McLaurin’s 75-yard touchdown catch-and-run) and that Oregon State had one of the worst defenses in the country last season, things went about as well as they could have for the first team offense. Ohio State had an 86 percent drive efficiency, with Tate Martell’s drive being the only non-touchdown possession of the first half.

There are a few reasons to think that the passing game is actually improved over the Barrett era. Barrett routinely had efficient passing days, so Haskins’ 74 percent passing success rate isn’t absurd (again, especially given the competition), but his performance against the Beavers featured more middle and deep-passes (i.e., his passes covered more air yards), resulted in more explosive plays, and included passing attempts in the red zone.

That last point is especially interesting. Ohio State was 36th in touchdown percentage inside the red zone, but was fifth overall in average points scored per drive inside the opponent’s 40 (averaging 5.3 points) last year. But, the coaching staff showed an increased trust in Haskins’ passing inside the red zone (with limited data points) vs. Oregon State. In fact, in three red zone attempts with the Buckeyes inside the 10 yard line, Haskins threw for the touchdown all three times, although one was a touch pass to Mike Weber.

But, he targeted Terry McLaurin on 2nd-and-two for the first touchdown of the season, and also hit Rashod Berry for a six-yarder two drives later. As Bill Landis wrote, “The ball to McLaurin required a bit of touch, as he and Parrris Campbell crossed in the end zone and both broke wide open. The ball to Berry was in the flat, a short toss but one also put in a place that allowed him to keep running.”

Overall in the red zone, Ohio State threw eight times, completing five (62.5%), and rushed 10 times and averaged 5.3 yards per carry (a 1.6:1 ratio). In 2017, Ohio State threw 79 times, completing 42 (53.2%), and ran 99 times and averaged 2.5 yards per carry (about a 4:5 ratio in favor of running).

So, roughly, Ohio State’s red zone pass:run ratio was about 8:5 vs. Oregon State and 4:5 last season. This will be something to watch moving forward, but suggests that maybe the passing game could be just as efficient, even in the red zone, as Barrett running QB keepers. Here’s Landis, again: “If Haskins is not as comfortable running in short yardage as Barrett, then Ohio State needs to counter that with a red zone passing game that’s something to take seriously. Haskins doesn’t only have a big arm, but also the size to see the field when it gets more confined and touch to get the ball in the right spot on short throws.”

My other big takeaways on offense: playing the hot hand at running back and operating at a noticeable tempo. Weber was on fire, busting out runs of 9, 11, 16, and 49 yards in the fist half, along with a three-yard touchdown catch on a pop-pass. Dobbins was fine efficiency-wise, with a similar overall rushing success rate as Weber, but he only had one run of more than six yards during the game (for 10 yards). Tempo-wise, the first half drives averaged 16.8 seconds per play.

Defense: About those explosive plays

Ohio State defense

Metric Oregon State
Metric Oregon State
Rushing SR 28%
Rushing opp rate 17%
Rushing exp plays 6%
Rushing stuffed rate 39%
Passing SR 41%
Passing exp plays 18%
Overall SR 35%
Overall exp rate 13%
3rd down % 45%
Red zone TDs 1/2
Scoring opps efficiency 33%
Drive efficiency 44%
Three-and-out drives 2 (22%)
Pts off turnovers 0
Havoc rate allowed 20%

Doug Lesmerises perfectly summarized how bad the defense’s breakdowns were:

Ohio State allowed 316 yards on seven plays against Oregon State on Saturday, and take away those seven devastating breakdowns, and the Buckeyes really controlled the Beavers in a 77-31 win.

It’s amazing how a few simple things like a 25-yard screen, a 26-yard screen, a 49-yard slant for a touchdown, a 27-yard jump ball reception, a 31-yard run through a gaping hole, an 80-yard touchdown run off a missed tackle and a 78-yard touchdown run off a bad tackling angle can really throw a crimp into an otherwise successful defensive effort.

The Beavers gained 316 yards on those seven plays, and 76 yards on their other 56 plays.

Ohio State had already won this game before it had kicked off, but the concern here is that the breakdowns that allowed those plays aren’t dissimilar from those against Oklahoma or Iowa last season — linebackers and defensive backs being out of alignment.

Some breakdowns were expected, both because it was the first game of the season and because the Buckeyes started two new safeties and three new linebackers, but it’s fair to have some concern about how long-lasting the problems will be at linebacker and one safety spot (once Jordan Fuller returns from a hamstring injury).

But anytime your defense holds an opposing rushing game to a lower success rate than stuff rate, you’re doing really well — the Beavers had a 28 percent rushing success rate, but a 39 percent stuff rate. It’s also good to have a havoc rate — 20 percent — that’s not too far off the opposing team’s success rate — 35 percent.

Really the only major problem in the first half was the passing explosive rate allowed — 18 percent, with four passes allowed of 15+ yards. That obviously doesn’t include Artavis Pierce’s two nearly back-to-back second half runs of 80 and 78 yards. In general then, explosive plays were the major problem here.

Maybe you’d prefer Oregon State create fewer than 44% scoring opportunities on their first half drives, but limit those big plays and you’re nearly there. In the game overall, Oregon State averaged 45.1 yards on seven big explosive plays, and 1.4 yards per play on their other 56 plays.

Moving forward

In my Cotton Bowl advanced stats review and heading in to the offseason, I had five big questions for the 2018 season:

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?

After this first game:

  1. I’m still concerned about question one, particularly at safety, but also at corner. Fuller coming back should help, but we still have more questions than answers in the secondary.
  2. Jashon Cornell, Tyreke Smith, and Tyler Friday make me feel just fine about depth at defensive end, especially when the top-end talent is so high.
  3. No concerns about Haskins — in fact, my expectations for the passing game have probably gotten higher. But, the passing offense will really be tested against TCU and Penn State, not Oregon State or Rutgers.
  4. I was concerned heading in about the left side of the offensive line, but the offensive line didn’t allow any sacks. That said, the Beavers defensive line had one of the worst pass rushes in the country last season. So, the jury is still out on this one for now.
  5. This doesn’t really concern me anymore. The Buckeyes’ receivers rotation is deep and full of talented players to the point that improved quarterback play should be enough to elevate the passing game to championship-contending status. I’d really doubt if the receivers hold the offense back this season. The only time I’d want a go-to receiver is on a must-convert passing down, but there’s time to figure that out.