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Ohio State weathered more explosive plays in toughest test of the season

It was a familiar story — allow explosive plays, but win the efficiency battle

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Penn State James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

What a game!

For the second year in a row, Ohio State completed an improbable fourth quarter comeback against Penn State. Just check this ESPN win probability chart with 8 minutes left:

After Penn State scored to go up 26-14 with only eight minutes left in the game, it seemed like those 12 points were nearly insurmountable. Up until that point, Ohio State had just two scoring drives in 14 possessions, and one of those successful drives started in the red zone thanks to a Miles Sanders’ fumble.

But the Buckeyes’ offensive efficiency improved as the game wore on. At that point — with eight minutes left — Ohio State’s overall success rate was just 36.7 percent. But the Buckeyes averaged a 72.7 percent success rate with just three inefficient plays on their final two scoring drives to put the game away. The veteran receiving corps proved its worth with sure hands, great vision after the catch, and by breaking tackles against a tired Penn State defense.

Stats definitions

Here’s the full advanced stats glossary.

  • In the table below, points per trip scoring opportunity looks at the average points scored per scoring opportunity. 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.
  • 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.

Kneel downs at the end of each half were filtered out.


Metric Ohio State Penn State
Metric Ohio State Penn State
Rushing success rate 44% 31%
Rushing opportunity rate 47% 44%
Rushing explosive plays 3.1% 7.7%
Rushing stuffed rate 19% 23%
Passing success rate 41% 34%
Passing explosive plays 10% 22%
Overall success rate 42% 32%
Overall explosive rate 7% 14%
3rd down % 24% 18%
Red zone TDs 67% 67%
Points per scoring opportunity 5.4 4.3
Drive efficiency 31% 35%
Three-and-out drives 44% (7) 29% (5)
Pts off turnovers 7 3
Havoc rate allowed 8.5% 16.9%
Average starting field position 29.4 27.2

What determined the game

In games with two similarly talented teams, individual moments take on much more importance. For example:

  1. KJ Hamler’s 93-yard touchdown on third-and-5 from the Penn State 7
  2. Miles Sanders’ fumble to give Ohio State the ball in the red zone, leading to their first score
  3. The face mask penalty that pushed Ohio State’s field goal attempt back, which was then missed
  4. Penn State’s failed 4th-and-one attempt at the Ohio State 24 yard line in the final minute of the 3rd quarter
  5. Binjimen Victor’s insane catch (seriously, I think only 6-foot-4 Victor could’ve caught that pass) and run
  6. Penn State’s final 4th-and-5 try, which Chase Young and company stuffed in the backfield

These were two almost evenly matched teams, but in the end, those individual plays (and I’m sure there were others I’m forgetting) had an outsized outcome on the game.

More broadly though:

  • Ohio State won the efficiency battle 42 percent to 32 percent, but lost the explosive play battle 7 percent to 14 percent. Efficiency usually is enough for Ohio State. As Bill C. said in his preview for the game, “Four teams have beaten Ohio State in the last 24 months. But to do so, you have to find an alternate route. The most direct path to wins and losses — efficiency — is almost permanently tinted scarlet and gray... Efficiency is replicable. Ohio State forces you to rely on less reliable methods — a blocked kick returned for a touchdown (2016 Penn State), for instance, or a sudden gush of turnovers (2017 Iowa).” In 2018, it looks like that “less reliable method” is explosive plays.
  • More really big explosive plays allowed. Digging deeper: Ohio State allowed a 20-yard pass, another 31-yard pass, McSorley’s 51-yard run, KJ Hamler’s 93-yard touchdown catch and run, another 23-yard McSorley run, another 36-yard pass to Hamler, a 21 yarder to Hippenhammer, a 19-yard McSorley scramble, and a 27-yarder to the freshman tight end. Those nine plays accounted for 45 percent of Penn State’s total yards.
  • Trace McSorley’s running. McSorley’s scrambling (and called QB draws) was the ultimate equalizer. Eight of Penn State’s 22 first downs were due to his running, and 39 percent of their successful plays overall were from a McSorley run. As Kirk Herbstreit said during the broadcast, their best offensive play was a called pass that resulted in a McSorley scramble.
  • Chase Young. Young emerged as this week’s star of the defensive line, with an insane stat line: six tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss, two QB hurries, and two passes defensed, one of which was the critical tipped pass on fourth down at the end of the third quarter.
  • Penalties. Ohio State had ten penalties for 105 yards.

Can the Buckeyes get out to an early lead?

Nope! Ohio State’s offense had 7 punts and an interception to start the game. If you would’ve told me that before the game, I would have expected a blowout in Penn State’s favor, based on how much of a fourth quarter team they’ve been this year. In fact, their offensive success rate in the first half was just 24 percent.

Can Ohio State establish the run game vs. Penn State?

Not really. Ohio State averaged 3.2 yards per carry with a 44 percent success rate and nearly 1/5th of their runs stopped for no gain or a loss. Ohio State has averaged a 48 percent rushing success rate in big games last season, and had a 49 percent success rate against TCU.

Forty-seven percent of the Buckeyes’ runs were for 5+ yards, but it’s still a problem that such a high percentage of runs are being stopped for no gain or a loss. Coming in to the game Ohio State averaged a 16.7 percent stuff rate, which is 46th in the country, so 19 percent isn’t too far off the season average.

There’s no need to freak out about the run game, but it’s still worth considering that this is a relative weakness. The Buckeyes are 31st in rushing marginal efficiency, which is not opponent-adjusted (but does have garbage time filtered out), but even with games against two tough defenses in TCU and Penn State, the Buckeyes need to do some work getting the run game to championship-caliber levels.

Rushing in big games

Game Success rate Opportunity rate Stuff rate
Game Success rate Opportunity rate Stuff rate
Oklahoma 53% 52% 16%
Penn State 51% 51% 14%
Iowa 68% 52% 10%
Michigan 42% 40% 27%
Wisconsin 36% 19% 12%
USC 39% 37% 14%
TCU 49% 41% 21%
Penn State ('18) 44% 47% 19%

What happens if the Penn State defense prioritizes defending the pass?

Penn State decided to take away the run game and the deep pass, as Ross mentions here:

Without a quarterback run game and with Haskins’ inefficiency early, the offense was left with screen passes as its primary weapon. According to ESPN’s Tom VanHaaren, 157 of Haskins’ 270 yards (60%) were on screens, and 73 of the final touchdown drive’s 96 yards were as well.

Not too many teams will be able to successfully take away both the run game and deep pass, but when they (maybe Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, playoff teams) do, the successful screen game relies on veteran receivers that are able to make guys miss as well as great receiver blocking.

Finally, even though Haskins started very slowly, the passing game as a whole has still been better in two big games this season than for almost all of last year’s big games:

Passing in big games

Game Success rate Yards per attempt Completion % Interceptions
Game Success rate Yards per attempt Completion % Interceptions
Oklahoma 29% 4.4 54% 1
Penn State 51% 7.7 85% 0
Iowa 35% 5.7 53% 4
Michigan 28% 6.2 60% 0
Wisconsin 31% 8.1 46% 2
USC 28% 4.6 65% 0
TCU 47% 9.1 63% 0
Penn State ('18) 41% 6.9 56% 1

The Buckeyes have been solid at protecting Haskins. Will that continue vs. Penn State?

Coming in to the game, Ohio State was 23rd in sack rate and 16th on passing downs sack rate, but most of those sacks had been with the second team offensive line against Tate.

However, Ohio State did have a 13 percent (89th) blitz down sack rate, so there was significant concern that the Nittany Lions could just blitz all night and force incompletions.

That concern was somewhat warranted, with Haskins going 0-for-7 on third down passing conversions in the first half, even though Penn State only got one sack and four QB hurries (and only five tackles for loss total) on the night. Ohio State converted just four of 17 third down attempts. So even though the pass rush hardly ever got to Haskins, the Penn State defense still successfully limited the offense’s overall effectiveness by applying pressure.

Can the defense stop Miles Sanders?

This one, thankfully, was fine. Penn State only had three successful runs from someone other than McSorley, as Sanders finished with 16 carries for 43 yards (2.7 yards per carry) with a long of just 12 yards. Penn State had a 31 percent rushing success rate overall, and almost all of that came from McSorley’s scrambles and designed runs, as mentioned above. Without being able to lean on the run, Penn State lacked a base level of efficiency and was forced to rely on McSorley and explosive plays to fill the gaps.

On one level that’s great news for the defense, because limiting opponents’ efficiency is probably the most important thing you can do. Most of the time, Ohio State’s 15th ranking in overall defensive success rate (38th in marginal efficiency) is going to be enough. But it also allows individual explosive plays to have a large impact on the game’s outcome. Overall though, besides the coaching staff being slow to adjust to McSorley’s running, I think you can come away from this game encouraged by the defense’s performance.

Will Ohio State’s pass rush still get to McSorely?

Kind of. Four sacks and 11 tackles for loss is a great performance against a much better PSU offensive line.

But McSorley had 175 rushing yards on 25 carries (seven yard average). McSorley runs were 39 percent of all of Penn State’s successful plays, and 75 percent of their successful runs were from McSorley. Ohio State probably won’t play a running quarterback with his abilities for the rest of the season (unless they get matched up with Kyler Murray and Oklahoma in the postseason), but it’s something to watch for.

If Penn State creates a scoring opportunity, can Ohio State keep them from getting a touchdown?

The defense was just good enough here to win. Penn State had a slightly higher drive efficiency (the percentage of possessions that are scoring opportunities, which is getting a first down inside your opponent’s 40 yard line), with one more scoring opportunity overall.

But Ohio State did a better job near their end zone, allowing 4.3 points per scoring opportunity to Penn State’s 5.4. This includes the absolutely critical tipped pass by Chase Young on fourth-and-one at the end of the third quarter. Ohio State also forced a field goal on Penn State’s first scoring opportunity.

Other notes

  • Short yardage situations: One thing Ohio State really needs to work on is short yardage situations. On 4th-and-1 at midfield, down six with 10 minutes to go, Ohio State ran what looked like an inside zone read that Haskins failed to pick up. Penn State knew what was coming and loaded the box, while Haskins— being not J.T. Barrett— couldn’t get the one yard. Penn State would use the advantageous field position to score on the following drive and put the game at 26-14. Ohio State’s run game has been strong, but not world-beating this year, and that applies to the short yardage run game.
  • Explosive plays on passing downs: We usually talk about the defense’s explosive play struggles overall, but I think we should really zero in on passing downs. Even heading in to the game, Ohio State ranked fourth in the country on standard downs marginal explosiveness, but, insanely, 129th in the same metric on passing downs. The 93-yard run allowed against TCU was on third down, just like Hamler’s 93-yard catch-and-run on the Penn State 7-yard line last night. That should make us think that it’s not just poor tackling and angles from linebackers and secondary, but also something with the scheme on passing downs.
  • Penalties. Ten penalties for over 100 yards is obviously bad. Ohio State ranks 117th in penalty yards allowed per game, with 80.6. Ohio State ranked 114th in penalty yards per game last year, but was in the 40s and 50s the previous three seasons.
  • Win projections. S&P+ win probabilities will be updated soon, but heading in to the game, Ohio State only has two more games with a win probability under 88 percent — 74 percent vs. Michigan State and 67 percent vs. Michigan. We’ll see how those projections change after this week’s results, but that’s encouraging (especially for the division race).