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Ohio State vs. Clemson could depend on passing downs, explosive plays

Can Ohio State slow the best receivers its seen all season while also converting enough passing downs?

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Ohio State vs Wisconsin Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Fiesta Bowl is a matchup of the two best teams in college football, and the two most evenly matched teams.

Every unit in this matchup is within the top 4% of average expected points added (EPA) in the country. (If you’re unsure what EPA is, check out the explanation at the beginning of my Penn State preview.) Clemson and Ohio State have the two top defenses in average EPA and two of the top five offenses. SP+ tells a similar story, with Clemson ranking fourth overall and Ohio State first, and all units ranking within the top six.

The Buckeyes have faced a tougher schedule, ranking 21st to Clemson’s 91st in SP+. Clemson has only faced one team in the top 25 of the SP+ (Texas A&M, 24-10), while Ohio State has five top-25 SP+ wins.

But since October, no team has been better than the Tigers, who have SP+ performances of 94% or better in every game (Ohio State has been at 86% or better in that stretch). That could explain the difference between Vegas, where Ohio State is about a 1.5 point underdog, and most of the advanced analytics, which favor Ohio State by a little less than a touchdown (i.e. SP+, with Ohio State by 6).

This chart shows offensive and defensive average EPA percentiles for every FBS team, clearly showing that Clemson and Ohio State are the two most elite teams in the country (up and right is better):

With such narrow margins between the two teams, turnover luck, explosive plays, and advantages at the margins will take on an outsized role. Let’s dig into the analytics to see how the game could swing.

The game could hinge on passing downs

Looking at the EPA comparison chart below, there are few big advantages or disadvantages for either team. In both summary stats — average EPA and EPA success rate — the two teams are nearly equal. Only when you dig into some of the more narrow metrics do you see some variation in their EPA percentiles:

The chart above suggests that Ohio State’s scoring could depend on:

  • Slight advantage in passing (particularly in explosive passing)
  • Slight disadvantage on standard downs
  • Notable advantage on passing downs
  • Notable disadvantage in the red zone

The fact that Ohio State’s margin is higher for average passing EPA than passing EPA success rate suggests that the Buckeyes might have (and need) to create some explosive passing plays to open up the offense.

No team has completely slowed the Ohio State run game this season, but the Clemson defense ranks in the 94th percentile in both average rushing EPA and EPA success rate, so it could be tough sledding for the offensive line without opening the game up with the passing game, particularly if Justin Fields is still slowed from his knee injury (which would likely limit his scrambling ability, as was so successful against Penn State).

The fact that Ohio State has a notable advantage on passing downs is important, because that, combined with Clemson’s suggested advantage on earlier downs (despite the fact that they “only” rank 29th in stuff rate), means that converting second- or third-and-long will be critical to Ohio State’s offensive success.

Clemson creates a lot of havoc (ranking fourth in overall havoc rate, particularly from the front seven), meaning that the Buckeyes offense will likely be facing a strong pass rush on passing downs. Linebacker Isaiah Simmons leads with seven sacks, but seemingly every defender on the roster has multiple sacks, suggesting both the blowouts Clemson has played in (preventing single players from racking up stats) and the fact that defensive talent is widely distributed and there isn’t just one guy you have to watch out for. Pass protection has obviously been a problem for Ohio State in big games this season, so pass blocking — and Fields getting the ball out quickly or evading the pass rush — will be absolutely critical. But while relying on passing downs is risky, the EPA data does suggest that there might be opportunities for a big play or two through the air.

The chart below shows offensive EPA success rate (efficiency) on the x-axis and EPA explosiveness rate on the y-axis (EPA explosiveness rate is created by looking at the rate of plays that are in the top 10% of EPA for all plays this season).

There is a slight difference between Ohio State and Clemson here: the Buckeyes are both more efficient and more explosive, but the margin is a little higher for the Buckeyes’ efficiency. Ohio State will need to convert passing downs in order to maintain that efficiency advantage.

It’s also worth noting that Ohio State is by far the best offense that Clemson will have faced this season. This is kind of astounding, but the best offense Clemson has faced this year is in the 44.9% of average EPA (UNC), while all others are 34.4% or below. Ohio State is in the 91.9% in offensive average EPA.

Ohio State has to slow the Clemson run game

The Buckeyes have shown that they can slow down elite running backs, but they’ve also shown some susceptibility on the ground too — you only need to look at Jonathan Taylor’s performance against Ohio State during the regular season vs. the Big Ten Championship game to see that variation.

Travis Etienne is every bit the running back that Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins are. What makes Clemson so dangerous on offense is that they — like Ohio State — can combine elite rushing with explosive downfield passing. And Clemson’s star receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are 6’4 and better than any receiver the Buckeyes defense has faced this year.

The chart below shows the rate of explosive plays on the x-axis and average EPA per explosive play on the y-axis. Essentially, this looks at how often you’re explosive, and then when you are, how big those explosive plays are:

As you can see, Ohio State’s offense is marginally more explosive, but Clemson’s big plays are relatively bigger — they’re almost a carbon-copy of Oklahoma’s offense in that regard. The two teams are nearly evenly matched on standard downs, passing downs, in overall average EPA and in EPA success rate, but those two datapoints should be the primary focus for the Ohio State defense:

  1. Clemson has a significant advantage in rushing efficiency and explosiveness
  2. Clemson’s explosive plays are very explosive

So it will be critical for Ohio State to avoid the steady efficiency march from Etienne and short RPOs that can then open the door for downfield shots to Ross and Higgins. Okudah, Wade, and Arnette will definitely have their hands full — and Chase Young will need to recreate his Penn State and first Wisconsin game performances to force Trevor Lawrence into risky decisions.

Notably, Ohio State might have an advantage in the red zone however, so preventing explosive plays from outside the 20 will be important to eventually limiting the Tigers to 3 points.

As I wrote in the intro, this should be a coin flip game. No team has dominated on both sides of the ball like Clemson over the last two months, while the Tigers also haven’t faced anyone close to Ohio State’s talent level, either. While things like passing downs, explosive passes, and slowing Etienne may provide marginal advantages here and there, a single turnover or field position advantage could decide things in the end.