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What Ohio State’s win over Cincinnati means going forward

The Buckeyes looked near-perfect on offense and defense. Can they keep it up?

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

It was hard to come away from Saturday’s win over Cincinnati feeling anything but really positive about the direction of the 2019 Buckeyes.

The offense seemed like it could do basically whatever it wanted against a defense that was expected to be stout, and the defense maintained a shutout thanks to some heads-up havoc plays in the red zone.

So now that we’ve had a little while to digest the game, what can we take away? How predictive will Ohio State’s performance be going forward? And do the stats agree that the Buckeyes were as good as your eyeballs thought they were?

OSU-UC Advanced Stats

Stat Ohio State Cincinnati National Averages OSU Offense 2018 Avg OSU Defense 2018 Avg
Stat Ohio State Cincinnati National Averages OSU Offense 2018 Avg OSU Defense 2018 Avg
Yards Per Play 6.96 4.71 5.71 6.62 5.77
Overall SR 0.56 0.31 0.42 0.49 0.39
Pass SR 0.47 0.34 0.41 0.53 0.38
Rush SR 0.71 0.28 0.43 0.46 0.40
Rush YPP 6.09 4.52 5.07 4.59 5.51
Pass YPP 8.36 4.90 6.42 8.53 5.99
Stuffed Run Rate 0.13 0.17 0.19 0.18 0.24
Opportunity Rate 0.53 0.38 0.48 0.49 0.42
Overall Exp Rate 0.11 0.16 0.14 0.15 0.15
Rush Exp Rate 0.07 0.10 0.10 0.06 0.11
Pass Exp Rate 0.18 0.21 0.19 0.24 0.19
Rush Rate 0.62 0.50 0.53 0.48 0.46
Std Down Rush Rate 0.71 0.79 0.62 0.54 0.59
Pass Down Rush Rate 0.40 0.29 0.35 0.26 0.27
Redzone SR 0.63 0.22 0.44 0.47 0.53
Scoring Opp SR 0.60 0.38 0.44 0.50 0.42
Short Yd SR 0.60 0.75 0.71 0.69 0.66
Scoring Opp Rate 0.67 0.27 0.50 0.59 0.43
Scoring Opp TD Rate 0.75 0.00 0.54 0.64 0.51

If those stats seem unfamiliar, here’s what each means:

  • First, this comes from play by play data filtered to only run and pass plays (no penalties or special teams), with sacks counting as pass attempts rather than runs.
  • A play is defined as a success if the offense efficiently moved towards a first down, defined specifically as 50 percent of necessary yards on first down, 70 percent of remaining yards on second down, and all remaining yards on third or fourth down. So success rate is successful plays divided by total plays.
  • Explosive plays are defined here as plays of 13+ yards. Some coaches measure that differently (i.e. 15+ yards or with varying definitions based on whether it’s a run or pass) but we’ll keep it simple and stick to 13+ yard gains.
  • Stuffed runs are rushes for no gain or a loss.
  • Opportunity rate attempts to measure how often a running back and offensive line “do their jobs” — defined here as getting 4+ yards per rush.
  • Short yardage rush success rate is how often the offense gets the first down on runs of two yards or less to go (i.e. in third-and-one or goal line situations).
  • A scoring opportunity is when an offense runs a play inside an opponent’s 40 yard line (or has a long touchdown from outside the 40). So scoring opportunity touchdown rate is how often the offense goes on to score a touchdown if it gets inside the 40.

Dominant performance

Ohio State’s win over Cincinnati was as dominant as you thought it was. The Buckeyes averaged 2.25 yards per play more than the Bearcats, had a +25 percent success rate margin, were nearly three times more efficient in the red zone (63% to 22%) and created scoring opportunities on 40 percent more of their drives than Cincinnati.

No matter what statistic you look at, the Buckeyes likely had an edge — except in the explosiveness rate statistics, where Cincinnati had a slight edge. This wasn’t concerning in-game, however, because none of the explosive plays went for touchdowns, and only one play was longer than 21 yards (the 46 yard completion to Alec Pierce).

It’s worth flagging those explosive plays just to see if they become an issue (or remain an issue from last season?) against more explosive offenses, but right now I think the evidence suggests that the Buckeyes are much more fundamentally sound at preventing explosive plays (especially when the starters are in!).

Enjoy watching Fields while he’s in Columbus

This is just to note that Justin Fields had a 71 percent passing success rate against a solid defense. Haskins averaged 53 percent last season. I think you also saw a little more evidence of what Fields can do running the ball against Cincinnati, where he looked more decisive and a little quicker getting to the edge.

Is the run game... back?

Right before the game kicked off, I posted the following charts on Twitter. From top to bottom, you have Dobbins’ average expected points added (EPA) per game (check out this article for an explanation of EPA. The tl;dr is that it measures the magnitude of success or failure on a play, adjusted for down, distance, and field position), explosiveness rate, and stuff rate, for the 2017 (left) and 2018 (right) seasons:

These charts tell a very clear story: J.K Dobbins’ average rushing effectiveness declined significantly between 2017 and 2018, with explosiveness rates declining and stuff rates increasing last season.

  • Dobbins only had five games with an average rushing EPA below zero during his freshman season, but he averaged a negative rushing EPA in the last nine games of his sophomore year.
  • His explosiveness rate declined significantly in 2018, with only four games at or above 10 percent of his runs going for 13+ yards after ten games with 10+ percent explosiveness rates in 2017. Using other measures, the Buckeyes as a whole were 32nd in rushing IsoPPP (another measure of explosiveness) in 2018, but 120th (!) in rushing marginal explosiveness last season.
  • His stuff rate increased, too: He had 5 games over 10 percent in 2017, but 9 games >10 percent in 2018, with two games where over 30 percent of his runs were stopped at or behind the line. The team’s stuff rate increased from 12.2 percent in 2017 to 18.8 percent last season.

Against FAU, Dobbins’ stuff rate was still 19 percent and his explosiveness rate was just 5 percent. Those numbers matched last season’s trend, giving ample cause for concern.

But against Cincinnati, which was projected to have a stellar run defense, and defense overall? A stuff rate of just 5.8 percent and an explosiveness rate of 11.7 percent, which included his 60-yard touchdown run.

That was undoubtedly a vintage 2017 Dobbins performance, and against a defense that should be at least in the top half of Ohio State’s 2019 opponents.

Obviously the question is whether that was a one-game outlier, whether Cincinnati is way, way worse than projected, or whether that was what our eyes hoped it was — evidence that a young offensive line started to gel (plus Fields at quarterback), which will allow Dobbins to build off this performance for similar ones moving forward.

My initial thought here is that even if Cincinnati’s defense isn’t as strong as projected, it is still likely a mid-ranked defense — and Dobbins’ rushing totals were much worse against even mid-ranked defenses in 2018. So I would feel cautiously optimistic heading in to the matchup with Indiana.

So how about that defense?

Cincinnati was not expected to have a world-beating offense. Nevertheless, the Bearcats’ combo of Warren II, Ridder, and Pierce could have given the 2018 Buckeyes defense some problems.

Not only did Ohio State get their first shutout in years, but they also held Cincinnati to just a 31 percent success rate, a 38 percent opportunity rate (meaning only 38 percent of their runs went for four or more yards), an 11.7 percent passing downs success rate, and a 22 percent redzone success rate. Obviously they didn’t score any points when they did get in the redzone. The Buckeyes also caused a havoc play on 21.5 percent of Cincinnati’s offensive snaps.

Those stats are excellent against what should be an at least OK offense. Even more than the stats, I thought the film suggested that the Buckeyes’ star players are playing like the star recruits that they were — Chase Young, Baron Browning, Shaun Wade, and Jeffrey Okudah all flashed with highlight plays last week (I’ve been especially impressed with Browning, who seems to be playing much faster and instinctively than last season). That was definitely not the case last year, and I think suggests positive things for Ohio State moving forward.