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Ohio State added another dominant win. Is it time to start revising expectations for 2019?

The Buckeyes have looked incredible in two games against solid opponents. How should these performances affect our expectations for the rest of the season?

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State’s win over Indiana was completely dominant, even with the qualifier that Indiana started its backup quarterback.

There are a number of things worth diving into — the dominant run game, the defense’s ability to create havoc, redzone performance, and how sustainable this will be against better opponents — but let’s go through the base numbers first:

OSU-IU Basic Stats

Stat Ohio State Indiana 2018 National Avg
Stat Ohio State Indiana 2018 National Avg
Yards Per Play 7.32 3.84 5.71
Overall SR 0.51 0.30 0.42
Rush SR 0.58 0.31 0.41
Pass SR 0.42 0.29 0.43
Rush YPP 7.95 2.77 5.07
Pass YPP 6.52 4.51 6.42
Stuffed Run Rate 0.10 0.31 0.19
Opportunity Rate 0.68 0.35 0.48
Overall Exp Rate 0.21 0.10 0.14
Rush Exp Rate 0.15 0.04 0.10
Pass Exp Rate 0.29 0.15 0.19
Havoc Rate Allowed 0.13 0.34 NA

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.

OSU-IU Situational Stats

Stat Ohio State Indiana
Stat Ohio State Indiana
Rush Rate 0.56 0.39
Std Down Rush Rate 0.71 0.67
Pass Down Rush Rate 0.33 0.22
Redzone SR 0.50 0.00
Scoring Opp SR 0.65 0.18
Short Yd SR 1.00 0.67
Scoring Opp Rate 0.58 0.31
Scoring Opp TD Rate 0.86 0.25
Redzone Drive Rate 0.33 0.23
Redzone TD Rate 0.75 0.00
1st Down SR 0.51 0.35
2nd Down SR 0.50 0.32
3rd Down SR 0.50 0.18
4th Down SR NA 0.50
Std Down SR 0.65 0.67
Pass Down SR 0.40 0.11
Avg Yds - 3rd 7.30 8.94
  • Standard downs are defined as “First downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, and fourth-and-4 or fewer”, so passing downs are everything else — second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more, and fourth-and-5 or more.
  • Scoring opportunity rate and redzone drive rate is the percentage of drives that generate scoring opportunities (cross opponent’s 40) and enter redzone territory (opponent’s 20).
  • Short yardage rushing attempts are runs with one or two yards to go.

2019 progress

These two charts give a general sense for how Ohio State has performed relative to last season. It shows offensive success rate per game in red and defensive success rate (which you want to be low) in black.

Of course, one of the main problems last season, at least for the defense, was explosiveness rate allowed — not actually per-play success rate. But as we’ll get to later, there has been drastic improvement there as well.

I’ll continue to update the 2019 chart each week to see the team’s progress.

The following chart shows how OSU compares in SP+ with all other FBS teams (thanks, collegefootballdata.com!) :

Only Georgia and Alabama have both a higher offensive and defensive SP+ rating right now.


The run game is increasingly dominant

Indiana’s defense was projected to be average this season — not excellent, but fine. SP+ projected the Hoosiers at 59th heading in to the year. That’s worse than Cincinnati (31st), but still decent. If I had to sum up Indiana’s defense in one word, it would probably be “adequate”.

With that baseline in mind, the question heading in to the game was whether J.K. Dobbins’ performance against Cincinnati — 47 percent rush success rate, 5.8 percent stuff rate, and 11.8 percent explosiveness rate — was a one-game fluke or a sign that Dobbins, the offensive line, and the play calling were all starting to get on the same page.

So Dobbins’ performance against Indiana — 59 percent rush success rate, 9 percent stuff rate, and 13.6 percent explosiveness rate — is definitely encouraging. He totaled 193 rushing yards, which is obviously eye-popping, but so is the fact that 3/5 of his runs were efficient while he had multiple explosive carries — runs of 15, 26, and 56 yards.

As mentioned multiple times over the off-season and earlier this season, Dobbins’ 2018 campaign was plagued by both getting stuffed at or behind the line and in the infrequency of explosive runs. Being efficient is really the most important thing you can do as offense to increase the likelihood of creating explosive plays, but even Ohio State’s so-so rushing efficiency (41st in rushing marginal efficiency) wasn’t enough to generate explosive runs last year (120th in rushing marginal explosiveness).

Two games of excellent explosiveness and low stuff rates aren’t enough data to totally decide that the run game is fixed. But there are also encouraging systemic changes (from film analysis) that give credence to what the advanced stats are saying — the line is blocking extremely well and has a higher average talent level compared to last season, Fields’ rushing ability (even though he doesn’t run all that often) prevents defenses from zeroing in on Dobbins, and the playcalling is more varied, with multiple sets an counters.


Master Teague’s emergence

It would be wrong to write all of this about Dobbins and not mention that Teague has been excellent, with 106 yards on 10 carries, a 70 percent rushing success rate, a 30 percent explosiveness rate, and not a single stuffed run. Those are incredible numbers.


Fields is less efficient, but still solid

The passing game overall had a merely average day with a 42 percent passing success rate, with Fields overthrowing multiple balls. Sack-adjusted yards per play was only 6.5, although the passing explosiveness rate of 29 percent still was better than last year’s average of 24 percent and better than the 2018 national average of 19 percent.

I’m encouraged by the fact that Fields seems to recognize (or at least agree with his coaches) about the overthrowing problem, as well as the fact that he’s identified his footwork as a probable cause. This suggests that it is correctable moving forward.

I’m also excited about the emergence of Chris Olave — who had such a complete game, from routine receiving efficiency to low-probability highlight catches to special teams excellence — and the understated improvement from Ben Victor.

We kind of assumed Olave would emerge based on his trajectory at the end of last season. But Victor is more surprising. Last season he had a catch rate of 58 percent, which was the lowest among receivers with ten or more targets. But he’s been incredibly reliable this year, again catching all of his targets against Indiana, nearly equaling Olave with 66 yards.

One other thing to note with the passing game — they are running the ball far more often on standard downs than they did last season, at 71 percent against Indiana vs. 54 percent last year (national average is 62%). The question is whether this is what we should expect long term with Fields, whether this is the game plan specifically for Indiana, or whether Fields’ improvement in the passing game will lead to more throws on early downs.

One final note is that the offensive line only allowed a 13 percent havoc rate against Indiana. That includes both rushing and passing plays, but the line’s steady improvement is a good sign for future opponents.


Havoc on defense

Ohio State’s defense has definitely outperformed expectations through these first three games. From the shutout over Cincinnati to the strong performance against Indiana, the defense is probably the major reason why optimism is so high for the Buckeyes this season.

In fact, Ohio State’s defense had the 13th-highest havoc rate in any game so far this season, at 33.6 percent, which is higher than Indiana’s success rate of 29.9 percent. The drop in explosiveness rate (10% against Indiana, 15% average last season) is the major thing, but the defense is also just creating more negative plays and making opponents inefficient more of the time this season too.

If Ohio State’s defense continues to play at this level against say, Nebraska, then that’s a really positive sign for the tough matchups against Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan later in the year.