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Grading Ohio State’s position groups on their regular season performances

Our resident professor takes out his red pen to look at OSU’s offense and defense.

Ohio State v Michigan Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

With Ohio State basketball on a COVID-19 hiatus until after Christmas, it’s hard not to reflect on the football season: what might have been and what isn’t. As I read all of the pre-playoff analyses and predictions, I can’t help but be disappointed that the Buckeyes are left out this year. Granted, they were inconsistent, but, on a good day, they could beat anybody. And, if they were in the playoffs, they’d need only two good days. Alas.

Looking at the national NCAA statistics for the 2021 season, it’s easy to see where Ohio State excelled – and where they fell short. As we look to Pasadena and to next season, it’s also easy to see where the work needs to be done.


Offense

I’m starting with the easy one, with the best one: the offense. Most of the season, the Buckeyes were ranked as the top offense in America, compared to the 130 teams in the FBS. They finished that way, too, leading the nation in all of the top categories. (Note, I realize that there are bowl games left to be played and that the results of those games will be included in the final stats. With increasing numbers of stars opting out of their teams’ bowl games, it seems more accurate, however, to examine the data now.) The Bucks are first in total offense, with 551.4 yards per game; first in yards per play, with 7.78; and first in scoring offense, averaging 45.5 points a game.

Digging deeper into the stats, I encounter some more surprising figures. I was pleased to see that OSU was tied for sixth in fewest turnovers lost with only nine for the year, two fumbles and seven interceptions. The Bucks ranked third in third-down conversions, making the line to gain at a .527 clip.

It’s less surprising that the passing offense was so highly rated: fifth overall (364.9 yards/game), fifth in passing touchdowns (40), and second in yards per pass attempt with 9.80, Coastal Carolina finishing first. The offensive line yielded only 17 sacks for the year (1.42 per game), good enough for a 20th ranking.

The rushing offense, on the other hand, is one of those areas that needs work. For the season, the Buckeyes were 42nd in the nation in rushing yards per game with 186.5. That figure is higher than I would have expected, but the rushing game was uneven throughout the year; the Bucks could run easily against weak teams and struggled mightily against better teams. With their talent in the backfield and on the offensive line, they should be able to move the ball on the ground against anyone.

I was also happy that the red zone offense wasn’t as bad as it often seemed. In fact, the Bucks ranked fifth in red zone scoring, getting a touchdown or a field goal on 92.3% of their chances. If we look at only touchdown success (our primary concern), we see that they crossed the goal line on 67% of their red zone opportunities. That’s about the middle of the pack among the four playoff-bound teams: Alabama 70%, Cincinnati 69%, Michigan 64%, and Georgia 61%.

Another area of worry for the Buckeyes this year was penalties. I don’t have the break down between offensive and defensive penalties, and there were plenty of both. Holding and false starts killed many important drives. OSU ranked tied for 77th in number of penalties per game with 6.5 and 86th in yards per game penalized.

Overall Offense Grade: A


Quarterbacks: A

C.J. Stroud was superb all season. As a first-year starter, he did really well, once he had a couple of games under his belt.

Running Backs: B

I may be about the only Buckeye fan not fully on the TreVeyon Henderson bandwagon. Sure, he’s exciting to watch and a breakaway threat, but can he sustain a drive on the ground when the Buckeyes need to? Like the rushing game generally, Henderson racked up yardage against weaker teams, finishing with a very good 7.0 yards per carry average. Miyan Williams and Master Teague III complement him well but missed several games each for unspecified injuries.

Wide Receivers: A

All three starters were named to All America teams. We’ll be seeing them on Sundays.

Tight Ends: C

They were underutilized again this year – not just as targets for the passing game, especially in the red zone – but also as lead blockers in a mediocre running game. Jeremy Ruckert had a number of penalties and missed blocks that hurt the offense.

Offensive Line: C

This group is something of an enigma. Once the Buckeyes settled on a starting five early in the season, the line was set, with few substitutions. Generally, they were good pass blockers, and Nicholas Petit-Frere and Thayer Munford were named to All America teams. But the line was not very mobile, and that lack of mobility hurt on rushing plays, where they couldn’t pull quickly enough to set a lead block effectively and had difficulty getting out on a linebacker. Michigan, especially, ate them up.


Purdue v Ohio State
Ronnie Hickman led the Bucks in tackles — by a wide margin.
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Defense

With the top offense in the country, a football team is going to be good and fun to watch. In some of Ohio State’s games this year, they couldn’t be stopped, and it seemed unlikely that there was any team that could match them score for score. Bad defense, however, brought about the two Buckeye losses and allowed other teams to stay in their contests. Again, the national stats are pretty revealing.

In total defense, the Buckeyes, despite their outstanding talent, weren’t elite. They ranked 50th for the season, giving up 365.4 yards per game. Again, if we compare them to the four teams vying for the national championships, we see why the Bucks aren’t among them. In total defense, Georgia ranks second, Cincinnati seventh, Alabama eighth, and Michigan twelfth. While Ohio State’s scoring defense was better, ranking tied for 23rd (about 21 points per game), the third-down conversion defense was terrible – tied for 96th (out of 130), giving up the first down 41.4% of the time. That’s why the defense often had trouble getting off the field.

Ohio State was good nationally in turnover margin, ranking 10th, but that margin is largely attributable to the offense not giving up the ball. The defense gained only 19 turnovers in 12 games, seven fumble recoveries and twelve interceptions, good enough for a ranking of 40th.

Yes, the Wolverines gashed OSU on the ground, but, for the season, the Buckeyes ranked 18th in rushing defense, allowing just 118.5 rushing yards a game. The passing defense was much worse, ranked 98th with a yield of 246.9 passing yards a game. With inexperienced defensive backs and linebackers, we were aware of the vulnerability to the pass. The defensive line, though, was supposed to be good. Pressure, sacks, hurries would help protect the backs. Ohio State was tied for 21st in sacks with three per game. But, again, they puffed the numbers against weak teams and had no sacks and no tackles for loss against Michigan.

Overall Defense: C


Defensive Line: C

One of the big disappointments of the season. They weren’t very good at pressuring passers, and they weren’t very good against the run. They lacked enthusiasm all year. The defensive coaches didn’t call many blitzes; maybe they should have. These guys needed help getting to the passer. Haskell Garrett was named second team AP All American, seemingly for his reputation, rather than his performance.

Linebackers: C-

We’ve criticized Ohio State’s linebacker corps for several years now. This group was worse. Steele Chambers came on strong toward the end of the year, when he was getting starts, and Cody Simon was second in team tackles. All in all, though, the backers had trouble containing outside running plays and covering receivers over the middle. They were often also slow to close gaps on inside rushes and got pushed around badly by offensive linemen.

Defensive Backs: C-

It’s a team effort, obviously, but the 98th best pass defense ranking falls largely on the DBs. Ronnie Hickman led the Bucks in tackles with 97, way ahead of Simon’s second-place 54. And Denzel Burke (and occasionally Cam Brown) showed flashes of brilliance. Generally, however, the backs often looked confused, blew coverages, and missed tackles. Badly coached? Sure. But we need some work here.


So, there you have it. It might seem strange to see so many Cs for a 10-2, 6th-ranked team. But our expectations are high – and, trust me, they’ll stay that way.