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Column: Ohio State’s 3rd down failures defined their 2021 season. Improving efficiency will define 2022

The Buckeyes biggest games came down to third down, and today we take a look at why that one down is so important moving forward.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Last season, Ohio State’s offensive was elite in every single statistical category and was efficient in all areas on the field. The defense was arguably the worst in school history and led to significant staff turnover this offseason. For the Buckeyes, a major part of their issues happened on third down on both sides of the ball.

Ryan Day brought in a new offensive line coach, and fans expect improvement in short yardage with an increase level of physicality. Day also struggled at times as play caller with certain tendencies that were easy to identify, and this led to giving up quite a few third down stops against the offense. They converted 52.6% of their third downs, which is by no means bad, but when we look deeper into this, the issues became apparent against the better defenses on the schedule.

On the defensive side, the memories of Michigan, Oregon, Penn State, and Nebraska ripping off third and fourth down conversions still linger. The unfortunate aspect is when you look back at the games, there was not just one issue — the issues were holistic. This is what Jim Knowles was brought in to fix.

“We were No. 1 in sacks last year. We’ve been consistently one, two in third down,” Knowles said in an interview about his time at Oklahoma State.

Both sides of the ball will be looking to make a statement here. If both can improve in this area, Ohio State will be a truly dominant football team. Sustained drives by the offense and getting off the field on defense will create momentum each way to build on one another.

Third Down Failures

These failures stood out in the moment, but the best way to emphasize the issues is taking a look at some clips from last season’s games. Ohio State in 3rd-and-short situations never gave fans confidence. We can look at how teams attacked them in the run game, and how Ohio State’s lack of different defensive looks made for some easy first down pickups.

In the first example, we get the run down of the main issue on offense. Ohio State lines up under center, which was a definitive tell that they were going to run the football. On the play, Ohio State runs their inside zone scheme. Michigan brings a run blitz and gets immediate penetration. This blows up the play and changes the momentum of the game, and Ohio State’s third down failure is emphasized.

Against Nebraska, we see much of the same. Ohio State lines up in a pistol look, which once again was a formation that Ohio State ran the ball out of the majority of the time. The Buckeyes run stretch to the short side of the field, and Nebraska gets to the point of attack first. The line works as a turnstile and Henderson has nowhere to go.

Ohio State’s worst defensive performance on third down came against Penn State. In the play below, we see Ohio State in their Cover-4 look. The Buckeyes bring an extra rusher who does not impact the passer, which leaves a huge hole on the left side of the defense. Teams who were able to make these intermediate completions were able to get whatever they wanted on third down against Ohio State.

For the Buckeyes, these were just a few examples of the failures. The main issue was the failures happened frequently. When you look at these clips and then look at the stats, it tells a story of team that was lacking a true identity. For the Buckeyes to get back to their dominant winning ways, this will need to be a point of emphasis.

Third Down Statistics

After looking at both sides of the ball in a few clips, the stats here will tell two sides of the same story. Neither unit was good enough on third down.

On the offensive side of the ball the Buckeyes struggled in five games last season. As we saw with the film, a lot of the lack of success came from the play calling and lack of physicality. When we look at Ohio State’s five closest regular season games, the stats show that inefficient third down offense played a significant part in how the score of the game played out.

Ohio State Offensive 3rd-Down Efficiency

Michigan Penn State Oregon Nebraska Tulsa TOTAL
Michigan Penn State Oregon Nebraska Tulsa TOTAL
8/18 5/14 6/15 9/19 6/11 34/77
44.44% 35.70% 40.00% 47.37% 54.54% 44.16%

Looking at the numbers above, you can see the only game Ohio State finished above 50 percent was against Tulsa. These failures on third down can be attributed to never gaining an offensive rhythm, and why the Buckeyes were defeated or played in closer matchups than expected. If Ohio State wants to be a truly elite offensive team, they will need to perform at their highest level against the best defenses on their schedule.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Buckeyes struggled in this regard more randomly in 2021. Penn State, Oregon, Tulsa, and Michigan all finished near 50 percent or higher in their third down conversion rates against Ohio State. In the Rose Bowl, Utah was cruising on third down until the second half as well. Once again with the numbers, you see a direct correlation to team shortcomings and third down success.

Ohio State Defensive 3rd-Down Efficiency

Michigan Penn State Oregon Purdue Tulsa Utah TOTAL
Michigan Penn State Oregon Purdue Tulsa Utah TOTAL
5/8 11/16 8/16 5/10 9/17 5/12 43/67
62.50% 69.75% 50.00% 50.00% 52.94% 41.67% 64.18%

Even with the outlier of Utah, the Buckeyes gave up 64.18 percent of third downs in their closest games of the season. This is not a number that wins championships, and this is a reason Ryan Day made the significant changes he did this offseason. This will not be a small task to fix, but new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has historically put an emphasis on this. Last year, Knowles’ Oklahoma State defense finished second in the country with a third down efficiency of 28.42 percent.

If Ohio State can improve statistically on one side of the ball, they should see a significant impact. Third down success is the, “help me, help you” in terms of football, and improvement by either should net positive results for the opposite side of the ball.

Solutions moving forward

Ohio State does not need to be perfect on third down to have great success in 2022, but they were dominant in games they controlled third down on both sides of the ball. In their closest games, they struggled on at least one side of the ball. Ohio State has taken steps to right these wrongs heading into next season.

Ryan Day made wholesale changes to the defensive staff, bringing in Jim Knowles to fix the defense. Knowles will have his work cut out for him, but the team had players gain valuable experience last year. You combine the talent, the experience that was gained, and the direction of a Knowles defense, this group has the potential to become one of the best in the country.

Offensively, Ryan Day needs to get less predictable as a play caller when the going gets tough. A part of that comes from trusting the offensive line to get the job done in short yardage situations, which felt like a huge question mark last season. The only staff replacement on offense in new offensive line coach Justin Frye should bring a new attitude to the offensive line room. Playing players at their correct position should help as well, as we saw how poorly the four tackle experience worked out.

Physicality, creativity, and the players being confident in what they’re being taught will be the keys to the results in 2022. If Ohio State can win third down consistently, they will have a different aura around them. This is no small fix, but if the Ohio State can mend its third down issues, the team can right their wrongs in 2022.