Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

13 Jan 2015

OFI: Ohio State Runs Over Oregon

by Chad Peltier

The Ohio State Buckeyes are the inaugural 2015 national champions after a 42-20 win over Oregon. Despite losing starting quarterback Braxton Miller less than a week before the start of the season, then losing backup J.T. Barrett against Michigan, and losing to Virginia Tech in a lackluster second game of the season, the Buckeyes used a devastatingly efficient run game, a balanced and explosive passing offense, and a stingy pass defense to beat the three Heisman finalists all in a row in the last three games of the season. Ohio State preseason third-string quarterback Cardale Jones' play in his three starts of the season -- Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon -- will go down as one of the most incredible stories of college football history. The Buckeyes won the Big Ten Championship 59-0, took down the cream of the SEC crop to pick up their first NCAA-acknowledged bowl win over an SEC team, and then captured their first championship since 2002. There is no doubt that Ohio State deserved to be in the Playoff.

On the championship game itself, it is tough to talk about what the game would have looked like without the four Ohio State turnovers, considering Oregon's track record for fumbles gained and Ohio State's for fumbles lost this season, but the score was really only as close as it was because of the four turnovers. Ohio State's offense was so successful because the offensive line dominated the Oregon defensive line and running back Ezekiel Elliott ran through multiple arm tackles to turn merely efficient runs into explosive highlight yards.

Oregon's Marcus Mariota will go down as one of the most efficient and decorated quarterbacks in college football and he had an excellent game in the loss. Passing for 333 yards and completing 65 percent of his passes, Mariota had typical efficiency against a stout pass defense. He only took two sacks, using his quick feet to scramble and extend plays while also rushing for a team second-best 39 yards.

But ultimately, the Ohio State defense clamped down in the most critical moments -- in the red zone and on third downs. Oregon converted just two of twelve (17 percent) third-down attempts, a far cry from their 49.5 percent season average. Without much of a supporting run game to balance Mariota's passing efficiency, the Ducks also stalled in the red zone, critically failing on fourth-and-goal in the second quarter following an Ohio State turnover.

The Buckeyes ended their season not just with victories over three-straight Heisman finalists, but with wins over the first-, second-, eighth-, and 18th-ranked College Football Playoff ranked teams, and the second-, third-, 11th-, and 17th-ranked F/+ teams. That kind of resume, with three of those victories by backup quarterback Cardale Jones, is undoubtedly a worthy start to the College Football Playoff era.

TOEDRAGS

  • Oregon's opening drive was an offensive masterpiece: 11 plays, 75 yards, and not a single third down on the way to an under-three minute touchdown. Five of the Ducks' seven runs were efficient and Mariota started the game 4-of-4 for 30 yards. It looked like Ohio State would need to go score-for-score with the Oregon offense to keep pace. That was the only possession where the Ducks' rushing offense had any kind of consistency. Oregon's Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman finished the game averaging 5.2 and 2.2 yards per carry respectively, with a long run of just 12 yards. That was unexpected, considering Ohio State's run defense, which was ranked 52nd in Rushing S&P+ and 59th in Adjusted Line Yards. Sure, the Buckeyes held Melvin Gordon to just 2.3 yards per carry and 76 total rushing yards, but that was thought to be due to Wisconsin's one-dimensional offense. The Buckeyes could not simply load the box and concentrate solely on the run against Oregon due to Mariota, and there was little hope that the running backs wouldn't get the ball like Derrick Henry didn't during the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl. But the Buckeyes defense stepped up in a big way, bending but not breaking against Mariota, and dominating the Oregon run game in the red zone.
  • Until the final play of the game, Ohio State was -4 in turnover margin with three fumbles and one interception. That was a continuation of a season-long trend for Oregon, who finished the season ranked first in overall turnover margin at +23 (and first in fumbles gained with 21). The Buckeyes entered the game with 11 fumbles lost, which was tied for 82nd in the country already, and their three fumbles in the championship dropped them to 115th. It is extremely rare for any team to overcome that large of a turnover deficit and still win -- according to Bill Connelly's Five Factors, teams with a +4 turnover margin win 93 percent of the time. There were two keys to Ohio State putting themselves in the other 7 percent. First, Ohio State took advantage of nearly every scoring opportunity, scoring touchdowns (and specifically, not field goals) on 67 percent of scoring opportunities for an average of 4.67 points per scoring opportunity. They averaged 3.23 points per possession overall, but that low number was due mostly to three turnovers on scoring opportunities (out of nine total!). Second, the Ohio State defense was lucky that Oregon only started a single drive on the Ohio State side of the field (with an average starting field position on their 25.4-yard line, compared to an Ohio State starting field position on the 31.4-yard line). Turnovers on scoring opportunities were essentially punts in that they did not effectively impact the overall field position advantage in Oregon's favor. Compared to the Rose Bowl, where Oregon turned five Florida State turnovers into 34 points, Oregon only managed ten points off of four Ohio State turnovers in the national championship.
  • After Ohio State's third turnover of the night, a bobbled pass by Jalin Marshall that was intercepted by Danny Mattingly, Mariota threw a 70-yard touchdown strike to converted running back Byron Marshall that made the score 17-21 early in the third quarter. This was extremely surprising, not only because it was already the Buckeyes' third turnover and it instantly made the game competitive, but because it was extremely uncommon for the Buckeyes defense to allow an explosive pass. The Buckeyes were seventh in Defensive Passing S&P+ and 24th in IsoPPP entering the championship. Mariota's offense was fifth and second in those two categories.
  • The Ohio State defense was spectacular when it was needed most, on third downs and in the red zone. In the past two games against Alabama and Oregon, Ohio State held the Crimson Tide and Ducks to a combined 4-of-25 on third downs (and including Wisconsin, Ohio State held opponents to a 21 percent third-down conversion rate in its last three games). Further, Oregon had two field goals and one turnover on downs on five scoring opportunities -- and as Connelly has said before, "Field goals are basically failures." Oregon was never terrible at scoring touchdowns in the red zone, ranking 41st in red zone touchdown percentage, but it was clear that Oregon didn't have its full range of offensive options in a more constrained vertical space.

HONOR ROLL

  • Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State. Elliott was the clear player of the game, totaling 246 rushing yards on 6.8 yards per carry. He had a 67 percent success rate, without a single carry going for a loss and only one for no gain. More impressive was that he had four explosive runs for 83 yards, while averaging 6.4 Highlight Yards per Opportunity. Elliott was not only the workhorse, but the explosive option as well, running through countless arm tackles and bouncing off numerous hard hits for extra yardage.

  • Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon. Give the Heisman winner his due. Mariota was nearly flawless in the championship game, throwing for 333 yards (nine yards per attempt), and those numbers were hurt by a few receiver drops as well. Mariota scrambled for 39 yards, but his runs were much more impressive than his 3.9 yards per carry would indicate -- he escaped pressure countless times to extend plays while making good decisions against a very interception-hungry Ohio State defense that was seventh in Havoc Rate.
  • Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State. Jones is destined for not only Ohio State legend, but college football legend after his three-game starting career with wins over Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon as a then-third string quarterback. Jones completed 69.6 percent of his passes for 242 yards (10.5 yards per attempt) and one interception that came off a receiver's drop. The behemoth of a quarterback shrugged off countless hits to serve as a short-yardage specialist for the Buckeyes run game as well, picking up four first downs in short-yardage situations.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • The Ohio State offensive line. Ohio State's Opportunity Rate wasn't off-the-charts incredible (44 percent), but the offensive line got stronger throughout the game and eventually wore down the Oregon front seven. Ohio State had an insane 61 rushing attempts, so their stamina is unquestioned and well-deserving of a Buckeye leaf helmet sticker.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 13 Jan 2015

3 comments, Last at 14 Jan 2015, 4:32am by rfh1001

Comments

1
by tomdrees :: Tue, 01/13/2015 - 5:55pm

Can't wait to see the LCF for Cardale Jones.

3
by rfh1001 :: Wed, 01/14/2015 - 4:32am

We're gonna need a bigger asterisk.

2
by rfh1001 :: Wed, 01/14/2015 - 4:32am

Wrong place.