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24 Oct 2016

OFI: Don't Count Out Ohio State

by Chad Peltier

This week was defined by one big upset, a dominant performance in the SEC West by a team not named Alabama, and some incredible individual offensive performances.

Ohio State picked up its first loss of the season, but that loss might not affect the playoff race too much -- if the Buckeyes win out, then victories over Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan, and the Big Ten West champion would likely put them in the playoff.

Auburn asserted itself as an SEC West challenger after a 56-3 win over Arkansas and LSU ran all over Ole Miss, as both teams possess fearsome rushing attacks that will challenge Alabama's second-ranked S&P+ defense in the coming weeks.

Finally, several players around the country set offensive records this weekend, including Baker Mayfield, Pat Mahomes, Joe Mixon, and Leonard Fournette.

TOEDRAGS

  • West Virginia is a surprising 6-0 after another impressive win over TCU. Its defensive effort against both Texas Tech and TCU in consecutive games looks all the more impressive after the Red Raiders' record-setting offensive explosion against Oklahoma this week, while TCU is still a top-25 offensive S&P+ team this year. Now the Mountaineers are looking at a legitimate ten-win regular season in a year when head coach Dana Holgorsen entered on a somewhat of a hot seat. How are the Mountaineers doing it?

    What's astounding is that the Mountaineers aren't really elite in any single area. Their best quality is probably their standard downs pass defense, where they are 20th in overall defensive passing S&P+ and 16th in defensive standard downs S&P+, but that's about as good as it gets in any single area. Skyler Howard and the passing offense are efficient, but the only real star on the offensive side of the ball is the explosive Shelton Gibson, who is just third on the team in targets but averages 20 yards per catch.

    Against TCU, running back Rushel Shell crossed a hundred yards, but averaged a little less than 5 yards per carry. Skyler Howard has been dependable, especially on passing downs where he has a 41 percent success rate (seventh), and he had a 52 percent passing success rate overall this week. But what was astounding is that this star power-less offense had the balance and consistency to create nine scoring opportunities on just 12 total drives. The offense struggled to finish those drives, ranking 81st with just 4.5 points per scoring opportunity, and had three field goal attempts.

    The Mountaineers' schedule doesn't ease up though, with four games remaining where they have an S&P+ projected margin of under a touchdown (and two projected losses to Oklahoma and Baylor). They might win the Big 12, but they'll need to be just as efficient on offense, finish more drives, and keep denying opponents touchdowns in the red zone (where opponents are averaging just 3.3 points per scoring opportunity currently).

  • Penn State managed to knock off second-ranked Ohio State for three reasons. First, and most obvious, were the glaring special teams mistakes that directly led to Penn State scores in the second half. That starts with the blocked punt at the beginning of the fourth quarter, which gave the Nittany Lions the ball at the Ohio State 28-yard line. The ensuing possession would just lead to a field goal, but that ended up being Penn State's margin of victory in the end. The following Ohio State possession then stalled at the Penn State 28-yard line, and an atypically indecisive Urban Meyer rushed the kicking unit onto the field for a long field goal try. That attempt was blocked and returned for a touchdown, giving the Nittany Lions a 24-21 lead with just under four and a half minutes left in the game. The Buckeyes converted two critical third-and-long attempts on their final drive, but consecutive sacks (two of Penn State's six on the night) ended the game in an upset.

    Those were the two critical, dramatic plays that directly led to Penn State's win, but there were two other no-less-important reasons that this game was even close: Ohio State's steadily declining offensive efficiency, and big plays from the Penn State offense. First, Ohio State had just a 41 percent rushing success rate and a 26 percent passing success rate. The offense surprisingly struggled to run the ball despite the early success of running backs Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel. Neither player managed to hit 100 rushing yards for the third straight week as Penn State's aggressive front seven stonewalled the offensive line. Ohio State had 12 runs for no gain or a loss, giving Penn State's defensive front a 30 percent stuff rate. This offensive inefficiency is actually a three-game trend for Ohio State: their rushing success rates have decline from 66 percent against Rutgers to 57 percent against Indiana, 49 percent against Wisconsin, then 41 percent against Penn State.

    Without explosive plays or efficiency on standard downs, the offense was forced into multiple third-and-long situations where it averaged 7.4 yards to go on third down. Then, while quarterback J.T. Barrett had a gutsy performance, his third-down passing rarely managed to move the chains: of Barrett's 11 completed third-down passes, only five resulted in a first down. Because of the run game's struggles, Barrett had a career-high 41 pass attempts, which played right into the Penn State defensive game plan, resulting in six total sacks.

    On the other side of the ball, the defense played well for the most part, but Penn State's inconsistent but explosive offense proved why they are ranked 109th in success rate but 16th in IsoPPP. Besides the two scores from blocked kicks, the Nittany Lions had only two scoring drives, and both were from explosive plays. In those two drives Penn State had half of their total explosive plays. Quarterback Trace McSorley had just a 30 percent passing success rate, and star running back Saquon Barkley had just 12 carries (for some odd reason), but they were explosive enough to compensate for their inefficiency.

    Ohio State isn't necessarily out of playoff contention with the loss, but it's a tough road ahead. While the S&P+ gives win probabilities higher than 81 percent for all but The Game, Northwestern and Nebraska could both challenge Ohio State.

  • Michigan is the top-ranked F/ + team, and according to S&P+ win probabilities, is more likely than not to win out. It has been incredibly dominant defensively, ranking first in both rushing and passing S&P+, but its offense has been efficient as well. And its wins keep looking better and better, as Wisconsin, Penn State, and Colorado are all top-20 teams in the F/+ rankings. Illini quarterback Jeff George Jr. went 4-of-15 for 95 yards this week, but he shouldn't feel too bad about that performance considering opposing quarterbacks average a 40.9 completion percentage against the Wolverines secondary. Over the last three games they have allowed an average of just 3.2 yards per attempt passing.

    A big win over the Illini is hardly something to brag about, but it's increasingly difficult to find a weakness on the Michigan team. Wilton Speight is leading the 14th-ranked S&P+ passing offense, the defense is the best in the country by a wide margin (their S&P+ defensive margin is 0.8; Clemson is second at 11.0!), and they are first in net starting field position as well. About the only two apparent weaknesses are that the offensive line is just 47th in both adjusted line yards and opportunity rate, as the four-running back committee could be more efficient. Second, Michigan's defense almost never allows successful plays -- again, first in the country in rushing, passing, standard downs, and passing downs success rate -- but the ones they do tend to be big, as the defense is 93rd in overall IsoPPP.

  • It would be tough to argue that Alabama played anything close to a perfect game against Texas A&M. Jalen Hurts threw two interceptions, running backs outside of Damien Harris were bottled up fairly well, and the offense averaged just 3.9 points per scoring opportunity. But Alabama nevertheless won by 19 points in a slow-burning game against a top-15 S&P+ team. It had the fourth-highest success rate margin in the country this week, holding Trevor Knight below 50 percent passing and star Aggies running back Trayveon Williams to 2.6 yards per carry. .

HONOR ROLL

  • Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: Leonard Fournette returned from injury against Ole Miss, and exploded with an insane 284 rushing yards on 17.8 yards per carry. Fournette didn't start or play close to a full game, but had an astounding 249 yards on his first seven carries.
  • Every offensive player involved in Oklahoma-Texas Tech: I went between just giving this to Patrick Mahomes for setting an FBS record for yards in a single game (with 734 passing yards and a team-leading 85 rushing yards). Then I thought about Baker Mayfield for his 545 passing yards, seven touchdowns, and no interceptions. But then Joe Mixon (263 rushing yards and 114 receiving yards) and Dede Westbrook (202 receiving yards for his fourth-straight game with more than 150 receiving yards and 20-plus yards per catch) complicated the Honor Roll award. So everyone involved on the offensive side of the ball just gets a helmet sticker for this one, despite neither team fielding a defense. Shootout football games are often called track meets, but I don't know if track and field athletes would cover this kind of yardage in a single meet -- and the Oklahoma and Texas Tech offenses had to theoretically face defenses, too.
  • Joe Williams, RB, Utah: Joe Williams just played his second game back after a brief retirement and celebrated with 332 rushing yards on 29 carries. Even with the immense workload (he has nearly as many carries this season in four games as he did all of last year), he still had a 69 percent rushing success rate with three breakaway touchdown runs.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Garrett Sickels, DL, Penn State: Garrett Sickels only played in the second half, which makes his stat line all the more impressive: nine tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 3.5 tackles for loss. J.T. Barrett was harassed throughout the second half as the Penn State defense racked up six sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
  • Jonathan Allen, DL, Alabama: Jonathan Allen would get a spot on the Lowsman list just for his highlight flying sack of Texas A&M quarterback Trevor Knight, but he also recorded six total tackles and a fumble recovery for a touchdown to extend the Alabama defense's scoring streak.
  • Takkarist McKinley, DE, UCLA: Takkarist McKinley has recorded a tackle for loss in every game he has played in this year, along with four sacks entering last week's game against Utah. But McKinley exploded with five tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and two pass breakups against the Utes.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 24 Oct 2016

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