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01 Jan 2017

OFI: The Perfect National Championship

by Chad Peltier

2017 is here and the College Football Playoff semifinals are over. One game went pretty much to script, and the other… didn't. Clemson money started flowing in late to make the Fiesta Bowl essentially a pick-'em, but the advanced stats suggested that Ohio State should have been narrowly favored and it should have been a close game regardless. That didn't happen. And despite the lower margin of victory in the Peach Bowl, that game felt increasingly one-sided as the game went on thanks to Alabama's completely suffocating defense.

TOEDRAGS

  • Washington's upset attempt hinged on stopping the Alabama run game, bringing a fierce pass rush against Jalen Hurts, then managing some explosive plays through the air on offense. The Huskies didn't matchup incredibly well with Alabama -- few teams do, given the talent advantage the Crimson Tide have over literally everyone else in the country -- but those were the few things that Washington absolutely had to do to pull off the upset. S&P+ win probabilities gave that upset a 29 percent likelihood.

    It was reasonable to think that Washington could at least slow the Alabama run game while severely limiting Jalen Hurts. Alabama ranked a good, but not great, 27th in passing S&P+, but just 45th in passing success rate and 44th in adjusted sack rate. The Huskies ranked eighth in passing S&P+ and fifth in adjusted sack rate, limiting opposing efficiency while taking away big plays. With that pass rush, and without Hurts showing that he could consistently beat a defense on his own, an upset would likely start with taking away the Alabama run game and then forcing Hurts to try and beat the Huskies through the air. Further, Alabama allows a surprisingly high number of run stuffs -- 19.7 percent -- which is 86th in the country. Force enough losses on standard downs from run stuffs, leading to a high number of third-and-longs, and you could see how the Huskies could hang with the Tide.

    And more or less, that's what we got -- with one notable exception. Jalen Hurts completed just 50 percent of his passes for a total of 57 yards (4.1 yards per attempt, 29 percent passing success rate). The Alabama passing game was a non-factor. And leading Alabama rusher Damien Harris averaged just 3.3 yards per carry, while second-leading rusher Hurts was held to 2.6 yards per carry too. And Washington managed nine tackles for loss despite ranking 80th in stuff rate themselves.

    The problem was that even if you can stop Alabama's top two players, they are so deep with such talented players that another great player will step up. That was Bo Scarbrough against Wasington. Scarbrough was fourth on the team in total rushing yards before yesterday. But with 19 carries for 180 yards, he managed to dominate the Washington defense even when little else was working against a stout Washington front.

    And the Alabama defense was, well, the Alabama defense. Jake Browning needed to play a more or less perfect game against the Crimson Tide secondary, because there was little chance of much getting done on the ground. But with two interceptions and averaging just 3.9 yards per attempt, Washington also couldn't get much going through the air outside of the second drive of the game. Alabama allowed just a single explosive pass. Without efficiency or explosiveness through the air, the Washington offense couldn't keep up with Alabama's own limited scoring.

  • Where Alabama vs. Washington went largely to script, Ohio State vs. Clemson completely didn't. It's not surprising that Clemson won -- the Tigers had a 39 percent S&P+ win probability, but the S&P+ projected margin was just 4.9 points. What was surprising was how they won -- complete domination of the favored Buckeyes.

    Entering the game, we expected Ohio State to struggle passing against Clemson's fourth-ranked S&P+ passing defense. We thought there would be an even better chance that the Ohio State offensive line would struggle with the fierce Clemson pass rush, ranking 79th in adjusted sack rate to fourth for Clemson in both havoc rate and adjusted sack rate. Clemson was also one of the top teams in November according to S&P+, while Ohio State wasn't in the top five. And Clemson had Deshaun Watson, so their eighth-rated passing S&P+ offense could pose a few problems too.

    But we also knew that Ohio State ran the ball better than almost everyone in the country, ranking second in overall rushing S&P+, first in adjusted line yards, second in opportunity rate, and third in stuff rate. And the Ohio State secondary led the country in pick-sixes, ranking sixth in overall turnover margin. The defense had a good chance at shutting down the Clemson rushing attack too, since the Ohio State defense ranked first in stuff rate at 28.6 percent, while Clemson ranked just 38th in offensive stuff rate.

    In short, there were small, but noticeable statistical advantages for both teams entering the game. And for most, there were enough small advantages to slightly favor Ohio State. But Clemson both capitalized on their small advantages and mitigated their weaknesses to shut out Ohio State in yet another lopsided playoff semifinal game: Clemson created far more havoc on the ground than expected, won the turnover battle despite two first-half interceptions, won the explosive play margin with more than four times as many explosive plays as Ohio State could create, and held Ohio State scoreless on four scoring opportunities, including two interceptions in or near the red zone.

    Ohio State's script was fairly obvious based on Clemson's prior performances: shut down Wayne Gallman and force Clemson to be one-dimensional on offense, which would likely lead to multiple interceptions from Deshaun Watson, then be just efficient enough running the ball to win a tight game. For the first half, they stuck to the script: Gallman had a 22 percent rushing success rate in the first half and just 22 yards on nine carries. In fact Ohio State gained less than 2 yards on 41 percent of their runs in non-garbage time (meaning before Clemson's final score in the fourth quarter). But field position and explosive drives doomed the Buckeyes defense. Clemson had two touchdown drives start in Ohio State territory -- one due to an 86-yard interception return (when Ohio State was in the red zone). Watson also fueled explosive plays, leading to a 9:2 explosive ratio on the night. In fact, every Clemson score was due to an explosive play during the drive, from Clemson's first field goal following a Mike Williams 37-yard catch-and-run, to the perfect 30-yard wheel route, to Watson's 33-yard run (Ohio State couldn't stop the quarterback counter that their offense actually runs!).

    While the Ohio State offense struggled against both Michigan State and Michigan, few expected those struggles to continue with about a month to prepare against the Clemson defense. But the Tigers blew up the Ohio State run game, keeping them behind the chains due to negative plays and taking the offense out of their element because of the point deficit the entire game. The Buckeyes offense isn't built to score quickly with explosive plays, so Clemson's early lead was already a tough order. But Clemson surprisingly created a seemingly endless string of tackles for loss after left guard Michael Jordan was injured early in the first quarter. Ohio State led the country in stuff rate on offense, but allowed stuffed runs on 31 percent of their carries against Clemson. The run game was fine overall -- they had a 50 percent rushing success rate and opportunity rate -- but they also had limited carries due to the losses. As a result, Ohio State averaged 8.25 yards to go on third down before garbage time. That was simply too much to ask of the Ohio State passing game.

  • So now we get a rematch of last year's National Championship: the country's most talented team against probably the country's most talented quarterback. Deshaun Watson and the Clemson skill players are certainly talented enough to stress the Alabama defense -- probably better than anyone else in the country. And the Clemson offensive line has prevented sacks better than almost anyone else too. Further, the Clemson defensive front seven creates havoc often enough to severely limit Jalen Hurts. The opening line favored the Crimson Tide by a touchdown, and they won last year's matchup, but it's hard to totally buy in to Alabama as heavy favorites at this point.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 01 Jan 2017

1 comment, Last at 11 Sep 2017, 6:55am by narayanudit

Comments

1
by narayanudit :: Mon, 09/11/2017 - 6:55am

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