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» Four Downs: AFC West

There's a serious need for defensive help in Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Oakland. In Denver, meanwhile, the Broncos must determine whether or not Case Keenum can really be a long-term solution at quarterback.

23 Oct 2017

OFI: Penn State, Notre Dame Position for Playoff Runs

by Chad Peltier

Unlike Week 7, we didn't have a single upset of a ranked team by an unranked team in Week 8. While there were some close calls -- West Virginia beat Baylor 38-36; Oklahoma State needed overtime to beat Texas 13-10; Oklahoma knocked off Kansas State 42-35; and Memphis escaped against Houston 42-38 -- everyone who was supposed to win largely did.

There were two premier matchups, and both of them ended up being blowouts, vaulting the winners to the top of the playoff discussion. Penn State exacted revenge on Michigan, beating the Wolverines 42-13 after their 49-10 loss last season. This year it was complete domination by the AP's second-ranked Nittany Lions: a 4.46 yards per play edge, seven more scoring opportunities, and a +14 percent success rate.

The Michigan offense has been an issue all season, ranking 76th in offensive S&P+ heading in to the game. So it's not exactly surprising that they were held to four three-and-outs and two turnovers on downs against the eighth-ranked Penn State defense. John O'Korn averaged just 5.9 yards per play and was harassed all night, getting sacked seven times and losing a fumble. Michigan only managed two scoring opportunities -- both in the second quarter, and both ending in touchdowns -- out of 11 total drives.

Penn State's offense was even more impressive. The Wolverines have been excellent on defense under defensive coordinator Don Brown, ranking second in S&P+ and holding opposing quarterbacks to a miserable 23.9 percent passing success rate this season (best in the country). But Trace McSorley continued to show that he's not just an explosive, chuck-it-deep passer (though he did still find success with passes along the sideline), finishing with a 58 percent passing success rate and still throwing seven explosive passes of 15-plus yards. He also displayed his elusive running ability, finishing with 76 yards on 11 carries. Saquon Barkley is the Heisman frontrunner at this point, and did nothing to hurt his chances against Michigan by averaging 7.2 yards per carry and reeling in three catches for 53 yards, including a bobbled catch down the sideline for a 42-yard touchdown.

Penn State cleared its first big test in a challenging stretch of the season with ease. Now comes the more difficult matchup with Ohio State, which ranks first in the S&P+ and is out for its own revenge from last season's upset win. Penn State is a balanced team with few obvious weaknesses, but one area might be the offensive line. Despite having Saquon Barkley, the line is 118th in stuff rate (24.5 percent of runs are stuffed) and 111th in adjusted sack rate. So even though the Penn State run game is 18th in success rate and 14th in opportunity rate, the line ranks 87th in adjusted line yards largely due to occasionally getting beat and allowing a tackle for loss. Ohio State's defense ranks tenth in stuff rate, 16th in adjusted sack rate, and second in defensive line havoc rate.

The other big game of the week was USC vs. Notre Dame, with the Fighting Irish running away with a 49-14 win over the Trojans. USC and quarterback Sam Darnold have underperformed relative to preseason expectations, while the Irish have rebounded from their much-maligned 4-8 2016 season and one-point loss to Georgia earlier this year. For Notre Dame, their comeback has been all about the run -- specifically, getting Josh Adams and Brandon Wimbush going, while stopping opposing run games. The Irish rank first and 14th in the country in those two S&P+ categories, with a 48.3 percent success rate on offense and just a 33.3 percent success rate allowed on defense.

The Irish held star running back Ronald Jones II to just 2.7 yards per carry on only 12 runs as USC went down 28-0 at the half and was forced to throw to try and get back in the game. That contrasted with Josh Adams' 191 yards and quarterback Brandon Wimbush's 106. Wimbush had nearly as many yards rushing as passing, throwing for just 120 on 9-of-19 passing (Notre Dame ranks 58th in passing S&P+ and 115th-ranked passing success rate). The Irish run game is fueled by big plays, as they rank third in the country with 18 runs of 30-plus yards and second in rushing IsoPPP. Josh Adams averages an insane 14.4 highlight yards per opportunity despite a 40 percent opportunity rate. Notre Dame's rise to 6-1 has put it directly in the playoff discussion. S&P+ predicts four wins and a loss to Miami remaining on the schedule, but only favors the Hurricanes by 1.7.

Notre Dame's rise as an independent has implications for more than one conference in the playoff. The Pac-12 doesn't have any undefeated teams remaining, with USC and Stanford losing twice each, while Washington and Washington State both have poor losses and have to play each other later in the season. One conference has to be left out of the playoff each year anyway, and the Pac-12 seems to be the leading candidate in 2017. But if Notre Dame were to go 11-1 with just a one-point loss against probable SEC East champion Georgia, and with wins over USC, North Carolina State, and Stanford on its resume, then they would make a convincing case for the playoff as well. This situation (not to mention what would happen if Georgia and Alabama play a close SEC championship game) could potentially boot another conference from the playoff -- and that could be the cannibalistic Big 12. Oklahoma, TCU, and potentially Oklahoma State all have a shot at the title, but Oklahoma's one-score win over Kansas State was its fourth-straight conference win by eight points or less; Oklahoma State still has West Virginia, Iowa State, and Oklahoma left on the schedule; and TCU has Iowa State, Texas, and Oklahoma in its next three-game stretch. Trading wins between these teams could leave the Big 12 without a convincingly dominant team for playoff consideration.


  • Louisville handed Florida State their fourth loss of the season in a 31-28 win. The Seminoles sought revenge for their 63-20 loss last year -- which was Lamar Jackson's real national showcase game -- but turnovers ultimately doomed their effort. Florida State had just one fewer scoring opportunity and a 3 percent lower success rate than Louisville, but the -2 turnover margin (two James Blackman interceptions and a lost fumble) were too much. The Seminoles may be 2-4, but they are projected to win four of their remaining five games to finish 6-5. It's hard to pin the Seminoles' lost season as totally on Deondre Francois' injury, either -- the offensive line appears to deserve more blame. The Blackman-led passing offense is tenth in S&P+, but the offensive line ranks 124th in stuff rate and 113th in adjusted sack rate. The Seminoles have played a number of teams with strong defensive fronts -- including Alabama, North Carolina State, and Miami -- but those are dismally low ranks, even adjusting for the competition.
  • Texas has lived on the edge all season. At 3-4, their four losses have come by a combined 21 points, while their wins over Iowa State and Kansas State were by a combined 16 points. They're clearly close to being at or near the top of the Big 12, but they're not quite there yet -- which is something Texas fans have to be tired of hearing. Ranking 57th in the S&P+ rankings, they're projected to finish 5-7, though their projected loss to Texas Tech is by just 0.6 points. Their biggest disappointment has to be the run game, which ranks 67th in S&P+. Running back Chris Warren is actually second to quarterback Sam Ehlinger in both total yards and opportunity rate. But the defense is coming along, holding Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill to 3.5 yards per carry.


  • Derrius Guice, RB, LSU. Derrius Guice has been out of the national conversation due to injuries and LSU's losses this year, but he went off against Ole Miss, running for 276 yards on just 22 carries. That equates to a 73 percent rushing success rate and four runs of 20-plus yards.
  • Malik Rosier, QB, Miami. Malik Rosier staved off a second upset bid from Syracuse thanks to a 26-of-43, 344-yard passing performance. That's as a first-time starter and without the injured Mark Walton to take the pressure off in the run game.
  • Marquise Brown, WR, Oklahoma. Marquise Brown may be becoming Baker Mayfield's fastest-rising weapon. Second on the team behind just Mark Andrews, Brown caught a 66-yard pass to set up the Sooners' go-ahead score against the Wildcats.


  • Levi Wallace, DB, Alabama. The Crimson Tide have the top-ranked S&P+ defense in the country (big surprise there), but don't have a single individual player in the top-100 in tackles for loss. The reason for that is because half the defensive roster is basically just under the top-100 cut off. This week's Lowsman Watch goes to Levi Wallace, who had two sacks and three total tackles for loss against Tennessee. As a defensive back. Wallace also has three interceptions and nine passes broken up this season. The defense overall is third in overall havoc rate.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 23 Oct 2017