Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

11 Sep 2017

OFI: Old Problems Haunt Traditional Powers

by Chad Peltier

For the losers of the biggest games of the weekend -- Ohio State, Auburn, Notre Dame, and Stanford -- it was more of the same issues that had plagued those teams last season. Ohio State struggled to pass and got away from its run game, Auburn totaled 79 passing yards against an admittedly stout Clemson defense, Notre Dame lost yet another one-possession game, and Stanford's passing offense wasn't enough against the USC defense.

Stanford was 92nd in passing S&P+ last season; Keller Chryst's 54 percent completion rate and 6.1 yards per attempt weren't terrible, but that's also not enough to win games where the Cardinal front seven allows 307 rushing yards on 6.4 yards per attempt. Notre Dame lost eight one-score games last season (five by a field goal or less), so Georgia's one-point win had to be particularly numbing for the Irish fanbase. Ohio State's offense was inconsistent against another top opponent as the Buckeyes have now dropped three of their last six games against top-11 S&P+ teams. And Auburn's passing offense hasn't been the same since Nick Marshall graduated -- Jarrett Stidham was constantly harassed by an incredible Clemson defensive line.

In fact, outside of maybe Oklahoma, Alabama, and LSU, we haven't seen many teams look truly elite yet. Even Alabama looked a little sluggish in its 41-10 win over Fresno State (104th in the S&P+) as no Alabama running backs gained 100 yards and Jalen Hurts had a very efficient (14-of-18) but un-prolific performance with 128 passing yards.

TOEDRAGS

  • Ohio State and Oklahoma looked like a narrow Buckeyes win heading in to the game, but the same issues that have plagued the Buckeyes in other top matchups -- notably, the passing game, but also the run-to-pass ratio -- came up again. But this season, a new issue has emerged: the secondary in pass coverage. Ohio State inarguably had one of the country's best pass defenses last season, ranking eighth in total passing S&P+ and fourth in interceptions. But after losing three defensive backs in the first round of the NFL Draft and then facing two prolific passers in Indiana and Oklahoma, Ohio State's pass defense is dead-last in the FBS in total passing yards allowed. Even looking at the slightly more telling yards per attempt, they're still 96th at 7.8. For comparison, Clemson is second allowing 2.8, Oklahoma is 11th allowing 4.5, and Alabama is 36th allowing 5.8. Ohio State allowed seven explosive passes to Baker Mayfield (19 percent of his passes) and a 59 percent passing success rate -- worse than the 50 percent success rate allowed to Deshaun Watson during the playoff last year.

    Starting with the old problems, Ohio State had just a 31 percent passing success rate as J.T. Barrett averaged 5.2 yards per attempt and the six-deep receiving corps failed to produce a single go-to receiver who could consistently get open. As Indiana's Tom Allen said in post-game interviews last week, the way the Hoosiers and Sooners dealt with an inaccurate quarterback was by clouding Barrett's passing windows with an eight-man zone defense. Receivers were unable to get open and Barrett was unable to fit the ball into tiny windows. The result is familiar for Ohio State fans: just one explosive passing play and 183 total passing yards.

    Oklahoma looked solid across the board despite losing tight end Mark Andrews early in the game. While Oklahoma only averaged 2.8 yards per carry and had 26 percent of their runs stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage, they nevertheless had a solid 46 percent rushing success rate against a top run defense. Baker Mayfield's 27-of-35, 386-yard passing performance likely put him on top of early Heisman ballots. The Sooners could have even won by more, as they whiffed on their first four scoring opportunities -- a turnover on downs, two lost fumbles, and then a missed field goal to remain tied at 3-3 going in to halftime.

  • Analyzing the development of Jarrett Stidham and the Auburn offense against the Clemson defense isn't really fair. Clemson's defense was second in defensive S&P+ entering the game, and held the Tigers to just two field goals, both in the first half. Stidham, despite throwing for 934 yards (11.5 yards per attempt) in his three starts as a Baylor freshman in 2015, averaged just 3.3 yards per attempt and 79 total passing yards against Clemson's defense. Austin Bryant, who we'll discuss in more detail later, led an insanely productive havoc day for Clemson, racking up four tackles for loss and four sacks by himself. As a whole, the defense had a tackle for loss or sack on 38 percent of Auburn's plays (11 sacks, 14 tackles for loss!). The Clemson offense didn't exactly set the world on fire either, with just a 41 percent offensive success rate, but the big problem was Auburn's stellar defense when Clemson managed a scoring opportunity. Despite creating seven scoring opportunities in 12 possessions, Clemson averaged just two points per opportunity -- Clemson missed a field goal, fumbled, and was sacked out of range on three of their scoring opportunity drives. The biggest issue for Clemson moving forward is likely the run game. Kelly Bryant has had an admirable start to replacing Deshaun Watson even if his numbers don't jump out of the box score, but the run game managed just a 45 percent rushing success rate and quarterback Kelly Bryant had five more carries than three running backs combined (the three totaled 14 carries, 41 yards).
  • Georgia's 20-19 win over Notre Dame was cathartic for a large percentage of the Bulldogs' fanbase. The Bulldogs had only two wins over top-25 S&P+ teams in the past two years -- the 2016 opening win over 21st-ranked North Carolina and the seemingly-annual win over 13th-ranked Auburn (Georgia has won eight of the last ten games against the Tigers). So while Saturday's win over 18th-ranked Notre Dame (18th in post-Week 2 S&P+ rankings) wasn't pretty, it was nevertheless a road win over a talented opponent. For Notre Dame it's unfortunately more of the same from 2016, with the Irish losing yet another one-possession game.

    Sure, there was ugly play from both teams: Both teams had six scoring opportunities in 16 drives (38 percent), and Georgia's offense had a plus-8 percent success rate margin over Notre Dame, but that was still just at 28 percent. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm averaged less than 5 yards per pass with an interception, and none of Georgia's three blue-chip running backs managed to crack 100 rushing yards. In fact, Georgia's offensive line had a disappointing 29 percent stuff rate and just a 34 percent opportunity rate.

    But there were signs of life, too. Often-maligned offensive coordinator Jim Chaney did try a few new-ish things with Fromm, including zone reads (although one of those reads resulted in a fumble) and run-pass options. And although the passing attack was far from elite -- Fromm was 16-of-29 for 141 yards with an interception -- there were signs of life from a receiving corps that is long on talent but short on game production. Ten different players caught a pass, including four to the speedy Mecole Hardman and one incredible touchdown grab from Terry Godwin. But the real bright area for Georgia was the defense, which already looks like one of the country's best despite not starting the same recruiting talent as the rest of the team. Fifteen percent of Notre Dame's plays were either a tackle for loss or sack as Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy combined for 2.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and two forced fumbles.

  • Stanford was seen by some as a dark horse playoff contender, ranking 12th in the preseason S&P+ and eighth in the preseason FEI projections. But USC managed to rack up the most yards ever given up by a David Shaw-coached Stanford team (623) as USC rolled 42-24. While the Cardinal could force a rematch by winning the Pac-12 North, they'll have to work on their passing offense (which has been somewhat of an issue since Andrew Luck left) and, strangely, shore up their front seven. Last season Stanford was 20th in rushing S&P+ and 18th in overall defensive S&P+, but both Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr managed more than 100 yards rushing and an overall 62 percent rushing success rate. Overall the Trojans offense had a plus-22 percent success rate margin over the Cardinal offense and created scoring opportunities on 80 percent of their drives, compared to just 40 percent for Stanford. After two games, the Trojans are 18th in rushing yards per game, and likely won't see another run defense as good as Stanford's until a potential rematch in the Pac-12 Championship.

HONOR ROLL

  • Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville. North Carolina's defense isn't going to convince anyone that they're secretly watching Alabama's or Clemson's, but Lamar Jackson again showed why he won the Heisman last season with an insane 393 passing yards (10.1 yards per attempt) and 132 rushing yards.
  • Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma. Between Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson, this Honor Roll list could have been copy-and-pasted from last season. Mayfield lit up the Buckeyes' struggling secondary for 386 yards (11 yards per attempt), generating seven explosive plays in the process. In a day when the Oklahoma running attack definitely was not going to win the game for the Sooners, Mayfield created numerous plays on his own despite losing his top target early in the game.
  • Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin. The Badgers used to have one of the most formidable rushing attacks in the country, but that has fallen off since Melvin Gordon was drafted by the Chargers. But Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, a true freshman, stepped up with an incredible 223 yards on 26 carries against the Florida Atlantic Owls.

LOWSMAN WATCH

  • Austin Bryant, DL, Clemson. The 2016 sack leader, Boston College's Harold Landry, had 16.5 sacks last season. Austin Bryant got a quarter of the way there in one game against Auburn, with four sacks and four tackles for loss. Bryant only had 2.5 sacks all of last season.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 11 Sep 2017

0 comments