Michigan Outduels Ohio State; USC Makes Playoff Case

Michigan Wolverines WR Cornelius Johnson
Michigan Wolverines WR Cornelius Johnson
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NCAA Week 13 - The final weekend of the college football regular season brought clarity. Michigan won the Big Ten East and locked up a College Football Playoff spot almost assuredly. USC added another notch to its belt against Notre Dame and probably earned a win-and-in situation against Utah in its conference title game. TCU had its most dominant win of the season and is guaranteed a spot with a win over Kansas State. Clemson gave up its act and fell flat against South Carolina to give up any hope it had of an undeserved playoff spot. We'll hit these games and two others that were thrillers and shaped conference title matchups for the upcoming weekend.

Notes:

  • All rankings referenced are from Brian Fremeau's FEI numbers heading into the weekend.
  • EPA/play includes special teams and penalties, so combining EPA/rush and EPA/pass numbers won't give the same total as what the top line number shows.

Fighting for the Playoff

No. 4 Michigan Wolverines 45, No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes 23

Advanced Box Score: Michigan vs. Ohio State

Michigan went into Columbus and won using Ohio State's normal strength: explosive offensive football. The question we have been asking about Michigan all year was whether or not J.J. McCarthy could lead the Wolverines to a win when he had to pass. And unfortunately, we didn't get conclusive evidence about that. But we did see McCarthy execute three massive explosive passing strikes to tilt the game in Michigan's favor before the running game sealed the deal.

On back-to-back first-half possessions, he found Cornelius Johnson for 69- and 75-yard touchdowns before hitting Colston Loveland for 45 yards on the opening possession of the second half. McCarthy had only a 32% success rate when he dropped back, but with the explosives doing most of the work, he posted 10.4 total passing EPA. McCarthy had a Tennessee-like average target depth of 15.5 yards, which is just a tenth of a yard below the season-high number that he had in limited attempts against Hawai'i.

That was the story of the day for Michigan on offense: limited efficiency but game-breaking explosiveness. The running game followed a similar pattern, and after a first half where running was completely ineffective, Jim Harbaugh's team put the game away with 75- and 85-yard touchdown runs from Donovan Edwards. Michigan didn't consistently out-physical Ohio State's defensive front like they did last season, but the skill guys for the Wolverines capitalized on some unsound coverage and run fit work with five home-run plays.

On the other side, Ohio State was mercilessly efficient throughout the game but couldn't finish drives or score with explosives. Ryan Day faced several tough fourth-down decisions in the second half and opted for the conservative route (punting or trying field goals) every time. The decisions were largely seen as toss-ups by fourth-down decision models, but having C.J. Stroud ought to put some more weight on the scales on the side of going for it.

This was far from Stroud's best game, but he still posted a 51% passing success rate and above-average EPA and yards-per-dropback performances. For the Buckeyes, though, potential field-stretching from Jaxon Smith-Njigba and TreVeyon Henderson was missed. Stroud went to Emeka Egbuka (16 targets) and Marvin Harrison Jr. (10 targets) over and over again, but other than one 42-yard strike to Harrison, no one was taking the top off of the defense for the Buckeyes, much like we saw in the season-opening battle with Notre Dame. All told, Michigan had the game's four largest EPA plays; that's a great recipe for success in any given game, though not quite as predictive for future success, which is largely what's behind our formula only giving Michigan a 55% win expectancy given the key underlying numbers.

With the win, Michigan heads to the Big Ten title game as about a two-touchdown favorite over Purdue, and the Wolverines' playoff ticket is all but punched. Ohio State is going to be in a controversial race with at least USC for the final playoff spot; the Buckeyes still have the better resume and overall level of performance to date, but it will be fascinating to see how the committee weighs this loss. Harbaugh and his team now have two straight wins over the hated Buckeyes, and Michigan has its sights set on topping last year's whimper against Georgia in the playoff.

No. 14 USC Trojans 38, No. 19 Notre Dame Fighting Irish 27

Advanced Box Score: Notre Dame vs. USC

Drew Pyne had 10.0 more passing EPA than Caleb Williams, and USC still won by 11. That wasn't in the pre-game notes. Now, that's not to take anything away from Williams, who was awesome. Notre Dame pressured him on 44% of his dropbacks, and he racked up 13.3 yards per attempt on those plays. Pyne mostly managed to go blow-for-blow with him, though, finding Deion Colzie (three catches on three targets for 75 yards) for the explosives and Michael Mayer (eight catches on nine targets) for everything.

The real and surprising difference that tilted USC's way came on the ground. Notre Dame, after carving up Clemson on the ground, had -5.8 EPA on 24 rushing plays, while USC had 14.8 EPA on 37 called running plays. The overall efficiency on the ground for the Irish was fine, but the explosives were lacking. Most damaging, Notre Dame lost 6.1 EPA on the brutal Pyne fumble on first-and-10 from the USC 23. USC's magical run of turnover luck also continued, to the tune of 8.9 points gained.

For USC, Williams himself had seven impactful carries that gained 8.7 EPA, and Austin Jones was excellent. He carried 25 times, had a 60% success rate on those plays, gained 6.2 yards per carry, and led the way to a 59% opportunity rate for the Trojans.

USC once again gave up concerningly high offensive efficiency to an opposing unit that has just been average (56th in SP+ after this week). Lincoln Riley's team continues to build its résumé and will have a chance to avenge its only loss on Friday night against Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The concerns about how this team would fare against one of the sport's best are still very much alive, though.

No. 12 TCU Horned Frogs 62, No. 33 Iowa State Cyclones 14

Advanced Box Score: TCU vs. Iowa State

No Frog magic was needed for TCU this week. The Horned Frogs finally laid the smack down on a legitimate opponent, racing out to a 34-7 halftime lead and then extending things further in the second half. Max Duggan was the engine on offense, as he went for a 54% success rate and 14.8 EPA when dropping back to pass. He did that without star receiver Quentin Johnson, who was rehabbing in preparation for the conference title game, and without much explosiveness from the rushing attack either. Duggan orchestrated things, and the Frogs defense took care of the rest. The TCU defense had pick-sixes in both halves and absolutely eliminated the Cyclones passing attack.

It was an impressive data point for a team that had been squeaking out one-score wins over and over again. Now TCU will face a rematch with Kansas State as a mere 2.5-point favorite while quite possibly needing a win to stay ahead of Ohio State in the minds of the playoff committee. Will Howard has taken things to a new level for Kansas State on offense; TCU may well need a Quentin Johnson to keep up.

No. 38 South Carolina Gamecocks 31, No. 18 Clemson Tigers 30

Advanced Box Score: Clemson vs. South Carolina

There's at least one more team that TCU won't have to worry about jockeying for position with for the playoff as the Clemson Tigers squandered away their opportunity against rival South Carolina. The Tigers lost this game in three areas: special teams, passing offense, and defending deep passes. South Carolina gained 11.9 EPA on special teams, and the game effectively ended on a fumbled punt return for Clemson. But that wasn't the only place Clemson lost the game.

After quieting some of his critics in the early going of this season, DJ Uiagalelei fell off a cliff down the stretch, and this was the worst performance of the bunch. He pulled off a 13th-percentile EPA per dropback and 10th-percentile yards per dropback effort. The completion percentage was the most stunning number of them all: 28% on 29 throws, including 0-for-8 on throws 20 or more yards down the field.

Those same plays were the difference-maker for Spencer Rattler. For the second straight week, Rattler lit up a good defense on a team fighting for a playoff berth. In Death Valley, he completed six of his eight throws that travelled 20 or more air yards, and the Gamecocks totaled 248 yards on those plays. Shane Beamer does it again and leaves Clemson with some deep questions to face entering the offseason.

Toe Drags: Best of the Rest

No. 27 Oregon State Beavers 38, No, 13 Oregon Ducks 34

Advanced Box Score: Oregon vs. Oregon State

The most impressive comeback of the day took place in Corvallis, where the Beavers roared back from down 31-10 in the third quarter to beat the hated Ducks 38-34. Shockingly, Oregon State managed this comeback without being able to do anything in the passing game. The -1.4 EPA/dropback performance for Oregon State is the worst I can ever remember seeing in a win.

To come back, the Beavers stopped the Ducks on fourth downs five times and ran the ball splendidly. Oregon State had seven people carry the ball, and five of those players had success rates of 88% or higher. The five failed fourth-down plays for Oregon were worth 16.8 EPA. It was a stunning collapse for the Ducks, who now find themselves out of the Pac-12 title game after sitting in the driver's seat just a few weeks ago. Jonathan Smith has orchestrated a marvelous season at his alma mater, winning nine games for the first time since 2012.

No. 24 Tulane Green Wave 27, No. 46 Cincinnati Bearcats 24

Advanced Box Score: Tulane vs. Cincinnati

On Friday night in Cincinnati, Tulane and the Bearcats faced off for a spot in their own conference title game. With Ben Bryant out injured, Evan Prater had to step in at quarterback for Cincinnati, and it did not go well. On 27 dropbacks, he had -8.4 EPA, a 33% success rate, and just 3.8 yards per play.

For the Green Wave offense, Michael Pratt was decent throwing the ball, but he found the one he needed when he connected with Deuce Watts for a 30-yard score to take the lead with five minutes left. Tyjae Spears was the engine of the offense as he pulled off a 54% success rate on a massive 35 carries. The defensive containment allowed Tulane to generate just enough offense to pull out a win and notch the first 10-win season for the program since 1998. The Wave will host UCF for the AAC title this weekend.

Next Week's Games of Intrigue: Conference Championships

Conference USA: No. 51 UTSA vs. No. 85 North Texas (Friday)
Pac 12: No. 11 Utah vs. No. 14 USC (Friday)
SEC: No. 7 LSU vs. No. 1 Georgia
Big 12: No. 8 Kansas State vs. No. 12 TCU
MAC: No. 79 Ohio vs. No. 78 Toledo
Sun Belt: No. 68 Coastal Carolina vs. No. 61 Troy
AAC: No. 24 Tulane vs. No. 23 UCF
Mountain West: No. 58 Boise State vs. No. 70 Fresno State
Big Ten: No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 45 Purdue
ACC: No. 18 Clemson vs. No. 52 North Carolina

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