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2013 D Line and the importance of Larry Johnson

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rock flag and eagle's picture
March 10, 2014 at 9:18am

(This is long.  CliffsNotes? OSU's 2014 D-Line has a lot to prove.  The competition faced in 2013 was very bad)

Somebody already posted that the website Football Study Hall used some advanced metrics to rank college offensive line performance for the 2013 season.  According to the FSH website, Ohio State had the most effective O-line in the country.  But, what that poster did not mention was that the same website using the same methods also ranked college football defensive lines, and Ohio State’s was downright mediocre.  (I've only seen this article linked once on 11W in a comment thread by Brandon26841.  Thanks for the heads up, B)

This post hopes to put OSU’s 2013 D Line/rushing D performance in perspective. (The FSH article does mention it is difficult to evaluate D line performance independently of the entire front 7.)   I’m not trying to predict or calculate the type of performance the D Line needs to have in 2014.  But, many people on 11W seem to think that the defensive line will be the strength of the team, and perhaps one of the best in the country.  I’m asking if the fanbase’s perception of the 2013 D Line matched reality, and what that means for Larry Johnson’s assignment next year.  I must admit that I think the 2013 line needs to improve a lot to match the hype they have been getting on this site going into 2014.  Larry Johnson is a better coach than Vrabel, and the line was young this past year.  I assuming that they will get better with another year of maturation.  But, maturation alone won't be enough to make this line elite.   Becoming elite all depends of the job done by Johnson. 

(all my stats come from FSH (linked) or cfbstats.com)

OSU finished 9th in the nation in rushing defense (yards/game) and 7th in the nation in sacks/game, so it’s tempting to declare the D-line among the nation’s best.  But, I think we need to look very critically at the D-Line to see just how they achieved those numbers.  We’ve seen overly optimistic predictions on this site before and we need to avoid that.  For instance, at the end of 2012, a popular sentiment began circulating on 11W that OSU’s defense had turned a corner.  A somewhat arbitrary stat supported this opinion, that stat being OSU had the nation’s #1 defense (yards/game) for the month of November 2012.  OSU actually finished the month 2nd in that category, behind Boise State.  This led to a lot of optimism about the 2013 defense, and higher expectations for the 2013 secondary.  This perception led to ill-fated articles like this, in which the author argued “Ohio State’s pass defense, much like the defense as a whole, improved as the season went on” and “They surrendered 10.9 yards per completion and only 6.4 yards per attempt. In November, that number was a full yard less.”  I believe that because the author looked at specific stats without the proper context, he came to an incorrect conclusion about the 2012 defense/secondary and this caused him to speculate wildly inaccurate things about the 2013 secondary, such as “A stout starting lineup and equally impressive depth have made the secondary undoubtedly the strength of the defense.”  In reality, the 2013 secondary was the team’s weakness, and one of the nation’s worst units.

Enthusiasm and despair can be kept at appropriate levels if we do a little more research and try to contextualize the core stats that typically fuel confidence and doubt.  To put OSU’s secondary performance in perspective in November 2012, they played Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan with a bye week mixed in.  Remember that Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan finished the season 112th, 115th and 97th, respectively, in passing offense.  Ohio State played three of the worst passing attacks in the country in November 2012, and two of them were starting inexperienced backup QBs.  Coming into their respective OSU games, new starter Curt Phillips had attempted 7 passes all year; converted WR Devin Gardner had attempted 70 passes.  I personally believe that the 2012 secondary did not turn a corner in November 2012.  They just played very poor opponents in November.

I also want to try to contextualize the performance of the 2013 Ohio State D-Line, but it’s harder to isolate their performance considering that Shazier was everywhere he needed to be.  Needless to say, the front seven was effective.  OSU finished the season 9th in total rushing defense (109 yards/game) and 12th in the nation in average yards/carry allowed (3.29 ypc).  OSU also finished tied for 7th in the country in sacks/game (3.0)  I would like to try to view these stats in perspective.  This starts by looking at who Ohio State played and how good those opponents were. 

According to Football Study Hall, looking at an opponent-adjusted ranking, Ohio State was the 96th best line/rush defense in the country.  Other lines that performed that poorly relative to their competition were Texas State, Army and UL-Monore.  The other stats Football Study Hall used are NOT opponent-adjusted, and in these cases Ohio State ranked a little better, but still far from elite, and way below where they should have performed if we take into account just how weak OSU’s schedule was.   

Ohio State Adjusted Line Yards Standard Downs Pass Downs Short Yardage
National Rank 96th 69th 47th 34th

Let’s look at each opponents yards/carry average, and where they rank nationally.  This will give us an indication of how good OSU’s opponents were at rushing.  Also, by evaluating a team’s rushing prowess by yards/carry instead of total yards, we help take into consideration that some teams didn’t try to run as much against OSU because they could pass so easily.  The ypc stat helps us understand how good the teams on OSU’s schedule were at running the ball each time they tried, regardless of opponent.

Team 2013 Yards/Carry Avg National Rank (ypc)
Buffalo 4.04 84th
SDSU 4.25 66th
Cal 3.49 108th
Wisconsin 6.62 2nd
Northwestern 4.08 80th
Iowa 4.21 71st
Penn State 4,17 75th
Purdue 2.52 124th
Illinois 4.06 82nd
Indiana 5.29 16th
Michigan 3.28 115th
Michigan State 4.28 63rd
Clemson 4.19 73rd

There were 125 teams in FBS in 2013.  The median team ranking is 62.5.  Of OSU’s 13 FBS opponents, 2 were in the top 50th percentile of rushing offenses, and 11 were in the bottom 50th percentile.  They also faced an FCS school.    

The first thing that jumps out is that outside of OSU, Wisconsin and Indiana, the Big Ten was awful at running the football.  Secondly, OSU’s rush defense was not challenged out of conference, as all 4 FBS teams they faced (including Clemson) were in the bottom half nationally of rushing attacks as measured by ypc.  So, on the one hand, OSU played 11 below average rushing attacks (including 3 teams ranked 100th or worse) and on the other hand, they played 2 top notch running teams (including the nation’s #2 team.)    

Next, I wanted to look at how each of these teams fared against OSU, and whether or not they met their season average.  In other words, did they run better or worse against OSU’s defense than they fared over the course of their respective seasons.   Ohio State held 9 of their FBS opponents below their season average.  The four teams that performed better against OSU than against the rest of their schedule were Cal, Iowa, Michigan and Clemson. 

What this says about OSU’s rush defense is tough to tell.  On the one hand, OSU’s rush defense stats were buoyed by playing 11 bad to very bad FBS rush offenses and a bad FCS team.  On the other hand, they held 69% of their FBS opponents below their season rushing averages, including the two best rushing teams they faced (Wisconsin and Indiana.)  So, even though the competition was bad, they still held them below their normally terrible production.  I do think it’s telling that Cal and Clemson, OSU’s two “big” OOC opponents, both rushed more effectively against OSU than they did against their own conference foes. 

If you think about it, it certainly isn’t a coincidence that Michigan State, Wisconsin, OSU and Iowa all finished in the top 20 for rushing defenses in yards/game.  And, it wasn’t because each team fielded elite lines.  The Big Ten was awful at rushing the football, and each of these four teams looked better on paper than they really were.   Of course, when these four teams played in their bowl games, Stanford, South Carolina, Clemson and LSU all ran for a better yards/carry average than the Big Ten teams had given up on average.  Michigan St. held opponents to 2.85 ypc.  Stanford ran for 4.5 ypc against MSU.  South Carolina ran for 3.44 ypc against Wisconsin’s 3.22 average.  LSU ran for 4.31 ypc against Iowa’s 3.51 average.  Ohio State’s rushing D performed the worst relative to their average ypc allowed, as Clemson ran for over 5 yards per carry and more than 2.2 yards/carry above the average OSU opponent.  I really felt that all four of these teams were exposed in their bowl games, and that the Football Study Hall advanced stats would demonstrate that all four had overrated rushing Ds. But, according to Football Study Hall’s opponent-adjusted Defensive Line Ranking, that's not the case.  Only one team was significantly overrated by the yards/game stat:

Michigan State- 2nd

Iowa- 14th

Wisconsin- 17th

Ohio State- 96th

Is Ohio State’s D-Line as overrated as Football Study Hall thinks?  Is the only way they can stop the run like they did against Wisconsin with a loaded box, and surrendering 300 yards in the air?  What about the fact that they finished in the top 5 nationally for sacks and 7th in sacks per game?  Does that show this was an aggressive, attacking line?  Well, according to Football Study Hall, despite racking up the sacks, OSU was the 43rd best D-line in sacks when adjusted for the quality of opponent.  To me, that’s definitely a fair assessment.  The O-Lines OSU faced were pathetic at protecting their QBs.  Purdue (117th), Michigan (109th), Northwestern (106th), Clemson (104th), Cal (99th) San Diego State (88th) and Illinois (85th) were among the worst in the country at keeping their QB upright.  And, OSU took advantage.  But, against teams with decent O-Lines, OSU didn’t get to the QB.  Only 1 sack against Buffalo (ranked 38th), 2 against Wisconsin (ranked 15th), no sacks against Iowa (ranked 12th), 1 sack against Michigan State (ranked 15th).  Sack performances against Penn State (ranked 43rd) and Indiana (ranked 21st) were decent, but, is that enough to justify the 11W praise for the 2013 D-Line, and do the numbers in the context I provided justify the positive outlook for 2014 D Line?

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