Inside the Box: Ohio State's Ground Game Torched the Spartans While the Defense Kept Up the Pressure

By Vico on November 13, 2017 at 2:35 pm
Tuf Borland makes a tackle for Ohio State

That's more like it.

A week after suffering arguably the worst loss of the Meyer era, Ohio State returned to form and blasted Michigan State in front of a packed Ohio Stadium. There are any number of things to like about this game's box score; it's certainly more pleasant than the one last week. 

Here, we'll dive into a few key stats from the Michigan State game and situate them relative to the previous nine games on the schedule.

Ohio State Obliterated Michigan State's Rush Defense

The key to the game was undeniably what Ohio State's rushing offense did to Michigan State's rush defense.

Ohio State's 42 carries for 335 yards (7.98 yards per carry) is arguably the best rushing game for Ohio State this season. The yardage is the most Ohio State had amassed in a game to this point, surpassing the 281 rushing yards against Maryland. The four rushing touchdowns tie for second most in a game with the output agianst Rutgers. The five rushing touchdowns against Maryland are the most on the season. 

The 7.98 yards per carry is second best this season and surpassed only by the game against Army. Therein, Ohio State averaged 8.44 yards per carry.

In other words, Ohio State's ground game had basically its no-questions best game this season when you control for the quality of the opponent.

Michigan State's Rush Defense in 2017
One of these things is not like the other.

Saturday's rout looks even better when you situate it within Michigan State's perspective. The Spartans were previously the No. 3 rush defense in the country, conceding just 87 rush yards per game. The Buckeyes just incinerated that unit. Ohio State accounts for 30% of all rushing yards Michigan State's rush defense has conceded this season to date and is singlehandedly responsible for dropping Michigan State from No. 3 to No. 10 in rush defense.

Ohio State's Defense Got Better in the Second Half

Ohio State fans like to see routs of the opponent. It's even better when a first-half humiliation gets even worse for the opponent in the second half.

To that end, Ohio State's defense delivered.

Ohio State's offense let up in the second half after Binjimen Victor's touchdown to open the third quarter but the defense kept pressing its foot on the neck of Michigan State's offense. This stands in contrast to previous routs like those against UNLV, Rutgers, and Nebraska. In those games—and Nebraska, in particular—Ohio State's defense got bored with Ohio State's offense already putting the team in a commanding lead. 

Thus, opposing offenses fared better in the second half than they did in the first half even if the game was well out of reach. This is perfectly fine and understandable the extent to which they don't meaningfully influence the trajectory of the game. It just makes for a less compelling second half for Ohio State fans.

Ohio State's Defense in First and Second Halves in 2017
Ohio State's defense typically idles in the second half of a rout, but kept the pressure on the Spartans on Saturday.

The defense didn't disappoint this time around. The Michigan State game is unique as just the second game in which the defense used a first half rout as pretense to stifle the opponent even more. In only two other games did Ohio State's defense hold the opposing offense to fewer second half yards than first half yards. However, those games---Indiana and Army---were much closer contests at halftime than the Michigan State game.

Ohio State Played Its Cleanest Game of the Season

We're 10 games into 2017. At this point, what you see is what you get. What we've seen: a team with an explosive offense with an error-prone defense prone to racking up penalties.

The game against Michigan State probably doesn't mark a turning point in a season that's almost over, but it's at least an aberration from the Ohio State team we've seen previously. The Buckeyes played their cleanest game to date.

Ohio State's penalties through ten games in 2017
Ohio State fans should hope every game is as clean for Ohio State as it was on Saturday.

Ohio State averaged about eight penalties and 77 penalty yards after the first nine games. The two penalties for 27 yards against Michigan State is effectively one-fourth the typical number of penalties per game and is 50 penalty yards fewer than the per-game average this season.

I'll hold off projecting that Ohio State has turned a corner on the penalty front. Indeed, the Buckeyes are still the No. 122 team in the country on that point. The previous nine games are more informative signals than the game against Michigan State. Still, the win over the Spartans was a refreshing departure from the norm for multiple reasons, including this.

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