Inside the Box: Third Down Efficiency, Secondary Shines, and Line of Scrimmage Domination

By Jake Anderson on October 7, 2019 at 2:35 pm
Jordan Fuller returns an interception

After the first 15 minutes, Ohio State looked vulnerable.

It was just a field-goal game and Sparty's defense looked as good as advertised, stopping the Buckeyes twice outside the red zone. As the game progressed, however, the Buckeyes started to get more comfortable and ran away with the game, winning 34-10. 

In the first ranked matchup of the season, Ohio State's efficiency on third-down, the performance of the secondary, and its advantage in the running game all played a key part in the victory. 

The Offense is Best on Third-Down

It is no secret that Ohio State possesses one of the best offenses in the nation. ESPN's SP+ ratings have the Buckeyes as the fifth-best offense in the nation and the offense is currently fifth in points per play

A major part of this success is their ability to convert third-downs. Coming into Saturday, Michigan State had allowed teams to convert on just 34.25% of their third-down attempts. The Buckeyes, on the other hand, were converting nearly 57% of their third-downs. Something had to give. 

After struggling to execute in the first quarter, Ohio State was able to take command in the second. The Buckeyes converted a third-down on each of their touchdown possessions in the quarter, gaining a first down on three of their four attempts of the period.

By the game's conclusion, Ohio State had converted about 53% of their third-down attempts, the best rate of any offense playing Michigan State this season. A key aspect of this efficiency has been the offense's early-down success; the Buckeyes are rarely in third-and-long situations, averaging just 6.9 yards-to-go on third-down against the Spartans. 

The offense was able to attack the Spartans in a number of different ways, passing the line-to-gain through the air three times, on the ground four times, and via penalty once. The home team now has the third-best third-down offense in the country, trailing only Air Force and Texas in the category. 

The Secondary Shines

Oh, what a difference a year makes. 

The 2019 defense has allowed just 53 points this season. The 2018 defense had given up that many points midway through week three against TCU. 

While all position groups have improved since last year, it was the secondary's time to shine against Michigan State. 

The two leading tacklers were Jordan Fuller and Shaun Wade with seven and five tackles, respectively. As a unit, they took down the ballcarrier on over 40% of offensive plays, by far the highest rate on the team.

The secondary recorded the plurality of tackles against the Spartans.

Continuing, the defensive backfield contributed two turnovers (Arnette - forced fumble, Fuller - interception), two tackles for loss, and a sack, doing more than their fair share against a struggling offense. 

It has been mentioned time and time again, but the reemergence of the Silver Bullets is one of the most important storylines in the nation. 

Attacking the Line of Scrimmage

Michigan State, who came to Columbus with one of the best defenses in the nation, were simply bullied by the Buckeyes. 

Ohio State gained 323 rushing yards against the Spartans, by far the most the visitors had given up all season. The offense was gaining an average of 6.6 yards per carry, penetrating the second level at will. 

Despite Dobbins' huge 67-yard touchdown run, big plays were not the norm. Dobbins had just four runs over ten yards while Fields and Teague combined for three more. The Bucks reached their insanely high per-carry average by simply outmuscling the visiting team on every single play. 

The Buckeyes were able to move the ball on the ground but were also able to stifle the Spartans on the other side of the ball. The visiting team managed to gain a little over 100 yards on the ground, but averaged just 2.5 yards per carry, by far Michigan State's worst offensive performance of the year. 

Overall, the Bucks put up their second-best rushing yard differential performance of the season. Rushing yards differential is calculated by subtracting the opponent's total rushing yards from Ohio State's total rushing yards, making it both an offensive and defensive statistic. 

Ohio State is dominant at the point of attack.

While these metrics are impressive, it is also important to note that the game's situation greatly impacted these numbers. The Buckeyes were able to get an early lead over Michigan State, allowing them to run the ball and bleed the clock every time the offense stepped on the field. The Spartans were playing catch-up all night and were forced to throw the ball on nearly every down. 

Ohio State's domination on the line of scrimmage is nothing new, of course, as the team has held at least a 150-yard advantage in rushing yard differential in every game this season. As the Buckeyes' competition picks up in the second half of the season, this metric will be an important one to watch, especially against a team like Wisconsin with an elite ground game and stout defense. 

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