Let me beat a few of you to the punch by saying we all know the final score is the most important set of numbers in football.
After that, a host of key metrics help tell the tale of just how good a football team is. The high-level stuff like scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense and total defense mean something and they all drill down to numbers like net yards per pass/rush attempt, thrown interception percentage, stats specific to success rate, average starting field position, <add in your own here>. Some of those deeper analytics aren't as easy to come by, especially historically.
Having said all that, with a focus on last season versus the last five or six preceding it, here are five 'second level' stats Ohio State could stand to improve this fall in it's quest to reclaim the Big Ten title, advance to the College Football Playoff, and make some noise once there.
It likely won't come as surprise most fall on the defensive side of the ball.
OPPONENT SCRIMMAGE PLAYS OF 40+ YARDS
An inability to limit big plays was the true downfall of last year's defense. The Buckeyes ranked No. 115 out of 131 FBS defenses by allowing 18 plays of 40+ yards.
Of those plays going for 40+ yards, 11 went for at least 50 yards, six went for at least 60 and five went for 70 or more (No. 128) with four of those coming during losses to Michigan and Georgia.
Speaking of those two debacles, the Wolverines racked up four plays of at least 50 yards while the Bulldogs had four of at least 35 yards.
It's kind of amazing Ohio State managed to rank No. 14 in total defense (321.5 ypg) and No. 24 in scoring defense at 21.0 points per game while struggling so badly to limit gash plays. If anything, it points to the Buckeyes being good enough to limit most of the meh teams they played while struggling with both game-planning and execution against elite competition.
The 18 plays of 40+ yards allowed served as the most since the 2018 defense gave up 23 to rank No. 119 in the country. That group ranked No. 50 in scoring defense (25.5 ppg) and 71st in total defense (403.5).
Job one for defensive coordinator Jim Knowles this fall is to sharply decrease the number of big plays allowed via overly aggressive play calling and blown assignments.
SACKS PER GAME
It's been a minute since Ohio State's had a dominant defensive line or a disruptive eleven capable of putting consistent heat on the quarterback.
Last season the Buckeyes averaged 2.62 sacks per game, good for No. 34 nationally and the worst tally since at least Ryan Day's arrival in 2017. More relevant, three of Ohio State's worst four national rankings in sacks per game since Larry Johnson arrived have occurred over the last three years.
The defensive line accounted for 24 of the team's 34 sacks in 2022, or 67.6%, and that percentage was the third-worst since Johnson joined the staff in 2014.
Three of Ohio State's top-four sack leaders from 2022 are back in the form of Jack Sawyer (4.5), Mike Hall Jr. (4.5) and JT Tuimoloau (3.5) and that trio, along with a host of other names need to step it up this fall. A better secondary should also lend an assist.
PENALTIES PER GAME
The Buckeyes decreased their penalties per game for a third-straight season, down to 5.6 in 2022, to rank No. 47 in the country.
Ohio State averaged eight accepted penalties per game over the season's first two games - 7-for-75 versus Notre Dame and 9-for-85 against Arkansas State - before settling into a better groove toward midseason.
The back half of the 2022 campaign however saw eight flags in a win over Penn State and 11-for-97 yards in a funky win over Maryland.
The squad's self-discipline bottomed out versus Michigan as the Buckeyes committed nine penalties for 91 yards, many of them killers. A defensive hold on 4th-and-5 extended a Michigan possession resulting in a touchdown, a Donovan Jackson hold and a Gee Scott Jr. personal foul on the same play blew up a drive that should've started in plus territory, and a 3rd-and-10 pass interference on Ronnie Hickman extended another Michigan drive resulting in a touchdown.
The Buckeyes were flagged for just four infractions in the loss to Georgia but a costly illegal motion on 4th-and-1 led to a punt.
Overall, three straight years of progress is a good thing but timing is everything and ranking no better than 47th nationally in penalties per game leaves room for continued improvement.
INTERCEPTIONS PER GAME
While Ohio State's secondary was mostly remembered last season for the big plays allowed opponents, it was also notable just how few big plays the group created for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State ranked No. 58 in the country with 0.85 interceptions per game, its lowest average since at least 2017.
What really sticks out is of the 11 total interceptions last year, only five of those came from OSU defensive backs. Tanner McCalister had three, Lathan Ransom had one and Hickman had the other. Not one cornerback recorded a pick in 2022. While the secondary logged those five picks, linebackers and defensive combined for six.
For context, the 2021 defense saw the defensive backs record eight of the team's 12 picks, the 2020 squad's DBs tallied five of the seven and the 2019 secondary snagged 11 of the 15. The 2018 DBs picked up nine of the team's 11 picks and the 2017 secondary notched an impressive 12 of the team's 13 total interceptions.
Said differently, the 2022 secondary was bad at both giving up big plays and not really creating any for itself. That needs to change and it feels like the pieces are there do just that.
RED ZONE TOUCHDOWN RATE ALLOWED
Ohio State's defense ranked No. 74 in the nation last season giving up touchdowns 62.1% of the time opponents reached the red zone (18 TDs in 29 trips).
Would it make you feel better about that result if I told you the 2021 and 2020 defenses gave up 73.8% (No. 124) and 68.9% (No. 104) red zone touchdown rates? Or that the 2018 squad allowed red zone touchdowns at a 69.1% clip (No. 101)?
I didn't think so but hey, the 2022 defense made progress on those results though it was a tale of two seasons. In the first seven games the OSU defense allowed just five touchdowns on 11 red zone trips (45%) but gave up 13 touchdowns in 18 red zone trips (72%) over the final six contests. Penn State went 2-for-3 and the Michigan/Georgia combo went 5-for-7, if you're curious.
Call it blind optimism but I'm counting on the defense bending more and breaking less in 2023.