In the most “everything is the same as ever” college football season in recent memory, Rivalry Week has served as one long reminder that, well, everything is the same as ever. On Black Friday, Oklahoma beat West Virginia for the seventh straight year (a.k.a. WVU’s entire Big 12 existence), and Chris Petersen’s Washington shut down Mike Leach’s Washington State for the fifth straight, all after Virginia Tech beat Virginia for the 15th year in a row.
In early Saturday action, meanwhile, Ohio State beat Michigan for the seventh straight time, the ninth straight at home.
This was supposed to be the week the Michigan-Ohio State narrative changed. Instead, it was reinforced: the Buckeyes still own the Wolverines.
From the start, we were going a little too far in proclaiming the Wolverines’ superiority. Michigan was only listed as about a four- to five-point favorite, both in terms of the Vegas line and S&P+ projections. As good as UM had looked for most of the time since its Week 1 loss to Notre Dame, Ohio State was still a top-10 team according to both the polls and the computers.
Trends point toward Michigan, but Ohio State is still very good, and there are still matchups for the Buckeyes to exploit.
That we’re so down on Ohio State reveals how high the bar is in Columbus. The Buckeyes are still 10-1 and eighth in S&P+. Their run game has been disappointing, but they’re still fifth in Off. S&P+. Their defense has suffered spectacular glitches, but they’re still 38th in Def. S&P+.
On Saturday, the Buckeyes reminded everyone how good they could be. It couldn’t have come at a worse time for the rival school up north. Dwayne Haskins threw three first-half touchdown passes as the Buckeyes bolted to a 21-6 lead, and after a special teams miscue allowed the Wolverines to cut the lead to two late in the first half, the Buckeyes put the game away with a 20-0 run. When the Wolverines finally got untracked offensively, it was too late — Ohio State was rolling. Barring a clock-killing drive at the end, the Buckeyes scored on their last six possessions.
What seemed like Michigan’s best shot at Ohio State in years turned into a 62-39 Buckeye win.
There was a pretty clear script for how Ohio State could win this game, and as it turned out, the Buckeyes followed it to a T.
Step 1. Michigan falls behind schedule a lot
[The Wolverines] don’t move backward, but they’re still only 66th in rushing marginal efficiency and 89th in opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least four yards). ... Big plays are becoming scarce as well. While the Wolverines have 20 rushes of 20-plus yards (36th in FBS), only three have come in the last four games.
That offers Ohio State an opportunity. ... If Ohio State can hold Michigan to just a couple of gashes, the Buckeyes can force a lot of passing-downs throws by Shea Patterson and a few three-and-outs.
Late in the first half, Patterson found Nico Collins for a 23-yard touchdown.
I just listed every Michigan gain of more than 20 yards in the first three quarters.
Michigan’s offense is built around ball control. It is not meant to burst dams. The Wolverines did control the ball for a while, but the lack of big plays gave Ohio State a lot more margin for error than it had last week against Maryland.
This really hasn’t been a bad Ohio State defense. The issue has never been efficiency — it’s been big plays.
Ohio State defenses under Urban Meyer (not including garbage time)
|Yards Per Successful Play
|Yards Per Successful Play
The Buckeyes were allowing a success rate only about one percentage point behind their norm under Meyer, but big plays were disastrous. Take out the big plays, and this is the same old Ohio State defense. Michigan faced at least five yards to go on 14 of 16 third-down attempts and went three-and-out three times. With the Wolverines’ defense struggling, this was death.
Step 2. Score touchdowns and force field goals
In part because Michigan is only decent at running the ball, Michigan is also only decent at finishing drives with touchdowns. The Wolverines are averaging just 4.6 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the 40), 68th in FBS. [...]
The longer this game is close, the longer Michigan is thinking, “Oh god, we’re not going to lose this game again, are we?” ... For all of Michigan’s incredible defensive strengths, the Wolverines are only 79th in points allowed per scoring opportunity (4.65). It is a slight weakness you have to take advantage of.
After an initial three-and-out, Michigan created scoring chances on its next two drives. The Wolverines could have led 14-7 early.
But Ohio State forced a 39-yard field goal on the first opportunity, and UM’s Zach Gentry dropped a touchdown pass on the second, leading to a 31-yarder.
Michigan improved from there, scoring touchdowns on each of its next four opportunities. But Ohio State scored TDs on each of its first three scoring opps, and the Wolverines were forced to play from behind all game.
Step 3: WING IT
OSU stinks at running the ball. Meanwhile, almost everyone stinks at running the ball against Michigan (ninth in Rushing S&P+). In a way, this is freeing. OSU coordinator Ryan Day has, at times, not even felt the need to pretend to establish the run. [...]
The Buckeyes have frequently used the horizontal passing game as a run substitute, and while it’s hard to pull off one-dimensionality, well ... Ohio State is 10-1 and fifth in Off. S&P+.
Indeed, Ohio State came out throwing. Fourteen of the Buckeyes’ first 21 plays were passes, and Dwayne Haskins threw three first-half touchdown passes.
The secret weapon, however, wasn’t the wide receiver screen: it was the good old shallow cross. Michigan appeared prepared to cover the sidelines, so Haskins and coordinator Ryan Day killed them by dragging receivers over the middle.
It worked beautifully. Parris Campbell might be the best get-the-ball-near-the-line-of-scrimmage receiver in the country, and he was brilliant, catching five passes for 114 yards and a score and taking a jet sweep 78 yards to the house. KJ Hill was also involved in some crossing route fun. And when the cross started working, the Buckeyes would fake the cross and bounce routes back outside. That worked, too.
To add insult to injury, the run began to work late, too — thanks to work mostly in the fourth quarter, JK Dobbins and Mike Weber ended up combining for 25 carries and 142 yards.
Ohio State blew up one of the best defenses in college football with one of the simplest, most reliable pass concepts in the sport. To say the least, it snowballed from there.