Statistically speaking, Ohio State doesn’t have many weaknesses for Notre Dame to exploit when the two teams meet in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day. Had some chaos happened last weekend and the Buckeyes sneaked into the College Football Playoff, Urban Meyer’s side very well could’ve turned it into back-to-back championships.
We’ll start with what Ohio State built its 11-1 record and No. 7 rankings on this fall. The Buckeyes feature an excellent defense (8th in S&P+) against which opponents only averaged 14 points (2nd among FBS teams). This group clamps down when opponents get into the scoring zone, allowing only 3.73 points per trip inside the 40-yard line (9th). And excellent special teams work limited opponents to starting drives, on average, at the 25.1-yard line (3rd).
That poor average starting field position forced opponents into generating long drives, which proved to be a difficult task. Ohio State’s defense was highly efficient, with opponents only netting successful yardage (50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down and 100 percent on third/fourth down) on 33 percent of their plays (7th).
Plenty of Ohio State’s defensive success comes from its ability to stop the pass. Defensive backs Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell, Garçon Conley and Ali Apple combined for 30 passes defended (interceptions plus break-ups), helping push the Buckeyes to limit opponents to a 28.7 percent passing success rate (1st). A rock-solid defensive line of Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington, Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard put plenty of pressure on the quarterback, leading the Buckeyes to total 34 sacks (18th).
When Ohio State forces opponents into passing downs (second-and-8 or more, third/fourth-and-5 or more), its defense is excellent, limiting both explosive plays and necessary yardage. It also ranks eighth in standard down defensive S&P+, though is more prone to allowing explosive plays in those situations.
If Notre Dame is able to solve Ohio State’s defense, which hasn’t allowed more than 17 points since Oct. 10, it’ll likely to do by generating explosive plays through the air, probably on downs in which it could either run or pass. That’s the glaring area of deficiency for this defense — Ohio State ranks 95th in passing isolated points per play and allowed 15 completions of 30 or more yards this year.
Notre Dame has one of college football’s most explosive receivers in junior Will Fuller (56 receptions, 1,145 yards, 13 TDs), who could be the guy whose performance, good or bad, could swing Notre Dame’s afternoon in Arizona.
Offensively, Ohio State isn’t particularly explosive, which seemingly is good news for a Notre Dame defense that’s consistently been gouged by big-chunk plays in 2015. The Buckeyes rank 58th in offensive explosiveness (Notre Dame ranks 94th in defensive explosiveness), but are an efficient bunch again benefitted by solid special teams work, starting drives on average at the 34.4-yard line (4th).
The Ezekiel Elliott/J.T. Barrett-led rushing attack ranks eighth in S&P+ and gains necessary yardage on a shade over half its attempts. Elliott, a star himself, is aided by an offensive line that paves the way for at least a five-yard gain on 46.8 percent of Ohio State’s rushes (1st). This’ll be a strong test for a Notre Dame defensive line that’s done well this season and appears on track to get redshirt junior Jarron Jones back from a preseason torn MCL.
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The Barrett/Cardale Jones tandem has only produced good-not-great results through the air, ranking 26th in passing S&P+. Still, we saw what happened at Stanford when Notre Dame sold out (and did so successfully) to stop running back Christian McCaffrey — Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan threw as many touchdowns as incompletions (four). Focusing on Elliott is still the soundest defensive strategy, but it’ll require the Irish secondary — without senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell (fractured tibia) — to make some major strides this month.
We’re still a little over three weeks away from the Fiesta Bowl, but both Ohio State and Notre Dame’s statistical profiles are set. Bill Connelly’s numbers give Ohio State a 60 percent chance of winning, with a projected scoreline of 32.4-28.
What is clear, though, is that these are two deservingly top-10 teams that combine to form one of the better bowl matchups of the 2015 season.