The Spread, Week 4: Getting Defensive

Ohio State is on pace to field a Top 15 defense.

I know that sounds like a bold and maybe even absurd statement after watching the Buckeyes surrender 503 yards and 34 points to Cal. But the problem with discussing the totals from that game is that they are outside the norm. No one has run more plays this year than the Cal Bears. Their 284 plays in 3 games is 35 more than the team in the #2 spot, Iowa. The Bears run 23 more plays per game than the average team, and they average nearly 6 yards a play. Going into a game against Cal, a team should expect to give up about 135 more yards than they usually do. Ohio State gave up 156 more yards than their average, 21 more than should have been expected.


Does it seem reasonable to complain about 21 yards in a road game that was essentially over in the first half? It doesn’t to me.

After three games, Ohio State has given up 4.63 yards per play. Right now, that’s good enough for #30 in the nation. If they maintain that pace, it will likely be right around #10 by the end of the year. In the past three years, that’s where that number would put you. Over the past six, it would have been around #13. (It’s worth noting that the same stat that would have landed a team at #18 in 2008 was good enough for #11 last year.)

The game of football has changed, especially at the college level, although you can see it seeping into the NFL these days as well. Up-tempo, no huddle offenses, once a desperate grasp by teams with lesser talent than their opponents, are now used by teams of all stripes. Remember, Iowa is the #2 team in total plays so far this year.


The ultimate irony is that the man taking the heat for the performance of his defense is the man who is largely responsible for the up-tempo renaissance in the first place. Urban Meyer’s success at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and last year right here at Ohio State has shown that this is not merely a gimmick. The fact that slow-motion stalwarts like Nick Saban and Bret Bielema have lobbied for rule changes that would shackle speed teams simply verifies that the approach is sound. And feared.

So let’s not fly off the handle over giving up 500 yards to an offensive outlier like Cal. If the top 25 were based solely on yards allowed per game, then no, we wouldn’t be ranked. And neither would Clemson. Or Oregon. Or Alabama.


  1. This puts a bow on the drum I’ve been beating for years. (How’s that for mixed metaphors?)

    Uptempo offenses + your own offense scoring quickly (and often) = your defense in a position to give up a lot of yards. I’d have liked to see them give up fewer than 34 points to Cal, but all things considered the defense wasn’t bad by any stretch.

    The yards per play may be a better statistic to include in my By The Numbers post, because they tell more of the story.

    Great points here, Jason.

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