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Ohio State-Rutgers 2014: Advanced stats preview

Previewing the Buckeyes' matchup with the Scarlet Knights using advanced stats.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

It's been a weird season. The Buckeyes have already had two bye weeks, the team is Braxton-less, and Rutgers is ranked in the top 25 of the F/+ rankings. During the preseason there was no way you could have gotten me to believe that the Scarlet Knights would ever be ranked in any poll, especially the F/+ rankings.

This is the first F/+ rankings of the year that don't have any influence from preseason projections. That means we're comparing teams with full-strength stats now, which is great news. What's not great news (or maybe it is, depending on how you look at it), is that Rutgers is actually a fairly decent team on paper.

The Scarlet Knights are 5-1 with their sole loss to Penn State in week three. Quarterback Gary Nova is ranked in the top 15 of ESPN's QBR. Looking at the F/+ comparisons below, the Buckeyes have the edge in four categories while the Knights take two other categories. Finally, Rutgers is coming off of a bye week where they had time to rest and recover from their two-point win over the Wolverines.

All of that is to say that this isn't the gimme game that many thought it would be, at least statistically. Not that anyone will really give the Buckeyes credit for a win here if they do end up victorious -- and no, not because of a national anti-Buckeye conspiracy -- because the perception is that Rutgers is far behind the rest of the Big Ten, so no matter the stats, a tough game wouldn't look great for the Buckeyes.

But Vegas does not think it will be a close one. The Buckeyes are currently 19.5 point favorites over Rutgers. So who is right? The numbers or the bettors?

Overall Rutgers Ohio State
Overall F/+ 24 16
Offensive F/+ 36 24
Defensive F/+ 33 36
Field Position Advantage 79 4

One thing to note here is that while Rutgers is highly ranked in the Special Teams F/+ rankings, they are pretty poor in field position advantage and really, really poor in starting field position. Based on the offensive numbers below I think a high scoring game is more likely than a tough, low scoring slugfest, but the Buckeyes' field position advantage could be a key if neither offense can get it going.

Rutgers on offense

When Rutgers has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 33 33
FEI 45 38
Rushing S&P+ 45 69
Passing S&P+ 18 31

The Rutgers offense is surprisingly decent. Gary Nova has led an efficient passing attack that ranks tenth in methodical drives and 18th in passing offense. Nova relies on receiver Leonte Caroo to do most of his damage. Caroo has roughly three times the number of receptions as any single other receiver on the team and he averages almost 19 yards per reception too. Another name to keep an eye out for is senior receiver Andrew Turzilli. He has only six receptions on the year but is the second-leading receiver averaging an insane 46 yards per reception. He'll only get one bomb per game or so, but if he does, then it's likely a touchdown at the Buckeyes' expense. He is potentially Rutgers' version of Chris Moore (or a Devin Smith, I guess), so the secondary will need to keep an eye on both of these guys.

Rutgers has 26 pass plays of over 20 yards this season, which is tied for 22nd in the country, but they aren't a particularly explosive passing offense outside of Turzilli (54th in Explosive Drives). It's the short and intermediate stuff that the Buckeyes struggled with last season -- but have been better at so far this year -- that Vonn Bell and company will need to watch out for. I could see a lot of Raekwon McMillian this week in an edge rushing roll, because the best way to keep Nova from driving down the field is to make sure he's on his back. They've been decent in pass protection, only allowing eight sacks on the season (but were you expecting Washington State or Tulane to really have the best pass rush?).

One weakness to keep in mind is the red zone touchdown rate, where they only convert 57% of their opportunities into touchdowns. Probably related, the run game has been OK but not great, with three guys having roughly the same efficiency so far this season. Against Michigan, their last opponent (who are admittedly ranked far better than the Buckeyes in Defensive Rushing S&P+), Rutgers managed just a 23% success rate, so they're not world beaters. I noticed that the Knights had several drives without a single rushing attempt as well.

Ohio State on offense

When Ohio State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 58 8
FEI 23 29
Rushing S&P+ 52 38
Passing S&P+ 85 4

There's been some talk of J.T. Barrett as a dark horse Heisman contender. I can kind of see it. I never would have believed that the Buckeyes would average 276 passing yards per game and be the fourth-most efficient passing team in the country coming into this game. If he's going to really make a push, this is his game to make a statement and put on those stats. The Rutgers pass defense is easily the weak point of the defense, and they're even worse on passing downs (104th). The big problem has been in allowing explosive plays (108th), because they've been solid in preventing methodical drives (also evidenced by the good overall Defensive FEI ranking). Neither Michigan nor Penn State managed much on the ground against the Scarlet Knights defense, but I don't think that's really indicative of how Elliot could fare on Saturday.

My Prediction

With another bye week for the Buckeyes and Rutgers taking a bye week of their own, there's no telling what mental condition the Buckeyes will be in (not necessarily in a negative way). At least statistically, the Buckeyes should be able to put up a good number of points on the Scarlet Knights, maybe in the 40s or so, but it relies on a big game from J.T. Barrett, Michael Thomas, and Corey Smith. The key for this being a close game is whether the Buckeyes secondary can clamp down on those short and intermediate passing routes and prevent the Knights from moving methodically down the field. A strong pass rush will be big in preventing this. If the Buckeyes can get a few interceptions out of Nova then I would imagine that the Buckeyes can run out the rest of the clock in a 14 point (or so) win.