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Ohio State-Minnesota 2014: Advanced stats preview

Previewing the Buckeyes' matchup with the Golden Gophers using advanced statistics

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Buckeyes are fresh off of the biggest win of the Urban Meyer era and are rewarded with another matchup with a Top 25 team. Unbelievably, Jerry Kill's Golden Gophers snuck into the College Football Playoff at 25th. The 7-2 Gophers have only two losses - one to the also-over achieving Horned Frogs and one to the genuinely terrible Fighting Illini. Even with that ugly second loss, the Golden Gophers are a legitimately good team statistically -- even the third-best team the Buckeyes have faced this season.

The Buckeyes not only rose in the CFP rankings, but also the F/+ ranking this week due to their efficient and explosive performance against the Spartans.

Overall Minnesota OSU
Overall F/+ 34 3
Field Position Advantage 13 2
Offensive F/+ 49 8
Defensive F/+ 34 15


The Gophers on offense

When Minnesota has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 48 10
FEI 32 19
Rushing S&P+ 49 50
Passing S&P+ 46 8
Success Rate 58 21
IsoPPP 54 41
Adjusted Line Yards 28 80
Adjusted Sack Rate 102 31

The Gophers are led on offense by running back David Cobb, who is ninth in the country and fourth in the Big Ten in rushing, but the real stars of the offense are the offensive linemen. Cobb piles up the yards thanks to the offensive line's efficient run blocking (via Adjusted Line Yards). The first key to a Buckeye victory will be in shutting down David Cobb and the offensive line. Cobb is a steady 5.3 yards per carry workhorse back who has already carried the ball over 30 times in four different games this season. Even in their win over Michigan (3rd in Defensive Rushing S&P+ in the country), Cobb had 183 yards on 32 carries, but with just 35% efficiency. So you get the sense that Cobb's success is more about his durability and volume, picking chunks of yards on occasional big runs.

As you can tell from the Buckeyes' Defensive Rushing S&P+ ranking, the unit has been less effective shutting down the run game. Michael Bennett said as much this week, that "I think guys got tired. That last touchdown, there were like six missed tackles. Guys were laying their arms on the running back." So, Chris Ash and Fickell will likely look to load the box, rotate defensive linemen like Tommy Schutt and Donovan Munger, and force Mitch Leidner to win the game for the Gophers. An early lead would help here too. Leidner has only thrown for over 200 yards once this season -- in their loss to Illinois -- and is completing just over 53% of his passes.

The biggest statistical disparity for the Buckeyes to exploit is in the Gophers' pass defense, where they are one of the worst teams in the country in Adjusted Sack Rate. That means that Bosa, Bennett, and Darron Lee could all have big days. Look for guys like Vonn Bell and Raekwon McMillian to also see edge rushing time to take advantage of the difference in Passing S&P+ and Adjusted Sack Rates.

The potential issue I see is if the Buckeyes allow Minnesota to stay in then game until the fourth quarter. Then David Cobb's durability becomes an issue for a shortened defensive line rotation, and he can just count on breaking through arm tackles and turning three yard gains into explosive plays.

The Buckeyes on offense

When Ohio State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 41 1
FEI 17 14
Rushing S&P+ 33 5
Passing S&P+ 54 2
Success Rate 23 2
IsoPPP 16 33
Adjusted Line Yards 24 3
Adjusted Sack Rate 119 86

The Buckeyes have advantages in almost every offensive statistical category. The Gophers are more efficient shutting down the run and are certainly bend-but-don't break, so the focus for Herman and Meyer will be on J.T. orchestrating a varied, balanced, and consistent attack that doesn't rely on explosive plays.

The key stats are Minnesota's 16th ranking in IsoPPP (measuring explosiveness) and 17th ranking FEI. The Gophers are far better on defense in drive efficiency than per-play efficiency, suggesting that they are a classic bend, but don't break defense. But looking a little bit closer, the Gophers' defensive drive efficiency is driven less by a stout red zone or third down defense and more by their ability to force turnovers -- they're 13th in total turnovers gained, but 121st in opponent red zone touchdown rate (72%!) and 60th in opponent 3rd down conversion rate. So it's very important for the Buckeyes to play mistake-free football and for J.T. not to turn the ball over and feed the Gophers' impressive drive efficiency and Field Position Advantage.

At least he should have plenty of time in the pocket to make his reads and throws. The Gophers are fairly abysmal in getting to the quarterback (119th) and only average in overall pass defense (54th), so it looks like the defense either gets an interception or allows offenses to drive steadily down the field.

I initially thought this would lend towards a pass-heavy offensive gameplan for the Buckeyes, but I think more and more that Herman will shoot for balance thanks to Elliott, Barrett, and Samuel running effectively on almost everyone since the Virginia Tech game. Since defenses have sought to take away the Buckeyes' base inside zone read, the Buckeyes have responded with more power and counter trey to great effect. Combine that with short perimeter passes to speedsters like Jalin Marshall and play action passes and you've got yourself a recipe for success.

My prediction

Minnesota is a stout opponent and any hangover from the big win could spell an upset. The Gophers aren't on the same talent level as the Buckeyes, but neither were Virginia Tech and Penn State.

Even still, I'm guessing that as long as the Buckeyes win the turnover margin, they will win this game. The Gophers defense is led by the related goals of creating turnovers, winning the field position battle, and then running David Cobb enough to make defenses tired. If the Buckeyes don't turn the ball over and can defend the run enough to force Leidner to throw more than he's comfortable, then the Buckeyes can win by a few touchdowns.