We didn't know it at the time, but the Spartans had covertly developed an elite offense to match their top defense by last season's Big Ten Championship game. It's no secret this time around.
Last season Connor Cook came out of nowhere to throw for 304 yards. The Spartans passed early and often (40 total times) and then followed up that bevy of short passes (averaging 7.6 yards per attempt) with 128 yards from Jeremy Langford, much of which came in the fourth quarter. Now, Cook is a known commodity and the junior is averaging 9.43 yards per attempt.
As Urban Meyer said in his recent presser, this is a duel of sledgehammers for Big Ten supremacy. Let's see what the advanced numbers have to say about the matchup:
|Field Position Advantage||1||19|
In contrast to the College Football Selection Committee rankings and Vegas, the Buckeyes actually have the overall statistical advanced according to F/+. It's a narrow gap, but wide enough that Buckeye fans shouldn't be overly pessimistic.
The Buckeyes on offense
|When Ohio State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Adjusted Line Yards||8||1|
|Adjusted Sack Rate||89||7|
Most of the focus pre-game will be on the matchup between the Buckeye offense and Pat Narduzzi's Spartan defense. Looking at the advanced numbers, a few major things stick out to me.
First, the Buckeyes will need big plays to win this game. First of all, IsoPPP (the measure of explosive plays) is one of the few areas where the Buckeyes have a decisive advantage. The Spartans may have an elite defense, but they really have been poor in terms for defending explosive plays -- a function of Narduzzi's aggressive defensive scheme.
That will mean play action to Devin Smith and Michael Thomas, but the only issue here is that play action relies on the Buckeyes setting up the run, which will be difficult against this defense. The Spartans are third in Defensive Rushing S&P+, so Ezekiel Elliot and Curtis Samuel will have their work cut out for them. The Buckeyes are efficient overall and rushing the ball, but as we saw last week, they can struggle in short yardage situations (going 1/5 in third or fourth down situations with two yards or less to go), ranking 60th in Power Success Rate, which measures the ability of the offensive line to get a push in short-yardage situations.
Maybe the most dangerous situation for the Buckeyes is if they get in to any third-and-long situations where the Spartans can pin their ears back and rush J.T. The Buckeye offensive line has been largely rebuilt from last season, but is an abysmal 89th in Adjusted Sack Rate. If the Buckeyes fall behind schedule on standard downs, then we're looking at last year all over again. This makes me a little concerned since J.T. and the offensive line have faced two other teams with similar defenses this season -- the Hokies and the Nittany Lions -- and J.T. was sacked a total of ten times and completed just 21 of 48 passes in those two games.
The bright side is that these issues aren't unknown to Meyer and Herman, and they will likely have spent the past week (and honestly a good deal of Illinois week) preparing for this defense.
The Spartans on offense
|When Michigan State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Adjusted Line Yards||82||42|
|Adjusted Sack Rate||32||14|
There has been more conversation about the Buckeye offense versus the Spartans defense, but Michigan State actually has more statistical advantages against the Buckeye defense. One of the major keys for the Buckeyes will be in stopping Tony Lippett, who is averaging over 21 yards per reception and has three times more catches than the second-leading receiver. However, I'd guess that if Doran Grant can contain Lippett, then the Buckeyes are halfway to victory.
A fast start would go a long way in limiting the Spartans by making them one dimensional. Jeremy Langford is a talented back, but he's more effective at the tail end of games when you need to run out the clock on a tired defense. An early lead keeps Connor throwing the ball, making the offense one dimensional and keeping the defense fresh for the end of the game.
However, one of the most worrisome matchups is with the Spartans offensive line. Even with Joey Bosa and the Buckeye defensive line, the Spartan offensive line has advantages in both Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate. Joey Bosa has been incredible this season, but he can only do so much by himself. The Buckeyes entire front seven -- which, admittedly is ninth in Front 7 Havoc Rate -- has to play lights out for the Buckeyes to win.
I have yet to predict a Buckeye loss this season after analyzing the numbers, but this matchup is pretty poor for the Buckeyes. The Spartans have a big play wide receiver, a positive matchup with their offensive line, and the ability to pick up sacks. One thing the Buckeyes absolutely cannot allow is for the Spartans to get an early lead, because then this could just become a sack fest for Michigan State as J.T. tries to pass the Buckeyes back in to the game.
I could see this game going any number of ways from big Buckeye win to the Spartans running away with a huge statement win. However, I'll go with a narrow Buckeye victory as my prediction as the Buckeyes find a way to channel Oregon's early season success against the Spartans.