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Ohio State-Kent State 2014: Advanced stats preview

Previewing the Buckeyes' matchup with the Golden Flashes using advanced statistics.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Kent State does not have a good football team. In fact, it's almost as bad as Purdue (and that's not really a joke -- the Golden Flashes' F/+ is -11% and the Boilermakers are at -15.7%. Fun fact: the F/+ difference between Kent State and Purdue is roughly the difference between Ohio State and Michigan).

So why should you care about this game? This game was always scheduled as a post-Virginia Tech recovery game for the team: time to get backups some work (this might have been the original debut of J.T. Barrett, even) and iron out any schematic issues before the start of Big Ten play. The Buckeyes are obviously the huge favorite, with Vegas listing the Buckeyes as 32 point favorites and Brian Fremeau's FEI projecting a 26 point win with a 98% probability of the Buckeyes winning. The game's outcome shouldn't be in doubt.

However, what will be worth watching is whether the Buckeyes can sort out the offensive line, quarterback, and schematic issues that plagued them during the first two games this season. Kent State won't be the best barometer for how much the offense has improved necessarily, but it will both build players' confidence and give us a clue how the coaching staff plans to adapt their gameplan now that the Buckeyes' serious weaknesses have been exposed.

When Ohio State has the ball

Based on the advanced stats, Ohio State will have no trouble moving the ball on Kent State. The Golden Flashes were poor defending the red zone and abysmal at stopping the pass, and below-average at stuffing the run last season. The Buckeyes, despite bringing in the 93rd-ranked offense in terms of total yards, has fairly decent efficiency numbers.

Part of the 25th S&P+ ranking is due to the inclusion of last season's numbers in the S&P+ calculations (last season's numbers are phased out entirely until week seven). However, even though it felt like the Buckeyes couldn't string together a dominating scoring drive against Virginia Tech, Herman and Meyer have enough elite playmakers to maintain a decent efficiency rate.

The Golden Flashes (and every future team on the schedule) are likely to adopt the Hokie approach to defending the Buckeyes: blitz on 81% of plays and 79% of dropbacks, play man coverage outside with more defenders inside the box to stuff the run (where the Hokies kept the Buckeyes 42 yards on 14 runs inside the tackles). Take away inside zone and pressure J.T. Barrett and almost any team could keep the Buckeyes off balance. That's how Bud Foster's squad forced the Buckeyes into three three-and-outs, 19.9 yards per possession in the second half, and 1.75 points per possession in the second half despite fantastic field position the entire game.

So it will be worth seeing how Herman responds to this obvious defensive strategy. Will he change the blocking scheme to double down on establising inside zone or try to use his speedy personnel to develop an outside rushing team? While sweeps, outside zones, speed options, and inverted veer have been changeups for the Buckeye offense, inside zone has been the backbone since Urban installed his offense. Do the Buckeyes develop a more efficient quick passing game against receivers who only have man coverage? It might make sense given the offensive line's struggles at holding blocks and Barrett's struggles against the blitz. In terms of personnel, will we see more Dontre and Jalin? Can anyone besides Michael Thomas catch the ball?

The offense will likely put up points on Kent State regardless, but this game can be huge for development of the offense for the rest of the season. After all, a Big Ten championship is still in reach.

When Ohio State has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 81 25
2013 FEI 117 3
2013 Rushing S&P+ 81 1
2013 Passing S&P+ 114 17

When Kent State has the ball

As bad as the Kent State defense is, the offense might be worse:

When Kent State has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 108 16
2013 FEI 84 42
2013 Rushing S&P+ 95 58
2013 Passing S&P+ 97 61

It wasn't necessarily that the Buckeyes performed all that poorly on either game this season, but many folks certainly expected the defensive line to entirely dominate Virginia Tech's more traditional offense. At 2.5 points per possession and only 4.2 yards per play, the defense performed well enough to rank 16th in Defensive S&P+ so far this season (and it's not like the fact that the 2013 numbers are still a part of the S&P+ calculations help, either).

Unless the Golden Flashes are able to create some really explosive plays due to breakdowns in the Buckeye seconary, I wouldn't count on many points from the visitors this Satuday. This should allow the defense more time to practice Chris Ash's schematic adjustments. In particular I'll be watching:

  • The safeties, and whether Vonn Bell can not only make plays, but be consistent in coverage and run support.
  • The linebackers, and whether Curtis Grant and Darron Lee continue to fill gaps and prevent opponents from establishing a ground game.
  • How Noah Spence adjusts to his return to the field -- how much playtime he receives and whether he shows any rust.

My prediction

Kent State Ohio State
F/+ 102 17
2013 Special Teams 81 5
S&P+ 108 13
FEI 90 20

The Buckeyes will win this game, and should win by a healthy margin. It'll be hard to get too good of a read on how the Buckeyes have improved, since the raw numbers should be heavily in the Buckeyes' favor. Regardless, any improvement in J.T.'s poise, new rapport with wide receivers not named Michael Thomas, passing that's not a bubble screen or deep bomb, between-the-tackles run game, or solid secondary support, will be encouraging. Regardless of the quality of the opponent, this will be a great opportunity to practice decision making, reads, and new plays.