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Ohio State faces a tough pass defense in Minnesota

Minnesota has maybe the best secondary the Buckeyes have faced this season. How will Ohio State respond?

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn't take advanced stats to see that Minnesota's defense has been excellent this year. Just take a look at TCU's offensive production against Minnesota relative to the rest of their schedule. Against the Gophers, the Horned Frogs scored just 23 points. In every other game their lowest output was 40 points, going over 50 points in five straight contests. Ranking 27th in defensive FEI and 24th in defesnive S&P+, the Gophers fit the same statistical profile as a lot of Big Ten teams, like Michigan, Penn State, and Northwestern -- excellent defenses and middling offenses.

So how do the Buckeyes stack up?

Well, the majority of the challenges are sure to come on the offensive side of the ball. Cardale Jones is yo-yoed back in to the starting lineup with J.T. out, and Braxton Miller is reportedly cleared to throw as the second string quarterback. Though Ohio State is fourteenth in offensive S&P+, Minnesota offers a big test with their pass defense.

Ohio State will lean heavily on the run game

Want to know why TCU struggled on offense against Minnesota? Their pass-heavy offense faced the eleventh-ranked defensive passing S&P+ Gophers:

OSU Offense Minn. Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.38 17 1.09 8 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 46.7% 23 39.4% 54 40.4%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 34.5 4 29.5 63 29.9
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.13 40 5.16 108 4.67
OSU Offense Minn. Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
Rushing S&P+ 125.4 13 1.53 55 100.0
Passing S&P+ 115 32 126.4 11 100.0

The Gophers are excellent in pass defense and with Cardale starting, it's likely that the Buckeyes will be ground-heavy this week. If you wanted to see Ezekiel Elliott carry the ball with liberal doses of Braxton Miller, this is the game. Minnesota is 80th in defensive adjusted line yards and 53rd in opportunity rate, suggesting that Elliott, Miller, Curtis Samuel, or whoever carries the ball should have a fairly efficient night.

While the Gophers are strong in both aspects of preventing explosive plays, they do allow opposing offenses to be fairly efficient. The key then will be how well the Buckeyes perform in scoring opportunities. Without much prospect of hitting explosive plays with any regularity, the Ohio State run game will have to perform well in the red zone and past the Gophers' 40 yard line to convert per-play efficiency to drive efficiency.

This is somewhat of a concern, since the offense was notably hung up in scoring opportunities before J.T. came in as the red zone quarterback. So does Meyer turn to Braxton as the answer in the red zone? If Braxton can truly be a threat in the passing game, then that might open things up for Ohio State in red zone. Alternatively, it's possible we'll see the return of the Jalin Marshall hand-off run/pass option play that was turned in to a rushing attempt for a touchdown against Rutgers.

Field position should favor the Buckeyes pretty heavily here. While it's not a sexy statistic, a much better field position advantage will eventually lead to more scoring opportunities for Ohio State.

Finally, I'd expect Cardale to come fairly fired up for this one.

Not as much concern for the Minnesota offense

Minnesota misses David Cobb:

Minn. Offense OSU Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.23 80 1.26 72 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 39.3% 96 32.3% 9 40.4%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 29.1 90 25.1 3 29.9
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.84 117 4.03 29 4.67
Minn. Offense OSU Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
Rushing S&P+ 99.3 85 1.53 55 100.0
Passing S&P+ 109.8 44 126.4 11 100.0

David Cobb was one of the nation's leading rushers last season (unfortunately overshadowed by Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, and Tevin Coleman, Cobb had an excellent season last year). But now the Minnesota offense is primarily about quarterback Mitch Leidner, who is fairly efficient but not explosive as a passer.

His favorite target is senior KJ Maye, who gets a little less than a third of Leidner's targets and averages around ten yards per catch. The most explosive receiving option is Rashad Still, though he has just eight catches to his name so far. Like Leidner himself, the receiving corps isn't particularly explosive, which should benefit Ohio State's pass defense, which is far more efficient in pass defense than in preventing explosive pass plays, ranking first in passing success rate but 116th in passing IsoPPP. I don't think Minnesota has any players that can exploit that Buckeye weakness.

The run game has been a concern for the Ohio State defense in recent weeks, as the Buckeyes allowed mobile quarterback like Maryland's Perry Hills and explosive running backs like Penn State's Saquon Barkley to break big runs (Ohio State is 60th in rushing IsoPPP on defense). Here Minnesota does have a player with some breakout ability in freshman Shannon Brooks. Brooks is second in carries to Rodney Smith, who is far less explosive but more consistent. If Smith receives the bulk of the carries then I would imagine that Ohio State's defense will be fine.

Considering Ohio State's weaknesses and Minnesota's strengths on offense, it's hard to see the Gophers hitting many big plays. And if they don't hit big plays, then it's unlikely that Minnesota will often take advantage of scoring opportunities, ranking 117th in finishing drives.