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Wisconsin will be the toughest defensive test for Ohio State so far

J.T. and the passing game have to improve this week, but that may be difficult given the weather forecast.

Ohio State enters into a difficult match up with an elite Wisconsin defense. Not only is their defense one of the best in the country, it's a night game at Camp Randall, with rain likely at night, and with Wisconsin coming off a bye week.

The Buckeyes are more talented, but this is the best defense the Buckeyes will have faced so far. The Wisconsin offense hasn't shown much, with a fairly inefficient run game and an inexperienced quarterback, but they've also had an extra week to get healthy and game plan.

Avg team talent Turnover margin Net explosiveness (10+) Net explosiveness (20+) IsoPPP
Ohio State 91.43 +8 (4th) +40 +16 1.21 (94th)
Wisconsin 84.05 0 (56th) +16 +2 1.14 (115th)

Bill C. also recently introduced team volatility -- essentially the standard deviation of opponent-adjusted game adjusted scoring margin (you can find the opponent-unadjusted scoring margins in a team's stat profile). S&P+ (margin) is essentially how well a team should perform against a theoretical average opponent. Ohio State, at third in the overall S&P+ rankings, has an S&P+ margin of 28 points. If you add in their volatility (11.1 points so far this season), then their range is from 39.1-16.9 points better than the average team. That volatility range is the 16th-most consistent of any team so far this season.

Wisconsin's S&P+ margin is 11.9, with a volatility of 17.3 (58th most consistent). So their range is from 29.2 to -5.4. The overlap between the two teams' ranges is essentially where Wisconsin can upset Ohio State -- and the size of that overlap is 12.3 points. That scenario is where Ohio State plays at their theoretical worst and Wisconsin plays at their theoretical best. This more or less suggests that the Buckeyes have to at least have a little better than average performance (28 S&P+ margin) to win against Wisconsin's best (29.2 S&P+ margin).

When Ohio State has the ball

S&P+ Rush S&P+ Rush SR Rush IsoPPP Pass S&P+ Pass SR Pass IsoPPP Avg FP Drives
Ohio State 11 3 62.2% (1) 88 46 42.6% (56) 35 35.6 (6) 6.49 (1)
Wisconsin 6 9 34.5% (22) 5 15 33.9% (20) 59 25.8 (11) 2.9 (3)
  • The Ohio State offense was an unstoppable juggernaut of efficiency both through the air and on the ground until the Indiana game, where the inefficient passing game reappeared. According to CFB Film Room, J.T. was 1-7 on passes thrown 10+ yards downfield against Indiana. That kind of inefficiency would put the Buckeyes in position to lose to the Badgers (and teams like Nebraska, Penn State, and Michigan). J.T.'s passing -- primarily success rate, but also explosive plays -- will be what I watch the most (unless it's a downpour).
  • If the Wisconsin defense has any weaknesses -- and they have few, ranking 9th and 15th in rushing and passing S&P+ -- then it's that the successful passes they do allow tend to be pretty explosive plays. They rank 59th in passing IsoPPP, but this isn't usually a problem considering they allow just a 34% passing success rate; however, if weather isn't a debilitating factor for the passing offense, then I can imagine Curtis Samuel breaking a few receptions for big gains. And Noah Brown won't be short on motivation.
  • The Wisconsin run defense is extremely solid. At ninth overall and 22nd in success rate, they will be a challenge for the Buckeye running backs. I expect the Buckeyes to use tempo and increase Weber and especially Samuel's snaps relative to Barrett to counteract the stout run defense. Ohio State will find success running the ball -- they're top-ranked in every major run-blocking category except for stuff rate, where they're second -- but this is definitely the best run defense that Ohio State has faced this year. Oklahoma's defense will be second-best at 17th in rushing S&P+. Also look for more short-yardage, high-percentage passes and screens as an extension of the run game. This is something we haven't seen much of this year.
  • The first quarter could be slow once again. Ohio State is 42nd in overall offensive S&P+ in the first quarter, while the Wisconsin defense is ninth.
  • The Wisconsin defense thrives on passing downs, ranking second overall on third downs S&P+ and 11th in passing downs S&P+. Their pass rush jumps from 100th in standard downs sack rate to 19th. When the Wisconsin defense puts opposing offenses behind schedule, they are extremely effective. Ohio State's offense is worst in these situations, ranking second in standard downs S&P+ but 48th in passing downs S&P+. Further, they're top overall in first down S&P+ but 59th in third downs S&P+. That means that the Buckeyes must continue to be efficient on early downs to have shorter (and fewer) third down attempts when Wisconsin is at their best. It also means that third-and-longs will likely be rough for Ohio State without significant improvements in passing efficiency.

When Wisconsin has the ball

S&P+ Rush S&P+ Rush SR Rush IsoPPP Pass S&P+ Pass SR Pass IsoPPP Avg FP Drives
Ohio State 7 4 33.3%(16) 9 5 32.4%(11) 68 24.5(5) 3.18(9)
Wisconsin 100 43 37.6%(106) 107 13 43.2%(48) 99 31.6(42) 4.19(104)

  • Quarterback Alex Hornibrook took over for original starter Bart Houston and has had mixed results depending on his opponents. Overall he's completing 56% of his passes at 6.2 yards per attempt, but he's also only played against one defense on Ohio State's level -- Michigan's. Against Michigan, he averaged 3.5 yards per attempt and threw three interceptions. The offense produced only three scoring opportunities and had just a 21% overall success rate. Michigan currently has the top-ranked S&P+ defense while Ohio State's is seventh. So overall Hornibrook has struggled against the only quality competition he's faced, but the passing offense is nevertheless ranked 13th in passing S&P+ -- how is that? I'd imagine it has to do with the at-least average success rate against two elite pass defenses in LSU and Michigan. With that level of defensive competition, the S&P+ opponent-adjusted ranking looks much more favorably on the Badgers' passing offense.
  • Regardless, the Badgers aren't going to be slinging the football around the field. They typically run on standard downs (68.2% of the time) and pass on passing downs (70% of the time). In his last two starts, Hornibrook has had 26 and 25 attempts, however. They're successful throwing on passing downs, however, ranking 18th in passing downs S&P+ despite being dead-last in passing downs line yards per carry. That means that the Badgers really struggle to run on passing downs, but still manage to convert a decent amount of third downs given their defensive competition (41.6%) due to their passing game.
  • There are three Badger receivers to know. Their big-play, low-percentage guy is Jazzy Peavy. Peavy is targeted the most of any receiver (nearly 30%), but has under a 45% catch rate. Robert Wheelwright has been nearly as explosive but much more consistent (64% catch rate). And tight end Troy Fumagalli is third-most targeted on the team, but has the highest receiving success rate. No other receivers have more than ten total targets. The biggest matchup issue for Ohio State is likely the tight end, who has the size (6'6) to go over most defensive backs.
  • The Badgers rushing offense hasn't recovered from losing Melvin Gordon. Corey Clement has struggled with injuries and has just a 25.6% opportunity rate this year. That's well below the three other backs in the committee, who are at 31.8%, 54.2%, and 45%. Overall, the offensive line has been effective preventing negative plays (27th in stuff rate), but they and the backs haven't found much success creating efficient runs over 5+ yards (110th in opportunity rate). I'd be surprised if the running backs find a ton of running room against the Ohio State defense, which is fourth in defensive rushing S&P+ thanks to the stellar play of the front seven. That front seven has a 98.9% tackle success rate according to CFB Film Room.
  • Like last week, unless the Badgers catch some field position breaks from special teams or turnovers, there's not much to suggest that they can move the ball very effectively on the Ohio State defense, but the biggest advantage Ohio State has in finishing drives. Here Wisconsin is 104th, averaging just 4.19 points per scoring opportunity, while the Ohio State defense clamps down, averaging just over a field goal allowed when opponents drive past the Buckeye 40-yard line.

The 3 most important stats

  • Defensive finishing drives. One of Ohio State's biggest defensive advantages is in points allowed per scoring opportunity, where the Buckeyes average a full point less per scoring opportunity than the Wisconsin offense typically scores. If the Badgers put a drive together, look for more field goals from Wisconsin than touchdowns.
  • Standard downs success rate. Ohio State has been the best in the country at efficient standard downs, but has been poor on passing downs. Wisconsin has been elite on passing downs, creating sacks and generating havoc. The Buckeyes must avoid passing downs when possible and not get behind schedule.
  • Passing success rate. The passing game is back to being the biggest concern for this Ohio State team, and Ohio State must be efficient through the air to keep pressure off of the run game. The weather might make this difficult.


S&P+: Ohio State 30, Wisconsin 16, 78% win probability

My pick: Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 13