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Penn State's inconsistent but explosive offense could be trouble for Ohio State

Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley break big plays, but they might be too inconsistent to get the upset.

Penn State has faced three opponents ranked better than 46th in the S&P+ this season. They lost two of those games -- to 38th-ranked Pitt and top-ranked Michigan -- and beat 32nd-ranked Minnesota by a field goal. The Nittany Lions have only seen elite competition once this year and they’re 1-1 against teams in the S&P+ top 40.

Avg team talent Turnover margin Net explosiveness (10+) Net explosiveness (20+) IsoPPP
Ohio State 91.43 +8 (5th) +43 +14 1.18 (100th)
Penn State 87.05 -2 (82nd) -10 +10 1.42 (16th)

One of the key factors evaluating this game is just how explosive Penn State's offense is. There's a lot of seemingly-conflicting advanced stats that we'll get in to later, but the big things to take away from this chart is that Penn State is one of the most talented teams Ohio State's  faced so far, they fumble a lot, and they're either extremely net explosive or extremely net un-explosive ... depending where you look.

Last week we also discussed a new concept -- team volatility. Team volatility helps describe a team's floor and ceiling and is noted in terms of a team's projected S&P+ point margin over an average FBS team. I'm a big fan of Bill's data here because it captures the fact that a lot of team's may play above or below their average S&P+ rating on a given week -- you can be good or bad and consistent or inconsistent.

Last week we noted that based on the Badgers' and Buckeyes' S&P+ ratings, Ohio State would need to play just above their average performance in order to beat a Wisconsin team playing at their theoretical ceiling. Using the S&P+ percentile performance information, Ohio State had a dismal 46% performance while Wisconsin played their absolute best game of the season at 94%. That lined up perfectly with the volatility information -- we ended up with a tie game in regulation. So what does the volatility information say about Penn State this week?

S&P+ margin Volatility Floor Ceiling
Ohio State 27 (3rd) 23.9 3.1 50.9
Penn State 13.8 (20th) 20.9 (84th) -7.1 34.7

There's a fairly wide overlap between the two teams' floors and ceilings (Ohio State playing a 3.1 floor and Penn State at a 34.7 ceiling), which means that the Buckeyes can absolutely be upset if they play below their average level of play and if Penn State plays (fairly significantly) above their average. That's what makes the Vegas spread for this game so interesting -- it seems extremely high.

It's certainly possible that Ohio State fixes the issues that Wisconsin exposed last week and beats Penn State resoundingly. And it's also possible that the Buckeyes are far less volatile from here on out -- after all, prior to the 46% performance in the Wisconsin game, their percentile performances had all been between 84% and 95%. But an upset, or at least a close game, is certainly not unreasonable.

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 2 59.8%(1) 94 34 43.2%(46) 35 35.3(3) 6.17 (2)
Penn State 17 33 38.5%(44) 114 40 39.4%(54) 16 29.5(72) 4.38(42)
    Just a few notes about the data in the chart here -- all numbers are rankings except for the success rate percentages, the average field position (which is just the actual average starting field position), and the drives number not in parentheses, which is the average points scored per trip inside an opponents' 40 yard line.
  • This is not the Penn State defense from a year ago. Last year's defensive front featured Anthony Zettel and Carl Nassib, who combined for 19.5 sacks and 30.5 tackles for loss for the tenth-rated S&P+ pass defense and the ninth overall havoc rating. Now Penn State is 40th against the pass and 27th in havoc rate. This is still a top-20 defense overall according to S&P+, but it's not at the same level as last year's aggressive unit.
  • Following, the Penn State defense is good at most things, but not elite in any one area either. Where Wisconsin was average on standard downs but maybe the country's best third-down or passing downs defense, Penn State is ranked somewhere between 30th and 50th in almost every opponent-adjusted defensive category.
  • Both the run and pass defenses are good, not great. The run defense struggles with big plays, while the pass defense allows more shorter completions with more efficiency. I don't think this will be the return of the deep passing game for Ohio State, but I wouldn't be surprised if J.T. has his most consistent passing game of the last three weeks. Passing downs shouldn't be as harrowing for Penn State, since they rank 48th in passing downs S&P+ and 36th in third downs S&P+.
  • A fast start offensive would be huge for two reasons. First is the less-quantifiable factor of shutting down a hostile environment. Penn State's night game atmosphere can be intimidating, so a quick start should quiet the crowd noise (though after night road trip top-ten matchups with Wisconsin and Oklahoma, Ohio State is certainly experienced here). Second, Penn State's defense is terrible in the first quarter. They start as the 103rd-ranked S&P+ defense in the first quarter before improving to average 23rd in S&P+ for the remainder of the game. That doesn't really match up well for the Ohio State offense, which has been relatively slow-starting and then elite in the middle of games (23rd in first quarter S&P+, 3rd and 16th in second and third quarter S&P+).
  • The biggest offensive advantage for Ohio State looks to be how efficiently they should be able to move the ball on the ground. The key stat here is opportunity rate -- the percentage of runs that gain at least five yards. Penn State is allowing over 40% of runs to go for 5+ yards (88th). The Buckeyes are second in the country in opportunity rate with over 51% of their runs going for 5+. Penn State is decent at getting in to the backfield (37th in stuff rate) and OK at adjusted line yards (40th), but terrible at letting successful runs turn in to huge plays (114th in IsoPPP) and allow far too many efficient runs in the first place. So what that equates to is a defensive front that will make a tackle for loss about once every five runs, but frequently allow 5+ runs that can often turn in to huge runs. That's great news for the Weber, Samuel, Barrett trio. Look for Mike Weber to get more involved than he's been in the last two weeks.

When Penn 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 7 30 37.1%(29) 63 7 33.6%(11) 69 24.7(3) 3.35(12)
Penn State 37 6 43.2%(60) 81 2 37.9%(92) 5 33.9(12) 4.69(69)

  • This is where things get interesting. Few disagree that Ohio State should be able to put up points on the Penn State defense, but there's significant disagreement about the state of Penn State's offense. Part of that comes from their apparent growth this season. From 73% and 57% S&P+ performances in the first two weeks to 95% and 93% performances in the last two weeks, the Nittany Lions have shown incredible progress since the beginning of the season (except for the Michigan game, where they were held to ten points and a 58% performance).
  • But there's also disagreement because the advanced stats ratings are confusing on first look. They have a top-6 attack both on the ground and through the air according to the opponent-adjusted numbers, but rank 60th, 81st, and 92nd in rushing success rate, rushing explosiveness, and passing success rate respectively. So what's causing the incredible variations between their adjusted and unadjusted ratings outside of their improvement throughout the season? Really, it all has to do with Michigan. Michigan, the top ranked overall team in the S&P+ right now, is also top in defensive S&P+ -- but by a huge margin. Against an average team, Michigan's defense is projected to average allowing less than a single point. The second-ranked defense, Clemson's, is projected to average a little over 11 points (Ohio State's is 15 points, for reference). Penn State didn't have a great game against Michigan, but almost every one of Michigan's opponents gets a little bump in their opponent-adjusted numbers. Their quality performance against Minnesota (18th in defensive S&P+) is another factor helping their opponent-adjusted numbers.
  • But that doesn't change the two big things that Penn State's offense has going for it: Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley's explosiveness. The Penn State offensive line has struggled to consistently open holes for Barkley, ranking 79th in opportunity rate, and they've frequently allowed him to get tackled in the backfield. In fact, Penn State runners have gotten hit in the backfield on 22% of attempts, or 107th in the country. But if Barkley especially does get an opening, he's liable to break a big run. To break his performance down further, he gets five yards on just a third of his carries, but he averages 7.6 highlight yards for each efficient run he does get. Highlight yards are counted after the offensive line's theoretical responsibility ends, so essentially that means that the line often lets him down, but that he makes big plays whenever he gets an opportunity.
  • That's kind of the experience for the entire Penn State offense: inconsistent and not very efficient, but incredibly explosive when they get an opportunity. McSorely is the same way: 92nd in passing success rate with a 58.2% completion percentage, but fifth in passing IsoPPP. If you look at their explosive plays, you'll see the same trend: their 113th in 10+ yard plays, but 18th in the number of 40+ yard plays, and 13th in 50+ yard plays. Ohio State's offensive is almost completely the opposite -- they have only one play of 50+ yards this year, but 105 of 10+ yards.
  • So the answer to stopping the Penn State offense is pretty simple: be aggressive and create big negative plays -- which shouldn't be too tough, given that they're 40th in adjusted sack rate and 107th in stuff rate while Ohio State is 11th in overall havoc rate and sixth in defensive stuff rate -- and prevent the Penn State offense from creating big plays. That is a little bit of a concern, given Jazz Peavy and Corey Clement's success last week, and would likely be how Penn State either gets the upset or keeps it close -- by creating explosive plays, especially in looks that Ohio State didn't prepare for given the Nittany Lions' bye week last week.
  • There's a decent chance that those big plays are incredibly annoying too. Penn State's big plays come far more often than average on passing downs rather than standard downs. So yes, the Buckeyes may get a tackle for loss on a drive and put the Penn State offense behind the chains in terms of standard downs efficiency, but then they could just respond with an out-of-nowhere big strike on passing downs. The Nittany Lions are second in the country in passing downs IsoPPP. They aren't efficient still -- with successful plays on under a third of their passing downs attempts -- but their successful plays are often very explosive on passing downs. That's how Trace McSorley's developed a gunslinger reputation.
  • The good news here is that the Buckeye secondary has been good on passing downs -- 17th in passing downs S&P+. And they've got the rushmen package, which should haunt both the Penn State offensive line and of course, Trace McSorley. Penn State is 73rd in passing downs adjusted sack rate.
  • Finally, elite field position and finishing drives have been two of the Buckeyes' key reasons for defensive success this season -- they rank between 2nd and 12th in both offensive and defensive field position and scoring opportunities. Penn State is solid in offensive starting field position, but struggle scoring touchdowns in the red zone, averaging 4.7 points per scoring opportunity (69th). Ohio State allows an average of 3.35 points per scoring opportunity (12th). Keeping Penn State out of the end zone on big plays will be critical.

The 4 most important stats

  • Offensive rushing opportunity rate. Ohio State's offense should be able to run the ball efficiently, with a high number of 5+ yard runs, and with a decent number of those efficient runs that gain much more.
  • Defensive havoc rate/stuff rate. The defense has a clear advantage in creating negative plays, especially on the ground. They'll need to keep the Penn State offense off their game through negative plays. It's especially important to take advantage of passing downs, where Penn State allows a high percentage of sacks. The Rushmen have to get to their target.
  • Defensive rushing and passing IsoPPP. The Nittany Lions offense has been inefficient and inconsistent, but has hit big plays almost every time they get an opportunity. And they've been getting more successful as the season has gone on. The Buckeye defense clamped down in the second half against Wisconsin, but this might be the critical difference between a blowout Ohio State win and a close game like last week.
  • Defensive finishing drives. The Buckeyes have an apparent advantage in keeping the Nittany Lions out of the end zone on scoring opportunities. They'll have to prevent explosive plays from becoming six points.


The team volatility numbers suggest that this is a top 5 lock for Penn State to cover the spread, but Ohio State to win.

S&P+: Ohio State 33, Penn State 21. 73.2% win probability

F/+: Ohio State by 10.7

My pick: Ohio State 42, Penn State 21.