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Northwestern will be a good test for Ohio State offensive improvements

Northwestern isn't Penn State or Wisconsin, but they're still good enough to challenge the Buckeyes.

Northwestern vs. Ohio State may not move the needle much nationally, but it is interesting for two reasons: 1. How does Ohio State respond to losing last week but not being out of the playoff picture? 2. Can the offense fix its obvious problems during their three-game slide?

The issues last week were mostly obvious, including special teams errors and passing/offensive line struggles, but other problems were more subtle, like the gradually less efficient run game. Northwestern is a large step down in difficulty from the last three weeks, but should still challenge the Buckeyes' offense.

Avg team talent Turnover margin Net explosiveness (10+) Net explosiveness (20+) IsoPPP
Ohio State 91.43 +9 +44 +12 1.22(84th)
Northwestern 84.21 +4 -16 -9 1.19(100th)

Northwestern is significantly less talented than Ohio State, doesn't turn the ball over all that often, and isn't very explosive on offense.

S&P+ margin Volatility Floor Ceiling
Ohio State 24.9 25.2 -.3 50.2
Northwestern 2.4 13.8 -11.4 16.2

Going off of the volatility ceiling and floor (which have successfully captured the last two games for Ohio State), all the Buckeyes need to do is give an average performance to get a win. But due to S&P+ performances of 50% and 49% over the last two weeks, the Buckeyes are one of the most volatile teams in the country. Northwestern is only slightly better than the national S&P+ average, but an upset is still possible.

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 14 2 56.7%(2) 75 56 37.6%(96) 31 33.6(12) 5.98(4)
Northwestern 37 37 42%(67) 6 17 42.4%(83) 34 27.4(30) 3.73(19)

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.

  • Ohio State really struggled to run the ball against Penn State, but their season-long rushing averages still have them as the second-best rushing team in the country. But it's possible that the trend in declining rushing efficiency continues. Nothing about the Northwestern front seven suggests that it will -- they're ranked in the middle of the pack in defensive rushing success rate, adjusted line yards (41st), and opportunity rate (51st). So I'd expect Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel to run more efficiently against the Wildcats than they have the last few weeks -- and for J.T. to get far fewer carries unless the game is tight in the fourth quarter.
  • Expect to see J.T. throw the ball much more often on standard downs. Northwestern has a great passing downs defense (10th), and their success rate on passing downs (24.1%) is far better than their overall passing success rate (42.4%). That suggests that opponents haven't been effective throwing on obvious passing downs, but have seen some success otherwise. Given the passing game' struggles as well as Northwestern's strength on passing downs, I'd expect plenty of passing on early downs. Just don't expect these passes to go for explosive plays, because Northwestern is much better at keeping successful plays from becoming explosive ones than just preventing efficient passes in the first place. Given Ohio State's struggles completing deep passes anyway, this likely isn't the game where they figure things out, either.
  • One big reason for Northwestern's passing downs success relative to their standard downs pass defense is how much more effective their pass rush is: the Wildcats jump from 112th to 32nd in adjusted sack rate. Their only pass rusher to watch is former Ohio State recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo, who has 8 sacks and 9 tackles for loss this year. Shut him down on passing downs (and avoid third-and-long in the first place) and J.T. shouldn't have to run for his life like he did last week. It's also worth watching how the offensive coaching staff changes schematically to support Isaiah Prince in pass protection.
  • First down may win Ohio State the game: Northwestern's defense is 11th and 22nd in second- and third-down S&P+, but 90th on first down. Ohio State's offense is just about the opposite: 5th on first down, 54th on second, and 25th on third down.
  • Northwestern plays with good field position (30th) and only allows 3.73 points per scoring opportunity (19th). That's a frustrating combination for a lot of offenses, because it means that the Buckeyes might have to string longer drives together, then there's potential to come up short in the red zone. Ohio State had to settle for field goal attempts against Penn State, but they're typically excellent at getting touchdowns from their scoring opportunities.

When Northwestern 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 23 35.4%(16) 62 5 32.9%(7) 96 25.7(7) 3.61(18)
Northwestern 75 106 35.7%(120) 48 66 44.2%(35) 120 29.3(78) 4.41(93)

  • There's not too much to fear from the Northwestern offense. It's not very efficient on the ground (120th in success rate, 106th in overall S&P+), they struggle to create explosive passes through the air, and the struggle getting touchdowns from their scoring opportunities. The Buckeye defense should have a good game.
  • Northwestern has a decently effective short passing game -- quarterback Clayton Thorson has a 44.2% success rate but averages only six yards per attempt. They rank 120th in passing explosiveness, meaning that despite their decently high passing success rate, they struggle to create anything explosive. Penn State was able to exploit a few Buckeye defensive backs in man coverage (even the typically elite Lattimore and Conley), but there's nothing here to suggest Northwestern can do the same. Their clear top receiver is Austin Carr -- he gets a third of the targets in the passing game -- and he is fairly reliable with a 67% success rate.
  • The biggest thing to watch may be in how much time the front seven spends in the Northwestern backfield: they rank 86th in adjusted sack rate and 103rd in rushing stuff rate, meaning Ohio State (9th in overall havoc rate, first in stuff rate) should at least stop the run, and likely pressure Thorson in the passing game as well.

The 3 most important stats

  • Rushing success rate for Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel: Will the declining rushing efficiency continue even against a mediocre run defense?
  • Passing success rate (on standard downs): After last week's abysmal passing performance, the Buckeyes will have to show some improvement to stay in the playoff hunt. Adjusted sack rate would be the key metric here, but Northwestern only has one proven pass rusher.
  • First down S&P+: The Ohio State offense is elite on first downs (except for last week), and Northwestern's defense is terrible on first down but elite on second and third. Ohio State will need second- and third-and-short.

Picks

S&P+: Ohio State 39, Northwestern 14, 92.6% win probability

F/+: Ohio State by 19.5

My Pick: Ohio State 38, Northwestern 14