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Ohio State should beat Michigan State, but a blowout is unlikely

Michigan State has struggled this year, but they're still an interesting matchup for Ohio State

It's been a rough year for Mark Dantonio and the Spartans. Michigan State won't go to a bowl game just a year after appearing in the  playoff. They've lost seven games this season and rank 66th in the S&P+.

Avg team talent Turnover margin Net explosiveness (10+) Net explosiveness (20+) IsoPPP
Ohio State 91.43 +13 (4th) +67 +23 1.20
Michigan State 87.11 -3 (93rd) +32 +5 1.29

If you go purely by the S&P+, the Spartans are the second-worst team that Ohio State has faced since Rutgers. If you're looking purely at the number of blue chippers on each team, the Buckeyes have 58 on the roster to the Spartans' 23. But the roster still holds a high overall average team talent rating because of the percentage of high three-star recruits on the roster.

Further, Michigan State has one of the better net explosiveness scores that we've seen in Big Ten play. The Spartans may have lost a lot of games, but they don't really get blown out.

S&P+ margin Volatility Floor Ceiling
Ohio State 28 (3rd) 25.6(106th) 2.4 53.6
Michigan State -.6(66th) 19.1 (54th) -19.7 18.5

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 8 2 55.5%(2) 75 42 41.7%(59) 59 34(8) 5.36(9)
Michigan St 55 63 41.8%(59) 62 105 43.9%(95) 30 29(72) 4.62(85)

  • As Christopher said in his review of the Maryland game, the Ohio State offensive staff has worked tirelessly to improve the passing game, particularly for intermediate and deep routes. While that will certainly be needed for a potential Big Ten Championship and/or playoff run, it'll also help against the Spartans this week. Michigan State has a mediocre run defense, but its pass defense is pretty awful -- among the worst in the country. Unlike previous seasons, where the Spartans secondary had incredible efficiency but could give up big plays due to man coverage, they are mostly inefficient but much better at preventing explosive plays given the high number of successful passes they allow. Ohio State is still not great in passing efficiency, but Barrett has certainly improved since his relatively poor showings against Indiana and Wisconsin.
  • Two big issues for the Spartans has been their pass rush, where they're sixth-worst in the country in adjusted sack rate despite having Malik McDowell on the line, and their passing downs defense. In particular, they allow a 36.3% passing downs success rate, which is 112th in the country.
  • The best scenario for Michigan State, like for most defenses Ohio State faces, is to limit the Buckeyes' standard downs rushing, then hope Barrett has an off day throwing on third downs. But it's hard to see the Buckeye offense slowing down unless Barrett has an off day. The Spartan defense is 106th in third downs S&P+, so Ohio State may be able to compensate for early down inefficiencies with successful third down passing.
  • As a result, it's fair to expect a good deal of standard downs passing, especially early on. The best part of the Spartans defense seems to be their performance against the run on standard downs (23rd in SD adjusted line yards per carry), their overall opportunity rate (25th), and their ability to create tackles for loss (27th in stuff rate). Given their mediocre overall opponent-adjusted run defense (63rd in rushing S&P+), the run defense seems to get tackles for loss or short gains most of the time, but the relatively infrequent efficient runs can be big. For instance, Michigan State is 23rd in opponent runs of 10+ yards, but 69th in 20+ yard runs. That suggests a lower-than-expected rushing efficiency rate, a few explosive runs, and an efficient passing day. Don't expect an absurd number of explosive plays regardless.

When Michigan 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 6 13 33.6%(11) 79 5 34%(10) 80 26(5) 2.94(4)
Michigan St 77 61 41.1%(86) 68 36 41%(64) 41 29(72) 4.12(92)

  • The Spartans were able to upset Ohio State last year despite starting a backup quarterback. Tyler O'Connor is likely to face the Buckeyes again, and he's been inconsistent this season. He's had three games with more than 30 attempts and he's thrown for over 9 yards per carry four times this year, but he's also had three games averaging six yards per carry or worse. Two other quarterbacks have played at various points this season, so it's pretty impressive that the Spartans passing game isn't any worse than 36th in passing S&P+. R.J. Shelton is the clear top receiver, with a quarter of the pass targets and the best yards/catch average among starting receivers (15.1).
  • But the Spartans offense seems to be too conservative and predictable, running on most standard downs (20th-most) and passing on most passing downs (95th in passing downs run rate). The rushing offense hasn't found its groove either, ranking 61st overall and 51st in adjusted line yards. Inconsistency is the big problem here as well: the offensive line allows tackles for loss on19.3% of runs (73rd), but gets running backs to 5+ yards on 42.1% of runs (35th). So that means nearly 40% of runs gain between 1-4 yards. Given that the Ohio State defense leads the country in stuff rate (at nearly 30% of opposing runs) and allows 5+ yard carries on only 30.4% of opposing runs (5th), there's not much evidence in the numbers that Sparty will be able to run effectively on the Buckeyes.
  • That said, LJ Scott is the (much) more efficient back, with a 41% opportunity rate, and Gerald Holmes is much less efficient but more explosive (averaging roughly 2 highlight yards per carry more, but an average of 7% lower opportunity rate).
  • Overall, Michigan State doesn't really do any single thing particularly well. R.J. Shelton gets credit as the clear top receiver, but no other part of the team is particularly good or bad. Without anything to hang their hat on, the Spartans have struggled on both sides of the ball.

The 3 most important stats to watch

  • Offensive standard downs passing success rate. Like every week, Barrett's passing efficiency will go a long way in determining how close this one is. The Buckeyes seem to be trending up in recent games, and they'll likely pass early and often to take advantage of Spart's biggest defensive weakness. If standard downs rushing success rate trails off a little -- i.e., if Sparty sells out to stop Weber, Barrett, and Samuel -- then Barrett will need to compensate with efficient standard downs passing.
  • Standard downs rushing success rate. The Spartans haven't been great at any one thing defensively -- except limiting efficiency on standard downs. They're ranked in the 20s in standard downs adjusted line yards and in overall stuff rate, so the Spartans will likely go all-in on that strength to put the Buckeyes behind the chains on early downs.
  • Defensive passing IsoPPP. The key defensively for the Buckeyes will be containing big passing plays. R.J. Shelton is the clear top threat, and Tyler O'Connor has managed a few big performances this year.


S&P+: Ohio State 41, Michigan State 15, win probability 93.4%

F/+: Ohio State by 24

Power Rank: Ohio State by 12, win probability 81%

My Pick: Ohio State 38, Michigan State 17