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Michigan State exploited Ohio State's 2 main weaknesses

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The Spartans got close to the upset by targeting the Buckeyes' volatile passing game and hitting explosive plays on defense.

The numbers predicted a blowout win over the Spartans. The only caveats would be if the passing game was sloppy, if the weather was bad, or if the offensive coaching staff got conservative.

And just like that (along with some gutsy playcalling from the Spartans), a team with a 28-point S&P+ margin went down to the wire with a team whose S&P+ ceiling was just 18.5 points. That's pretty typical for Ohio State-Michigan State since Meyer and Dantonio have been in charge.

But still, if you would've told me that Ohio State would win the turnover battle and hold Michigan State quarterbacks to 8/21 passing, then I would've predicted the blowout that the advanced stats did. But as the volatility stats show -- Ohio State is the 13th-most volatile team in the country -- the Buckeyes are capable of incredible week-to-week variation in play. And this week that showed up in the offense's inability to take advantage of scoring opportunities and in losing the explosive play battle.

Ohio St MSU
Rushing SR 55% 45%
Rushing exp plays 3 (9%) 5 (15%)
Passing SR 29% 29%
Passing exp plays 1 (5%) 1 (5%)
Red zone TDs 50% 50%
Scoring opps efficiency 3.4 4.0
Drive efficiency 45% 33% (2)
Pts off turnovers 0 0

In the table above, scoring opportunity efficiency looks at the average points scored per scoring opportunity -- drives with a first down past the opponents' 40 yard line. Drive efficiency looks at the percentage of drives that were scoring opportunities. The number in parentheses is the number of three-and-outs the offense had. The number in parentheses in the Pts off turnovers row is the number of turnover opportunities the Ohio State offense had to score and includes turnovers on downs. These stats only include stats up to the first two drives of the second half.

In the advanced stats preview we noted that three advanced stats would matter most:

  • 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 Sparty'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.

Passing sloppiness

The 2016 Buckeyes are capable of wide swings in performance for two main reasons: if the passing offense has an off day or if the defense allows explosive plays. Both were issues against Michigan State, but the passing offense was the most egregious.

On the season J.T. has a 41.7% passing success rate, which isn't great -- but it's clear that there are also on- and off-days. It's not just a static and inefficient passing game, but there are decent swings in Barrett's week-to-week efficiency. The Spartans aren't great in pass defense, either, at 95th in passing success rate, but J.T. had just a 29% passing success rate this week.

Some of that was due to a relatively down day for the offensive line, and a large percentage of the performance can be attributed to the weather, but that kind of performance also isn't out of line with the offense's floor on a good-weather day, either.

Containing explosive passes

The only defensive key for the Buckeyes was to contain a potential explosive passing game. The concern pre-game was R.J. Shelton, but he was held to just one catch for five yards. In fact, the Spartans' only real offensive weapon was L.J. Scott.

In fact, all three of the Spartans' scoring drives came following an L.J. Scott explosive play on first down. Especially early on, the Spartans' offensive staff had a few scripted misdirection plays to take advantage of the Buckeyes' defense.

Scoring opportunity inefficiency

The Ohio State offense is one of the best in the country at maximizing efficiency from scoring opportunities, averaging 5.36 points per scoring opportunity. Against the Spartans, they averaged just 3.4 points -- and the Michigan State defense allows an average of 4.6 points per scoring opportunity typically.

If the offense had played to its average level when they crossed the MSU 40 yard line, they would have scored 27 points for a double digit margin in line with what The Power Rank numbers projected.

Instead, passing inefficiency (leading to their first field goal), a fumble (on their next possession), and sacks (on their first possession and on the field goal drive) doomed the Buckeyes' scoring opportunities. Overall, it wasn't a great day for the offensive line, with the Spartans sending multiple blitzers without fear of getting burned by the Buckeyes' passing game.