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Ohio State will likely have another close game against Nebraska

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Nebraska's weaknesses don't align very well with Ohio State's strengths.

Another week, another ranked matchup. Nebraska is Ohio State’s fourth top-25 S&P+ opponent this season, but the Buckeyes at least benefit from a home field matchup -- hopefully with a more inspired effort than last week's closer-than-expected win over Northwestern.

National perception has cooled some on Ohio State, as the offense has shown a surprising decline in rushing efficiency along with a lack of an explosive passing game. While there are several specific matchups that Ohio State can exploit, many of their main strengths don't align with Nebraska's weaknesses.

Avg team talent Turnover margin Net explosiveness (10+) Net explosiveness (20+) Net IsoPPP
Ohio State 91.43 +10 +44 +11 -.06
Nebraska 86.19 +5 +23 +8 -.06

Looking at the volatility ceiling and floor data below, you can see two things. First, Ohio State is one of the most volatile teams in the country (118th). Second, Ohio State has a much higher ceiling than Nebraska, but its floor is roughly the same, meaning that there is a lot of room for a close game or an upset unless the Buckeyes play above their average. In the box plot below, you can ignore the first and third quartiles of the box itself -- the whiskers represent the floor and ceiling, and the box line represents the average S&P+ margin.

S&P+ margin Volatility Floor Ceiling
Ohio State 25.4 27.7 (118th) -2.3 53.1
Nebraska 12.4 17.3 (48th) -4.9 29.7


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 3 54.6%(3) 70 50 38.8%(86) 43 32.9(17) 5.78(7)
Nebraska 23 69 36.9%(23) 124 24 40.4%(66) 5 27.5(31) 3.59(14)

  • The big question this week will be whether the Buckeyes will be able to run the ball on the Nebraska defense. On (the advanced stats) paper, the Huskers have only the 69th-ranked opponent-adjusted run defense -- but in unadjusted rushing success rate, their defense is top-25, allowing just around 37% of opponent runs as efficient towards picking up a first down. There are two reasons for the difference between the Huskers' opponent-adjusted ranking and their rushing success rate. First, the quality of competition is a big factor. The Huskers have held all but three teams to under 4.3 yards per carry and only two teams have rushed for over 200 yards -- Wisconsin and Oregon. Oregon ran for 7.2 yards per carry and 336 total rushing yards. Neither of those teams has a rushing offense like Ohio State's. Second, Nebraska's main problem in run defense is that they allow a high number of explosive runs. The front seven isn't great getting in to the backfield, stuffing only 19.5% of runs (62nd), but they limit most runs to under five yards (19th in opportunity rate). The problem for the Huskers defense is that opposing running backs have tended to turn any opportunity they do get into an explosive play. Even the unadvanced total rushing stats show this too: Nebraska is 19th in runs of 5+ yards, a respectable 30th in runs of 10+ yards, but tied for 59th in runs of 30+ yards.
  • So what does that mean for Ohio State? That weakness doesn't exactly play in to Ohio State's hands. First, all year the Buckeyes' run game has been far better at producing efficient but non-explosive runs. Second, one of the major trends we've seen over the last four weeks is that the offense's rushing efficiency has declined. Potentially because of the lack of balance from the passing game, the steadiness of the run game has also been hurt and Ohio State hasn't had a 100-yard rusher since Mike Weber hit the mark against Rutgers. Curtis Samuel is certainly capable of producing electrifying runs (and Weber is too, just not nearly as often as Samuel), so we could be in store for a moderately efficient rushing performance -- somewhere around a 52% rushing success rate -- that's broken up by the occasional 30-yard carry.
  • Nebraska's pass defense is almost the opposite of its run defense -- great opponent-adjusted overall pass defense that prevents big plays (fifth in IsoPPP), but allows a number of shorter, efficient passes. Most opponents average a little over 6 yards per attempt against Nebraska. Last week's gameplan -- hitting the edges with quick screens, flares, and swing passes on standard downs -- is likely what we'll against Nebraska as well.
  • The other takeaway from the Nebraska pass defense is that their defensive backs -- particularly upperclassmen safeties Nathan Gerry and Kieron Williams -- are ball hawks. Those two safeties alone have eight interceptions this season. The defensive line hasn't created a ton of havoc outside of senior end Ross Dzuris (4.5 sacks, 7.5 TFLs), but the safeties have been excellent at flipping the field through interceptions.
  • Finally, Nebraska is excellent in red zone defense, ranking 30th in red zone touchdown percentage (52.6%) and 14th in average points allowed per scoring opportunity. This could lead to a field goal try or two that otherwise would be a touchdown against a worse defense.

When Nebraska 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 18 35.4%(17) 83 8 34.5%(13) 75 25.5(7) 3.78(21)
Nebraska 37 83 45.3%(45) 122 24 42.8%(46) 13 33.3(13) 4.92(50)

  • Nebraska's offense hinges on Tommy Armstrong and the passing game, and even further, it hinges on the explosive passing game. Armstrong completes just 53% of his passes and as a 42.8% success rate (which is still better than Ohio State's), but the Huskers rank 13th in passing IsoPPP, meaning that the passes they do complete are often fairly explosive. Two of Armstrong's top receiving targets average over 20 yards per catch (though one of them has just a 39% catch rate). Ohio State's pass defense rarely allows successful passes (13th in passing success rate), but has a tendency to allow big passes when they are completed. The potential best-case scenario for the Huskers is to replicate Penn State's explosiveness with a little better efficiency. This is the primary concern for Ohio State's defense -- the Buckeyes have shown a consistent ability to limit the run and the pass, but they are susceptible to the occasional big play. Enough big plays -- whether its Clayton Thorson running for 35 yards, Corey Clement hitting the edge, or Trace McSorley beating man coverage on consecutive plays -- and Nebraska can drive down the field quickly.
  • The second defensive key will be keeping big plays from getting in the end zone. Nebraska averages just 4.92 points per scoring opportunity (potentially because they can't run the ball very effectively), so the Buckeye red zone defense should step up when forced. But big plays could negate the red zone defensive efficiency unless they're somewhat contained.
  • Huskers fans have seen a lot more of Good Tommy Armstrong than Bad Tommy Armstrong this year. He has two multi-interception games (against Indiana and Wisconsin), but is overall much more careful with the ball than he's been in previous seasons. Malik Hooker and company are generally good for an interception per game -- and Armstrong has thrown six in his last four games.
  • There's not much to worry about for the Huskers' ground game. They're 107th in adjusted line yards, 83rd in rushing S&P+, and 63rd in opportunity rate with just 40.2% of their carries going for 5+ yards. What's worse is that they're 110th in stuff rate, with nearly a quarter of runs going for no gain or a loss. Ohio State is the best in the country at defensive stuff rate, with 29.3% of opposing runs getting stopped at or behind the line. That's likely why Nebraska ranks 79th in standard downs S&P+, where they run on 72% of plays.

The 4 most important stats

  1. Defensive passing IsoPPP (Nebraska's explosive passing): The one major area where Nebraska seems to have an advantage over the Ohio State defense is in passing IsoPPP. The Buckeye defense rarely allows efficient passes, but the ones they do tend to be big plays.
  2. Rushing IsoPPP (big Ohio State runs): The Buckeye run game hasn't been dominant since the Rutgers game, but the Nebraska defense has a poor rushing IsoPPP, meaning that the successful runs they do allow tend to be fairly big. Explosive running hasn't been one of Ohio State's strong points unless Curtis Samuel is heavily involved in the ground game, so it's not clear whether Ohio State can take advantage of this weakness.
  3. Passing success rate: Ohio State's passing success rate has declined in Big Ten play despite a better showing for short-yardage passing last week. We're likely to see more of that against Nebraska -- but the Nebraska defense has been solid preventing big passing plays.
  4. Defensive rushing stuff rate. Maybe the most lopsided matchup is between the Ohio State run defense and the Nebraska rushing offense. The Nebraska offensive line allows an incredibly high number of stuffed runs, and the Ohio State defense is the best in the country at creating them.

Picks

S&P+: Ohio State 35, Nebraska 20, win probability 81.5%

F/+: Ohio State by 13.6

My Pick: Ohio State 31, Nebraska 21