A few weeks ago we identified the three most important statistics that would determine the Buckeyes' 2016 season. Those were defensive adjusted line yards (the defensive line's ability to stop the run), passing PPP+ (the passing game's ability to create explosive plays and be efficient per-snap), and defensive passing PPP+ (the secondary's ability to limit explosive plays in particular).
Those three statistics tie back to three position groups that experienced a great deal of personnel turnover -- and the receivers and secondary in particular are where experience seems to be the most important.
Last week we looked at the pass defenses the Buckeyes will face this season — half of their opponents had statistically elite secondaries last year — but this week we’ll look at the opposing rushing attacks that the defensive line will have to prepare for.
|Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability||2015 Rushing S&P+|
|at Penn State||28||1.6||54%||53|
|at Michigan State||22||-0.7||48%||91|
The Buckeyes face five top-40 rushing attacks this season: Bowling Green (?!), Oklahoma, Indiana, Nebraska, and Maryland. Let's break these down a little further:
Bowling Green's third-ranked rushing attack
Bowling Green surprisingly had the third-best rushing attack in the country last season, so the Buckeyes will be tested right out of the gate. The caveat here is that they also lost a lot of personnel over the offseason, including head coach Dino Babers.
First, starting running back Travis Greene, a nearly 1,300-yard rusher, is gone. But his replacement, senior backup Fred Coppet had nearly identical per-play effectiveness last year, averaging the same highlight yards per opportunity (5.3) and just 1% lower opportunity rate (42%). So personnel-wise, the Bowling Green attack shouldn't see much of a drop-off, and should be at least decently efficient, if not the most explosive rushing attack possible. Further, sophomore Matt Domer only had eight touches last year, but was incredibly explosive, averaging 14.6 highlight yards per opportunity. With personnel losses at quarerback and the top two wide receivers, it's possible that the Falcons rely more on the run at least early on.
The Oklahoma offensive jugernaut
The Buckeye defense will obviously have a lot to worry about in week three. Once you get past Heisman candidate Baker Mayfield at quarterback, there's the running back duo of Samaje Perine (the current record holder for rushing yards in a game), and the higher-rated recruit Joe Mixon.
While the duo combines for one of the best backfields in the country talent-wise, they had a few distinct weaknesses. First, they were "only" 28th in rushing S&P+ last year. This was primarily due to relatively poor efficiency, ranking 58th in rushing success rate. As Bill mentions,
When Oklahoma's offense struggled, the run game was the likely culprit. Against Tennessee, Texas, and Clemson -- OU's two losses and the closest thing to a third -- Perine and Mixon carried a combined 67 times for 238 yards, just 3.6 per carry."
It also doesn't help that the Sooners lose their top two offensive linemen, both All-Big 12 picks.
However, their danger comes from explosiveness. Perine and Mixon average 6.3 and 7 highlight yards per opportunity, so if they do reach the five yard marker, they often turn that run in to an explosive play. That's the big concern for Ohio State -- keeping the pair from hitting big running plays.
Nebraska loses its line
Nebraska should be set at skill positions -- both quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and senior running back Terrell Newby are decent options for last year's 32nd-ranked rushing unit. Neither is particularly efficient nor explosive, but they got the job done enough.
That was mostly due to a great offensive line that was 29th in adjusted line yards and 12th in adjusted sack rate -- but unfortunately for Huskers fans, they lose three starters along that line. The Buckeye defensive line, on the other hand, will likely have its rotation down by the time they face the Huskers in the last third of the season.
Maryland had a top-15 rushing attack?
Even using regular old dummy stats -- rushing yards per game -- the Terrapins were 31st in rushing last season, so it shouldn't be that much of a surprise. In fact, they were 12th in average yards per rush. You may not have thought of Brandon Ross as a superstar back, but he nevertheless averaged 9.5 highlight yards per opportunity. What the Terrapins lacked in consistency and efficiency (they were just 43rd in rushing success rate), they more than made up for in explosiveness.
Ross is now gone, but there are options. The veteran is senior Wes Brown, but he had Ross's efficiency (just 38%), but not his explosiveness (just 3.4 highlight yards per opportunity). Without efficiency or explosiveness, the Terrapins might need a spark from sophomore Ty Johnson (averaged nine highlight yards per opportunity in limited action last year) and their quarterbacks, Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe, who were statistically among the most efficient and explosive runners on the team. Much like Oklahoma -- albeit with a distinct talent difference -- the concern for the Buckeyes will be the quarterback run game and the backs' explosiveness.
Overall, the schedule looks much more manageable when it comes to opposing running backs. There aren't many household names outside of the Oklahoma game, but there are a few sneaky-good rushing attacks in Indiana, Maryland, Bowling Green, and Nebraska.
Finally, they didn't make my arbitrary cut at the top-40 rushing S&P+ programs, but Penn State has both Saquon Barkley and top running back recruit Miles Sanders in Joe Morehead's new offense. If I had to guess, I'd put the Nittany Lions second to Oklahoma for best rushing attacks on the Buckeyes' 2016 schedule.