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Can Tanner Lee and 2 dynamic receivers exploit Ohio State’s secondary?

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Nebraska would probably need to catch a few breaks to pull an upset, but the Huskers are still a pretty talented team.

Nebraska v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Ohio State meets Nebraska riding a four-game high where the offense has been incredibly explosive, the passing game has shown real development, and the defense has been shut-down enough to allow second- and third-string players to get significant playtime.

OSU vs. Nebraska

Statistic OSU Nebraska
Statistic OSU Nebraska
S&P+ 1st 50th
Returning offensive production 50th (68%) 127th (26%)
Returning defensive production 92nd (57%) 65th (65%)
Blue chip ratio 74% 20%
247 Team Talent Composite 2nd (avg. 91.13) 29th (avg. 85.85)
Offensive Plays > 20 Yards 3rd (40) 40th (29)
Defensive Plays > 20 Yards 48th (22) 15 (17)
Turnover margin/game 17th (+1) 92nd (-.5)

A couple of things about Nebraska’s total stats right off the bat. First, Nebraska was second-to-last in the country in returning offensive production from last season. Mike Riley’s having a tough year but honestly 73rd in offensive S&P+ seems much more reasonable when you see how little the Cornhuskers returned on that side of the ball. They were 122nd in overall returning production from a year ago.

And if you’re going to lose that much production, then you’d better have an extremely high talent base to compensate (like Ohio State’s secondary has for the past three seasons). The Cornhuskers are 29th in overall talent according to the composite 247 rankings, but their blue chip ratio is still just a little over a quarter of Ohio State’s.

Finally, the Cornhuskers have struggled with interceptions this season, accounting for their poor turnover margin.

When Ohio State has the ball

OSU offense vs. Nebraska defense

Teams S&P+ Rush SR Rush IsoPPP Opp Rate Stuff Rate Pass SR Pass IsoPPP Avg FP Drives
Teams S&P+ Rush SR Rush IsoPPP Opp Rate Stuff Rate Pass SR Pass IsoPPP Avg FP Drives
Ohio State 3 2 (57.5%) 51 4 (49.8%) 2 (10.3%) 16 (48.1%) 22 33 (32.1) 14 (5.32)
Nebraska 35 87 (43.8%) 48 105 (41.6%) 107 (15.7%) 116 (47.1%) 13 62 (29.1) 39 (3.97)
  • Nebraska’s opponent-adjusted stats are much better than their un-adjusted defensive rankings this year — 35th in overall defensive S&P+ compared to rushing and passing success rates ranked 87th and 116th. Going by the defensive S&P+ percentile performances, the Huskers have had three really solid games and three really poor games. Against Arkansas State, Oregon, and Wisconsin, their percentile performances were 37%, 8%, and 30%, while they were 82% and higher in the other three games against Northern Illinois, Rutgers, and Illinois. You get the sense that Ohio State is highly likely to fall into the first group of teams rather than the second.
  • Ohio State has been a top-5 rushing offense this year (as we’ve come to expect under Meyer), ranking 2nd, 4th, and 2nd in rushing success rate, opportunity rate, and stuff rate, meaning that the Buckeyes’ run plays are efficient about 58% of the time, gain at least 5 yards roughly half the time, and are stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage about once in every ten runs. Nebraska has been one of the 25 worst defenses in rushing opportunity rate and in stuff rate, meaning that we’re likely to see some pretty efficient running once again. The one saving grace is that Nebraska is at least average in preventing big runs — ranking 48th in IsoPPP and allowing just 6 runs this year of 20+ yards (Ohio State has allowed 9). They don’t allow a ton of big runs, but they also rarely create negative plays and often allow 5+ yard plays. That perfectly matches Ohio State’s offensive rushing profile, suggesting we’ll see a lot of 5-12ish yard runs against the Huskers.
  • J.K. Dobbins is averaging 1.3 yards per carry more, 1.3 highlight yards per carry more, and +1.6% opportunity rate more than Zeke did in 2015, but is on track for about 60% of his total carries that year.
  • Ohio State has been throwing the ball a little more often the last few weeks — partly to work on the passing game, but also because it’s worked extremely well. In fact, the Buckeyes are 98th in standard downs run rate (but 38th in passing downs run rate), which shows that Ohio State throws the ball on early downs more often than most other teams, but then runs on later downs (because the Buckeyes have been successful on standard downs, ranking 4th in overall standard downs success rate). With Nebraska ranking 116th in passing success rate, expect to see more of the same from Ohio State in terms of run-pass balance.
  • Like Nebraska’s run defense, their pass defense is poor in success rate but solid at limiting big plays (ranking 13th in passing IsoPPP and only allowing 11 passing plays of 20+ yards, 13th).

When Nebraska has the ball

OSU defense vs. Nebraska offense

Teams S&P+ Rush SR Rush IsoPPP Opp Rate Stuff Rate Pass SR Pass IsoPPP Avg FP Drives
Teams S&P+ Rush SR Rush IsoPPP Opp Rate Stuff Rate Pass SR Pass IsoPPP Avg FP Drives
Ohio State 6 14 (33.6%) 3 4 (26.6%) 10 (27.9%) 49 (38%) 29 4 (24.8) 7 (2.96)
Nebraska 73 70 (42.7%) 106 72 (38.7%) 78 (20.2%) 83 (39.4%) 54 87 (28.9) 63 (4.58)
  • Everyone had high expectations for quarterback Tanner Lee this offseason. While the passing game hasn’t lived up to the hype set by some Nebraska fans, Lee has been fine — especially given the extremely low returning offensive production mentioned earlier. The passing game is 83rd in success rate, averaging 6.3 yards per pass, with Lee throwing ten interceptions on 202 attempts.
  • There’s a very clear top receiver in junior Stanley Morgan Jr., with 27% of targets and 510 yards (17 yards/catch). De'Mornay Pierson-El is another strong option, and a few others have chipped in, including freshman JD Spielman and tight end Tyler Hoppes. With Arnette suspended for the first half and Okudah likely receiving the majority of his playing time, the first half especially might be a challenge for Ohio State’s pass defense. At least Nebraska does have multiple receiving options outside of Morgan Jr. to potentially target Ohio State’s backups in the secondary (alternatively, Okudah turns out to be every bit as good as he’s looked and was rated as a recruit, and we hardly notice Arnette’s absence). The passing game is really how Nebraska would pull an upset here: not throw interceptions, get a lead going into halftime while the Ohio State secondary is a little undermanned, and get some explosive plays from Morgan Jr. and Pierson-El.
  • The Nebraska offensive line has been pretty solid in pass protection — Lee’s only taken 8 total sacks, and they rank 36th and 35th in standard and passing downs sack rates. Ohio State is first in the country in defensive line havoc rate, fifth in overall havoc rate, and 16th in sacks per game though, so I’d bet on Lee experiencing more pressure than usual. And like we mentioned before, Lee’s interceptions have been a problem for the Huskers this year — he threw four against Oregon and three against Northern Illinois (but only one to Wisconsin, so there’s progress). Multiple interceptions, forced by significant defensive line pressure and Ohio State’s evolving coverage patterns, would allow this game to get out of hand.
  • The Nebraska run game isn’t much to write home about, ranking in the 70s in success rate, opportunity rate, and stuff rate. Like most of Ohio State’s opponents, negative plays will be the big concern here, as the Nebraska offensive line allows twice as many stuffed runs as Ohio State’s does (at 20.2% of runs), while the Buckeyes defensive line is 10th in the country in stuff rate. Devine Ozigbo has been solid, rushing for over 100 yards on 18+ carries per game, after not playing the first two games. Mikale Wilbon and Tre Bryant have gotten injured, with Wilbon missing the Wisconsin game and Bryant missing the last four after a stellar debut to the season. Wilbon looks closer to returning than Bryant, based on recent practice reports. They’re all pretty similar backs in terms of the advanced stats, averaging a little under 5 yards per carry (Bryant was 5.9), around 4.2 highlight yards per opportunity, and under a 40% opportunity rate (Bryant was at 49%). Ozigbo is a bigger back, at 6’0 and 230 pounds, but both Michael Hill and, importantly, Dre’Mont Jones are expected to return for Ohio State’s defensive line this week.
  • One underrated set of stats: starting field position and finishing drives. Ohio State has been just average in terms of passing success rate this year (though improving!), ranking 49th because of the first two bad games against Indiana and Oklahoma. But the defense as a whole has been pretty incredible in non-garbage time largely because opposing offenses are often forced into extremely long drives (Ohio State ranks 4th in defensive average starting field position), and then even if they do get into the OSU red zone, the defense only allows 2.96 points per scoring opportunity (7th overall). Nebraska is 87th in starting field position and 63rd finishing drives, averaging 4.58 points per scoring opportunity.
  • There are four big reasons for Ohio State’s great average starting field position. The first is that the offense rarely goes three-and-out. We don’t have FEI offensive stats until next week to give Ohio State’s actual first down rate, but they are ranked highly in both total first downs/game and in fewest total punts. Second, Ohio State rarely turns the ball over, with J.T. throwing just one interception all year. Third, Drue Chrisman is averaging a solid 42.6 yards per punt. Fourth, Ohio State’s kickoff return strategy works for the most part -- usually allowing opponents to return a kick results in worse starting field position for the opposing offense. Ohio State has more opponent kickoff returns than any team in the country with 40 (ultra-conservative Jimbo Fisher’s Florida State has allowed only 6!). And yes, it’s a riskier strategy because sometimes you allow a kickoff return touchdown, most of the time the kickoff coverage team significantly helps the defense through field position.

The 3 most important stats

  1. Nebraska’s passing success rate. As J.T.’s passing success rate has improved over the last four weeks, the OSU secondary has become the biggest question mark for the 2017 Buckeyes.
  2. Ohio State’s havoc rate. The defensive line should create a lot of stuffed runs. But if they can also pressure Lee and force an interception or two then that would be huge.
  3. J.K. Dobbins’ rushing opportunity rate. Nebraska’s run defense especially struggled last week against Wisconsin, allowing freshman Jonathan Taylor to run for 249 yards on 25 carries. Can Dobbins similarly run wild despite getting probably half as many opportunities?

Picks

  • S&P+: Ohio State 38, Nebraska 17. 89.5% winning percentage
  • F/+: Ohio State by 15.7. 81.8% winning percentage
  • Adj. S&P+: Ohio State by 18.6. 85.8% winning percentage
  • Power Rank: Ohio State by 14.5. 85% winning percentage
  • My pick: Ohio State 48, Nebraska 14

Here’s how the picks have performed to date vs. the actual margin of victory.

Ohio State Margin of Victory

Pick Indiana Oklahoma Army UNLV Rutgers Maryland Nebraska
Pick Indiana Oklahoma Army UNLV Rutgers Maryland Nebraska
Actual Margin of Victory (MoV) 28 -15 31 33 56 48
S&P+ 17 5.9 33 35 26 26.2 21
F/+ 11.5 3.4 32.8 36.2 25.5 22.3 15.7
Adj. S&P+ 24 6 48.7 52 39 33.9 18.6
Power Rank 11.5 4.1 20.7 28.9 17.8 14.2 14.5
My Pick 21 4 27 38 32 35 34

Difference in Actual MoV and Projections

Pick Indiana Oklahoma Army UNLV Rutgers Maryland Average
Pick Indiana Oklahoma Army UNLV Rutgers Maryland Average
S&P+ 11 -20.9 -2 -2 30 21.8 6.3
F/+ 16.5 -18.4 -1.8 -3.2 30.5 25.7 8.2
Adj. S&P+ 4 -21 -17.7 -19 17 14.1 -3.8
Power Rank 16.5 -19.1 10.3 4.1 38.2 33.8 14
My Pick 7 -19 4 -5 24 13 4