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Diving deep into Ohio State’s advanced stats

Here’s where the Buckeyes are at after 7 games.

Ohio State v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The bye week comes at a perfect time for us to take a deep dive into Ohio State’s advanced stats — not only have the Buckeyes finished their Big Ten warm up games and are getting ready for a revenge game against Penn State, but the advanced stats profiles over at Football Study Hall have been updated with opponent adjustments (i.e., all of the “+” metrics) and all preseason projections have been phased out. So we’re getting a more precise understanding of this team’s strengths and weaknesses than we’ve had before.

Win expectancy vs. Oklahoma

Ohio State has played six games with a win expectancy of 100% — the only non-100% game was obviously against Oklahoma, at 4%. Win expectancy is defined as:

This communicates how frequently a team would have won a specific game given that game's primary stats. It is intended to say "Given your success rates, big plays, field position components, turnovers, etc., you could have expected to win this game X% of the time." It has nothing to do with pre-game projections or opponent adjustments.

So essentially, if you take the weekly advanced box score numbers and ran them through a simulation 10,000 times, how often would Ohio State be expected to win that game? It helps account for randomness in games and how it affects final scores.

The 4% win expectancy vs. Oklahoma just underscores how poorly the Buckeyes played in that game and how lucky it was that the Sooners’ margin of victory wasn’t even bigger: Ohio State averaged approximately 1.7 fewer yards per play, had an offensive success rate that was six percentage points lower, and (the real killer) managed four fewer scoring opportunities than Oklahoma.

Win expectancy vs. Penn State and the rest of the schedule

So what does that say for the Penn State win probability and against the rest of the teams on Ohio State’s schedule?

S&P+ gives Ohio State a 71% win probability against Penn State, which equates to roughly a 9.7 point margin of victory for the Buckeyes.

Ohio State is the top-ranked S&P+ team, but Penn State is ranked third, so that’s a fairly high win probability and projected margin of victory considering this a matchup between top-3 teams. The reason is that there’s a pretty steep drop-off between Alabama and Penn State in the S&P+. The S&P+ points margin — which is how much a team would be favored by or underdogs to the theoretical average football team in the country (those teams are Duke, Western Kentucky, and Kentucky, by the way) — has Ohio State at +29.6, Alabama at 27.3, and then Penn State at 22.4. The difference between Ohio State and Penn State in S&P+ margin is the same as the difference between Penn State and Stanford, at 15th. So the S&P+ essentially sees two clear top teams, then a mass of everyone else -- which is what you would expect if you simulated this college football season using only composite recruiting rankings.

71% is a solid margin, but it’s also essentially saying that Penn State would get a win between one-in-three and one-in-four times they would play the game.

For the rest of the season, Ohio State has an equal likelihood of winning out or picking up one more loss — 42%.

First, stop the run

If there’s one thing this defense does well, it’s stopping the run. The Buckeye defense, led by the defensive line, is ranked 2nd overall in rushing S&P+. They’re 11th in unadjusted success rate (32.6%) and 3rd in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of successful plays, capturing explosiveness). They’re also 3rd in adjusted line yards, 4th in opportunity rate, and 10th in stuff rate.

No matter how you look at it — the Buckeye run defense is elite.

The remaining schedule has Saquon Barkley and Penn State’s 19th S&P+ rushing offense, and then no offense ranked higher than the 50s in rushing S&P+ — unless the Buckeyes get to the Big Ten Championship, where they’d likely face Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and the Badgers’ 18th-ranked rushing offense.

The J.K. Dobbins effect

Speaking of strong running games, it can’t be overstated how important J.K. Dobbins has become to this offense, despite his limited carries. Here’s a comparison of advanced stats of a few other running backs:

Comparison of elite B1G running backs

Player Dobbins Elliott (2015) Barkley Taylor
Player Dobbins Elliott (2015) Barkley Taylor
Yards per carry 7.8 6.3 6.4 7.8
Highlight yards/carry 7.4 6 7.6 7.6
Opportunity rate 48% 45% 45.1% 49.6%
>10 yard rush rate 24% 16% 18% 25%
>20 yard rush rate 10% 4% 8% 7%

Saquon Barkley ran away with the September Heisman (despite Bryce Love being the better candidate), but the two best-performing running backs were probably Dobbins and Wisconsin’s incredible Jonathan Taylor. Iowa tried a relatively different strategy to counter Penn State’s offense that others have now used too -- sell out to stop Barkley running, and you can more effectively slow the Nittany Lions offense overall. But still, Dobbins has been incredible despite his limited touches post-Indiana.

The two important takeaways about Dobbins are that he’s more efficient than you (or at least I) would’ve expected before the season started, and that his explosiveness truly brings a new dimension to the offense as a whole. When Dobbins was just a recruit, I thought his size suggested that he might be more of an H-back style player, similar to Demario McCall or one of Meyer’s running backs at Florida. But like Zeke before him, he’s really been an incredible all-around back — able to shoulder nearly 30 carries in Week 1 while maintaining a high opportunity rate, or percentage of carries of at least 5 yards.

Second, last year the Buckeyes ranked 84th in rushing IsoPPP despite ranking third overall in rushing S&P+. Essentially, the Buckeyes were incredible getting at regularly getting 5 yards per carry, but Weber and Barrett weren’t regularly getting much more than those 5 yards, either. Part of that had to do with opponents not fearing the passing game, so they could afford to stop the run first. But part of it is that Dobbins is simply more explosive, with better short-area burst than either.

Who is the best linebacker?

The linebackers are incredibly deep, led by a senior in Chris Worley, but have also taken a slight step back from last year. The linebackers rank just 61st in linebacker havoc rate, which looks at all of the big plays that the defense could make (forced fumbles, passes defensed, tackles for loss and sacks, interceptions).

The individual player success rates give us some ability to compare players in the same position group. Essentially they measure “an offense's success rate on plays in which the defender made a tackle. The lower the number, the better for the defender. On average, due to proximity to the line of scrimmage, defensive linemen will produce lower success rates than linebackers, who producer lower rates than defensive backs.” They don’t account for whether a game has gone into garbage time.

The linebackers are:

  • Worley: 31.8%
  • Baker: 24.1%
  • Borland: 33.3%
  • Booker: 40%

I think these are more successful comparing defensive linemen with each other and defensive backs against each other than linebackers, as it wouldn’t account for a situation where a linebacker whiffs in coverage, leading to a DB making the tackle — which we’ve seen a few times this season.

The passing game is incredible right now, even adjusting for opponents

We’ve noticed the offense’s passing success rate climb week-to-week, but this is the first week that opponent adjustments come in for the full passing S&P+ ranking: 5th overall in the country. For context, Ohio State was 64th last year, 26th in 2015, and 2nd in 2014.

Ohio State is also 1st overall on passing downs — due in no small part to their success on standard downs. But interestingly enough, the Buckeyes pass a ton on standard downs — 45.9% of the time, which is 92nd in standard downs run rate. On passing downs, they run much more often — 38.9% of the time, or 40th. Essentially, the Buckeyes have been extraordinarily balanced on early downs, allowing them to run more often on passing downs to get the first — and they have a 44.4% passing downs success rate (3rd overall).

The big question is whether that balance on standard downs will change against tougher opponents. Is Wilson calling these early passes for practice throwing the ball, or can we expect a similar run/pass distribution against teams like Penn State, MSU, and Michigan?

In terms of individual wide receivers, we’ve seen the unit as a whole step up now that there’s a more coherent passing strategy. Five receivers have at least 200 receiving yards, and the top receiver — Parris Campbell — still only has 405. Part of that is due to blowouts (C.J. Saunders has 183 receiving yards, which is more than Austin Mack), but part is due to efficiently spreading the ball around, too. Johnnie Dixon is the most explosive option, averaging 27.6 yards per catch, but he only has 17 targets and 10 catches. Parris Campbell is excellent at yards after the catch, ranking second with 14.5 average yards per catch.

It’s difficult to distinguish any of the other receivers from their average yards per catch, target rates, success rates, or catch rate numbers. That was a bad thing last year, but could be a good thing this season, since the passing game as whole has improved. Ohio State hasn’t needed a go-to receiver in a critical situation since the Oklahoma game when it’s clear that the passing game evolved, so it remains to be seen whether not having an obvious go-to receiver could be an issue in a tight game.

One area the passing game still needs some work is in pass blocking. Isaiah Prince is better this year, but the offensive line still ranks 66th in adjusted sack rate.

The pass defense still has work to do

Right now, I’d argue that the pass defense is the biggest concern. There are still questions about the passing offense/play calling against elite opponents, but the S&P+ has the Ohio State pass defense at 32nd. That’s serviceable considering where they were ranked in total passing yards allowed after the Oklahoma game, but it’s still a cause for concern against elite passing offenses. The only question is whether Penn State can exploit that weakness.

We’ll get in to this more next week in the advanced stats preview, but there’s been a little regression from the Nittany Lions, as they had the 2nd-ranked passing S&P+ offense in 2016, but are 26th now — and 53rd in IsoPPP compared to 4th from a year ago.

Ohio State is better at getting sacks than they were a year ago, ranking 16th in adjusted sack rate to 78th last year. We wrote a lot over the offseason about why the Buckeyes were so poorly ranked in sack rate -- was it due to the lack of a single elite pass rusher, or due to a conscious strategy to force turnovers at the expense of sacks (Hubbard’s Match the Hand drill). Ohio State forces an average of one interception per game this year (41st) compared to 1.62 last season (3rd overall) — but a lot of the difference in interceptions can also be attributed to the lack of Malik Hooker in the secondary.

And speaking of individual members of the secondary, here are their success rates:

  • Jordan Fuller: 56.3%
  • Damon Webb: 61.8%
  • Erick Smith: 63.2%
  • Kendall Sheffield: 73.9%
  • Denzel Ward: 50%
  • Damon Arnette: 62.5%

These success rates don’t tell the whole story, like I mentioned above talking about the linebackers, but they’re helpful nonetheless: Jordan Fuller looks like the best safety and a rising star in the secondary, Denzel Ward looks like the best corner, and Sheffield has been the tackler for a lot of successful plays by opposing offenses.

Finally, the secondary ranks 38th in DB havoc rate — pretty similar to the 35th from last season.

Some smaller points

  • The offense trails off in the 4th quarter, largely due to backups going in: they rank 18th in S&P+ after averaging 6th over the first three quarters.
  • Ohio State has the country’s best second down offense, and best first-down defense.
  • Ohio State’s special teams have been an adventure, particularly on kickoff. And the stats show that too — Ohio State ranks 111th in kickoff success rate.
  • Meyer always says that players who prove themselves on special teams are likely to have expanded roles in the future. Besides senior stars Elijaah Goins and Zach Turnure, Amir Riep, Keandre Jones, and Pete Werner are all underclassmen who lead Ohio State in special teams tacklers.