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Iowa’s defense will give the Buckeye offense another test

It’s all about red zone efficiency this week.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

This is the classic trap game: big, comeback win over a top-ranked opponent, followed by a road game in a notoriously tough stadium against a team with a stout defense. Sounds like a one-score game into the 4th quarter.

OSU vs. Iowa

Statistic OSU Iowa
Statistic OSU Iowa
S&P+ 1st 43rd
Returning offensive production 50th (68%) 125th (27%)
Returning defensive production 92nd (57%) 57th (68%)
Blue chip ratio 74% 6%
247 Team Talent Composite 2nd (avg. 91.13) 49th (avg. 84.11)
Offensive Plays > 20 Yards 7th (52) 92nd (32)
Defensive Plays > 20 Yards 38th (32) 11th (26)
Turnover margin/game 24th (.63) 81st (-.25)
Kickoff success rate 122 (55.4%) 5th (95%)
Kickoff return success rate 8th (63.2%) 18th (57.9%)

Going by the S&P+, Iowa is Ohio State’s third-best opponent so far this season, but Ohio State has an 82% win probability with a projected 16-point margin.

A few concerns right off the bat: Iowa shuts down explosive plays and are solid on special teams, ranking 18th in kickoff return success rate (which, after last week, is something I have to include in the previews now).

Iowa held Penn State to 21 points and only lost on literally the last play of the game. Besides allowing 41 points to Iowa State (which doesn’t seem crazy now), the Hawkeyes have held all of their other opponents under 21 points, and under 17 in their last four games.

Iowa sets the template for the rest of Ohio State’s regular season: excellent defenses and poor offenses:

  • Iowa: 16th in defensive S&P+, 99th in offensive S&P+
  • Michigan State: 6th in defensive S&P+, 95th in offensive S&P+
  • Michigan: 15th in defensive S&P+, 73rd in offensive S&P+
  • (likely) Wisconsin: 7th in defensive S&P+, 33rd in offensive S&P+

When Ohio State has the ball

OSU offense vs. Iowa defense

Teams Ohio State Offense Iowa Defense
Teams Ohio State Offense Iowa Defense
S&P+ 3 16
Overall SR+ 5 63
Overall IsoPPP+ 4 35
Rushing S&P+ 4 97
Rush SR 1 (56.6%) 97 (45.4%)
Rush IsoPPP 48 25
Opp Rate 1 (49.7%) 79 (39%)
Stuff Rate 2 (10.8%) 88 (17.4%)
Adj. Line Yards 6 109
Passing S&P+ 4 31
Passing SR 3 (51.1%) 54 (38.2%)
Pass IsoPPP 39 7
Adj. Sack Rate 66 90
Avg FP 26 (31.7) 86 (29.8)
Drives 8 (5.34) 6 (3.00)

Iowa’s defense allows opponents to be very efficient running the ball, but always limits big plays, and then forces field goals in the red zone.

Bend-don’t-break defenses can be easily identified by the advanced stats. They always have excellent rankings in overall IsoPPP (limiting explosive plays) and in finishing drives (average points allowed per scoring opportunity inside the 40). That can also be measured by plays of 10+ or 20+ allowed or touchdown percentage allowed in the redzone. And Iowa excels in both categories. In fact, they’re the best bend-don’t-break defense that Ohio State has seen so far:

  1. Forces field goals: opponents have a 44% touchdown rate in the redzone (13th), opponents average just 3 points per scoring opportunity (6th)
  2. Eliminate explosive plays (9th in IsoPPP), 11th in opponents plays of 20+ yards

Penn State was close here, ranking 17th in IsoPPP and 22nd in finishing drives. The major difference is that Iowa does a lot more bending, but breaks a little less often. While Penn State’s defense is 25th in overall success rate, Iowa is 71st (63rd in success rate+). In rushing S&P+ they rank 97th. And that’s an opponent-adjusted measure, confirmed by similar ratings in opportunity rate (79th), adjusted line yards (109th), and stuff rate (88th). Dobbins, Weber, and Barrett should find a lot of success on the ground, but probably in 5-14 yard gains (which also plays into the Buckeyes’ strengths).

This means that the game will hinge on whether Ohio State can finish drives with touchdowns or if they’ll be forced to kick field goals all afternoon. Penn State is easily the best offense that Iowa has faced this season, and while Iowa holding the Nittany Lions to 21 points is impressive, it was solely due to Penn State’s inability to finish drives — Penn State had an incredible +23% success rate margin, but lost the turnover margin and averaged just 2.5 points per scoring opportunity. (Penn State also somehow ran 54 more plays than Iowa! Iowa had five three-and-outs on 13 total drives, and two scoring drives of just 3 plays each due to explosive plays). Iowa State is essentially the only other good offense the Hawkeyes have seen, and they scored 41 points.

In addition to finishing drives, it will be interesting to see how well Barrett can throw against the Hawkeyes. They rank 31st in passing S&P+ and have one of the best corners in the country in Josh Jackson, whose 15 pass break ups lead the country. Penn State’s Trace McSorley did throw for 284 yards against Iowa, but it took him 48 attempts to get there — the Hawkeyes held McSorley to 5.9 yards per pass (he averaged 6.6 last week against Ohio State).

And it’s not like their success is due to creating negative plays — they rank 90th in adjusted sack rate and 88th in run stuff rate. Defensive end Anthony Nelson is a guy to know (6 sacks, 13.8% success rate — best on the team for defenders with 10+ tackles), and linebacker Josey Jewell leads with 9.5 tackles for loss and 12 total run stuffs. So there’s definitely some very solid talent.

When Iowa has the ball

Iowa offense vs. OSU defense

Teams Ohio State Defense Iowa Offense
Teams Ohio State Defense Iowa Offense
S&P+ 12 99
Overall SR+ 5 58
Overall IsoPPP+ 6 33
Rushing S&P+ 1 77
Rush SR 4 (31.6) 113 (36.5%)
Rush IsoPPP 7 120
Opp Rate 2 (26.4%) 77 (37.7%)
Stuff Rate 3 (28.5%) 103 (22.3%)
Adj. Line Yards 2 94
Passing S&P+ 4 26
Passing SR 45 (37.6%) 45 (42.8%)
Pass IsoPPP 22 52
Adj. Sack Rate 7 43
Avg FP 9 (26.3) 40 (30.9)
Drives 14 (3.47) 85 (4.26)

The two big things to know about Iowa’s offense:

  1. Akrum Wadley, their star running back, is explosive, but the Iowa offensive line does a very poor job giving him room to run. The offensive line ranks 103rd in stuff rate, 94th in adjusted line yards, and 123rd in power success rate.
  2. Quarterback Nate Stanley is solid. He averages 213 passing yards per game, is 40th in QB rating, and leads the 26th-ranked passing S&P+ attack.

Iowa was 31st in rushing S&P+ last season and 15th in adjusted line yards, while Wadley averaged 6.4 yards per carry with a 43.5% opportunity rate. Wadley was one of two running backs to gain over 1,000 yards. This year, Iowa ranks 77th in rushing S&P+ and 94th in adjusted line yards, and Wadley averages just 4 yards per carry with a 31.7% opportunity rate. That’s a huge step back by the offensive line. That’s especially bad in this matchup, considering Ohio State ranks 3rd in the country in stuff rate. While Iowa allows run stuff on 22.3% of runs, Ohio State’s defense gets a run stuff on 28.5% of runs. Iowa is very balanced in terms of run/pass distribution on standard downs, but that poor run blocking could really hurt the Hawkeyes by leading to a lot of third-and-longs.

So if Iowa is going to pull the upset, Stanley will likely need to carry the load. He has four clear top receivers: Nick Easley (most-targeted, low yards/catch, high catch rate), tight end Noah Fant (leads top targets in yards/catch, explosive), Matt VandeBerg (similar numbers to Fant), and Wadley (high catch rate). Ohio State’s defense did a great job slowing Barkley as a receiving option last week, but running backs and tight ends still present matchup questions for Ohio State’s defense. Chris Worley can’t be everywhere.

One final note: Iowa is a second half offense. They average 56th in first-half offensive S&P+, but 27th in second-half offensive S&P+.

Takeaways

  1. Iowa’s defense is the best at bend-don’t-break that the offense will have seen so far, limiting explosive plays (9th in IsoPPP) and forcing field goals (6th in average points allowed per scoring opportunity).
  2. Iowa’s defense is poor against the run, though, ranking 97th in rushing S&P+ and the defense as a whole is just 71st in success rate.
  3. Iowa’s offensive line has really fallen off, ranking 94th in adjusted line yards and allowing run stuff on 22.3% of runs.
  4. Iowa’s quarterback, Nate Stanley, is solid, leading the 26th-ranked passing S&P+ offense.

Picks

  • S&P+: Ohio State 34, Iowa 18. 82% win probability
  • My Pick: Ohio State 35, Iowa 14

Overall, Ohio State should win this game comfortably despite how solid Iowa’s been in pass defense and in forcing field goals over touchdowns. However, this is a tough road game and a perfect let-down spot, so it wouldn’t be too surprising for this one to be close well into the second half. If Ohio State can still throw well and maximizes their scoring opportunities, then that would say very good things about where the team is at mentally and how they’ll perform against similarly-good defenses the rest of the season.