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Don’t underestimate Michigan

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Sure, their offense looks mostly terrible, but so did Iowa’s — and their defense is even better than the Hawkeyes’

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Game is always The Most Important Game. But some years the two teams are so similarly talented that the game takes on extra importance.

Last year was one of those versions of The Game, with both teams ranking in the top-10 of the S&P+, but the hype for this year’s game has fallen off following Michigan’s losses to Michigan State, Penn State, and Wisconsin. Ohio State fans have noted how archaic Michigan’s offense looks, and have pointed out that the Wolverines have lost every game against a team ranked 35th or higher in the S&P+ this season. The Wolverines’ best win, by the S&P+, is against Purdue who 38th. Besides Purdue, their second-best win was a one-score win over 51st-ranked Indiana.

Not only does Michigan not have many (any?) strong wins this year, but it’s possible that they will need to turn to John O’Korn again, following Brandon Peters’ injury.

And with the one-sided nature of the rivalry since the beginning of the Tressel era, I think there’s some legitimate concern that the Buckeyes – or at least Buckeye fans – are approaching overconfidence. Because looking at their opponent-adjusted numbers, the Wolverines are still a very strong team, easily capable of upsetting the Buckeyes.

OSU vs. UM

Statistic OSU UM
Statistic OSU UM
S&P+ 1
Returning offensive production 50th (68%) 99th (46%)
Returning defensive production 92nd (57%) 128th (22%)
Blue chip ratio 74% 58%
247 Team Talent Composite 2nd (avg. 91.13) 7th (89.94)
Offensive Plays > 20 Yards 15th (68) 72nd (48)
Defensive Plays > 20 Yards 38th (44) 56th (48)
Turnover margin/game 54th (.18) 72nd (-.09)
Kickoff success rate 106th (60.9%) 9th (91.7%)
Kickoff return success rate 35th (50%) 122nd (28%)

Michigan has performed almost exactly as expected from preseason advanced stats projections, given their extreme turnover: only 46 percent of production returns on offense, and third-worst 22 percent on defense. Given that degree of turnover, Michigan’s eighth-ranked defense has been incredible. The offense has been about as expected… which is solid on the ground, but worse than average through the air.

When Ohio State has the ball

OSU Offense vs. Michigan Defense

Teams OSU Offense UM Defense
Teams OSU Offense UM Defense
S&P+ 4 8
Overall SR+ 3 2
Overall IsoPPP+ 2 17
Rushing S&P+ 3 11
Rush SR 1 (60.2%) 7 (32.9%)
Rush IsoPPP 41 116
Opp Rate 1 (49.5%) 18 (33.4%)
Stuff Rate 2 (10.6%) 4 (27.3%)
Adj. Line Yards 7 12
Passing S&P+ 4 3
Passing SR 5 (50.9%) 1 (26.2%)
Pass IsoPPP 39 93
Adj. Sack Rate 30 3
Avg FP 21 (31.8) 19 (27.1)
Drives 4 (5.35) 38 (4.07)

Michigan still has a top-10 defense despite losing so much experience to the NFL. Overall, they are extremely efficient, only allowing a 32.9 percent rushing success rate (11th) and 26.2 percent passing success rate (1st).

They also bring a ton of pressure, creating a lot of havoc and negative plays: stuffing 27.3 percent of runs (4th), ranking 3rd in adjusted sack rate, and 2nd overall in havoc rate. This is an obvious mismatch for Ohio State, at least in obvious passing situations, as the Buckeyes rank 30th in adjusted sack rate (they’re fine against the run, ranking second in stuff rate).

They have few weaknesses as a whole, but:

  1. They rarely allow efficient plays, but when they do, they're usually pretty big – they rank 116th and 93rd in rushing and passing IsoPPP, respectively. IsoPPP (unadjusted) measures the magnitude of only efficient plays to gauge explosiveness[PC1] . Until two weeks ago, I would have said that Ohio State has J.K. Dobbins and Parris Campbell as consistently explosive weapons – but it’s hard to argue with Mike Weber’s explosive production against Michigan State and Illinois. Dobbins averages 6.5 highlight yards per opportunity and[PC2] … , while Weber averages just 4.6 highlight yards per opportunity, though Weber’s stats are low from his not-totally-healthy performance from earlier in the season. Campbell averages 14.8 yards per catch, but no one on the team has displayed his level of short-area burst, vision, and top-end speed with the ball in his hands. Then Johnnie Dixon has by far the highest average yards per catch, at 24.3, but he only has 30 total targets this season, lowest of the top-6 receivers. Ohio State will likely try to match up Michigan linebacker Mike McCray in coverage with Dobbins and Campbell, who can beat him to the outside. This all suggests that the Ohio State offense could be fairly boom-or-bust, getting stopped for shorter gains fairly often, but occasionally breaking things open with an explosive play.
  2. Since the offense will likely have a lower overall success rate than normal, it will be critical for the Buckeyes offense to take advantage of the scoring opportunities they do get – either scoring on the explosive plays that develop, or finishing drives. Luckily, if Michigan does allow a scoring opportunity, they tend to be a little worse with their backs against their own end zone, ranking 38th and allowing 4.07 points per scoring opportunity. Ohio State’s offense ranks 4th here, averaging 5.35 points per scoring opportunity. Generally, this suggests a game with a lot of 3-6 play drives, but relatively successful drives when they are able to get at least one first down.
  3. Michigan’s run defense is 11th overall, which is obviously elite, but there’s a hint of an advantage for Ohio State. Michigan stuffs over a quarter of opponent runs (27.4 percent), which is nearly as often that they allow a 5+ yard run (33.4 percent of the time). So about 40 percent of opponent runs go between 1-4 yards. But it’s likely that their elite-ranked run defense is due in large part to how frequently they create negative plays – again, it’s a little boom-or-bust trying to run against the Wolverines[PC3]. I would guess that the Wolverines will have more success against the run in the first half, but that the offensive line will eventually wear down the Michigan front seven.
  4. Their worst defensive effort, by far, was against Penn State – at 12 percent, where they allowed 42 points. Besides that poor effort, they only had sub-80 percent performances against Rutgers (72 percent) and Purdue (73 percent). Ohio State will be the best offense the Wolverines will have faced all season.

When Michigan has the ball

OSU Defense vs. Michigan Offense

Teams OSU Defense UM Offense
Teams OSU Defense UM Offense
S&P+ 12 69
Overall SR+ 6 36
Overall IsoPPP+ 8 39
Rushing S&P+ 2 13
Rush SR 3 (31.8%) 69 (42.6%)
Rush IsoPPP 22 18
Opp Rate 2 (27.2%) 82 (37.6%)
Stuff Rate 11 (25%) 47 (18.1%)
Adj. Line Yards 1 20
Passing S&P+ 21 74
Passing SR 44 (38.1%) 106 (35.8%)
Pass IsoPPP 10 52
Adj. Sack Rate 33 118
Avg FP 6 (26) 23 (31.7)
Drives 18 (3.74) 56 (4.6)

Michigan’s offense ranks 69th overall in the S&P+ and 74th in passing S&P+, showing the Wolverines’ most obvious weakness. Their passing success rate is just 35.8 percent (compared to the Buckeyes’ 50.9 percent). They don’t have a receiver with more than 298 receiving yards. Of their receivers with 200 or more receiving yards, only one of the four (two of whom are tight ends) have better than a 45.9 percent receiving success rate overall.

Ohio State is likely to see John O’Korn, who lost his job to sophomore Brandon Peters. O’Korn has the lowest average yards per attempt – 4.6 compared to Peters’ 6.4 – and completes just 53.2 percent of his passes. He also has the highest sack rate of the three, at 11.4 percent of his dropbacks, and the highest interception rate, at 4.03 percent compared to 2.5 percent for Wilton Speight during his shortened season (Barrett’s, despite his Iowa performance, is still just 2.19 percent). That’s good news, particularly as the Buckeyes’ secondary continues to improve.

A lot of the other problems can be traced to the offensive line, which ranks 118th in adjusted sack rate and 47th in stuff rate. The Michigan run game is solid, but they still are stuffed on 18.1 percent of runs, and only get 5+ yard carries on 37.6 percent of runs (82nd). Ohio State is 11th in stuff rate, 33rd in adjusted sack rate, and first in defensive line havoc rate (8.7 percent of plays!). That’s not a good matchup for the Wolverines.

But they have a few key areas that could hurt Ohio State’s defense.

  1. First, their tight ends Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry have gotten increasingly involved in the passing game and are two of the top four receivers on the team. McKeon leads in catch rate and is second on the team in total receiving yards, while Gentry has the highest success rate and averages 18.8 yards per catch – the highest on the team. Moving Worley to the outside and promoting Tuf Borland seems to have made a world of difference at preventing efficient perimeter runs and passes, but Ohio State has nevertheless shown some vulnerability against pass-catching tight ends and running backs.
  2. Donovan Peoples-Jones continues to grow in the offense. Formerly the top-ranked receiver as a recruit last year, the 6-foot-2 receiver has a higher ceiling than any pass catcher on the roster and is now the second-most targeted on the team. Anyone outside of Denzel Ward could struggle in coverage against him.
  3. I mentioned earlier that while Michigan’s rushing offense as a poor success rate (42.6 percent), opportunity rate (37.6 percent) and stuff rate (18.1 percent), ranking 69th, 82nd and 47th, respectively. Overall they are 13th in rushing S&P+ overall due to their relative explosiveness (18th in IsoPPP) and the high quality of the defenses they’ve faced this season. Karan Higdon and Chris Evans have proven to be an excellent one-two punch, with both averaging at least seven highlight yards per opportunity (though they don’t get a ton of opportunities, averaging 38.2% and 36.5% opportunity rates). Ohio State rarely allows efficient performances from opposing running backs – Iowa’s Akrum Wadley is really the only one to find a ton of success.

But if Michigan is able to find some rushing success, and combine that with passes to tight ends and a few explosive passes to Peoples-Jones (and add in a few short fields from turnovers), then that might be enough to get the upset.

One final note – the Michigan offense is definitely a first-half team, ranking 42nd and 20th in the first and second quarters, but 91st and 104th in the second half. So there’s definitely a chance that the Buckeyes take a deficit or close game into halftime.

Takeaways

  1. Michigan’s defense rarely allows efficient plays, but when they do, they tend to be pretty explosive.
  2. Michigan’s pass defense is elite, and their run defense is ranked seventh overall. But there are indications that Ohio State may be able to find some running room against Michigan, as long as they avoid enough negative plays.
  3. The Wolverines’ greatest defensive strength may be how much havoc they cause -- third in adjusted sack rate, fourth in run stuffs. Their defensive line, along with leading tackler Devin Bush, are elite at creating negative plays.
  4. John O’Korn has performed worse than either Brandon Peters or Wilton Speight this year, but the Wolverines have gotten a lot of their passing production from their two tight ends, who could be a poor matchup for the Ohio State defense.
  5. Michigan’s run game is explosive, despite being fairly inefficient (low opportunity rates for their top two running backs). But adjusting for opponents, the Wolverines’ offensive strength is definitely the run game.

Picks

  • S&P+: Ohio State 32, Michigan 21
  • My pick: Ohio State 28, Michigan 17