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Rutgers’ defense could be a surprising challenge for Ohio State’s offense

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Rutgers will be the highest-rated S&P+ defense the Buckeyes have faced so far

Rutgers v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Ohio State turns back to conference play with three-ish warm up games before taking on Penn State and Iowa back-to-back.

The biggest thing to know about the Scarlet Knights is that Chris Ash has coached up a significantly improved defense that could at least slow the Ohio State run game.

OSU vs. Rutgers

Statistic OSU Rutgers
Statistic OSU Rutgers
S&P+ 2nd 79th
Returning offensive production 50th (68%) 76th (60%)
Returning defensive production 92nd (57%) 29th (76%)
Blue chip ratio 74% 9%
247 Team Talent Composite 2nd (avg. 91.13) 53rd (83.15)
Offensive Plays > 20 Yards 25th (22) 81st (15)
Defensive Plays > 20 Yards 85th (18) 28th (12)
Turnover margin/game 21st (+1) 59th (0)

Rutgers’ defensive improvement is due not only to Ash, but also a high percentage of returning production — 76%, or the 29th-most in the country.

When Ohio State has the ball

OSU offense vs. Rutgers defense

Teams S&P+ 2016 Rush S&P+ Rush SR Rush IsoPPP Opp Rate 2016 Adj. Line Yards Stuff Rate 2016 Pass S&P+ Pass SR Pass IsoPPP 2016 Adj. Sack Rate Avg FP Drives
Teams S&P+ 2016 Rush S&P+ Rush SR Rush IsoPPP Opp Rate 2016 Adj. Line Yards Stuff Rate 2016 Pass S&P+ Pass SR Pass IsoPPP 2016 Adj. Sack Rate Avg FP Drives
Ohio State 4 3 4 (57.3%) 49 5 (51%) 1 1 (9.5%) 64 20 (48.5%) 51 82 34 (32) 50 (4.81)
Rutgers 23 95 37 (35.3%) 22 22 (31.4%) 111 85 (17.9%) 94 78 (41.2%) 66 73 73 (29.4) 42 (3.88)
  • The difference Chris Ash has made on defense is astounding when you compare Rutgers’ 2016 and 2017 defensive stats. Ranked 95th and 94th in opponent-adjusted rushing and passing S&P+ last season, the Rutgers defense as a whole now ranks 23rd after four games. In the first game of the season, Rutgers held Washington to a 40% success rate, while Rutgers’ own offense had a 44% success rate. Although the Huskies managed scoring opportunities on over half of their 11 drives, they only averaged 3.83 points per opportunity. They had similar success in their other game against a Power-5 opponent, Nebraska, holding the Huskers to a 38% success rate.
  • The Scarlet Knights’ defense particularly thrives stopping the run, ranking 37th in rushing success rate, 22nd in IsoPPP, and 22nd in opportunity rate. Washington running back Lavon Coleman got the most carries against Rutgers, but averaged just 2.9 yards per carry. Ohio State has steadily climbed the rushing rankings. From the first few games it looked like J.K. Dobbins might be more of an explosive-but-not-efficient back, but he’s now averaging a 44.9% opportunity rate to go along with 7.5 highlight yards per carry. In 2015, Zeke averaged a 45% opportunity rate and 6 highlight yards per carry. The playcalling and offensive line appear to have improved, now ranking 5th in opportunity rate for all backs and first in the country in stuff rate.
  • Urban Meyer’s offenses rely on an efficient run game and this will be, surprisingly, a good test of how far along the run game is. For years now we (and the coaches) have been concerned with the development of the passing game (last week’s game against UNLV was essentially a passing scrimmage — Ohio State has only had 44 passing attempts one other time in Meyer’s five seasons in Columbus), but this will be a solid test of the run game. Oklahoma held the Buckeyes to 34 carries for 167 yards, just 4.9 yards per attempt. Dobbins only had 13 carries, but also only 72 yards. So I’m looking forward to getting more information on whether the run game is at a championship level. The Scarlet Knights won’t get too many plays in the backfield, getting stops at or behind the line of scrimmage on just 17.9% of plays (85th), but they do an excellent job keeping gains between 1 and 5 yards.
  • Rutgers’ pass defense is another story. Ranking 78th in success rate and 66th in IsoPPP, you would expect the Buckeyes to be able to throw against the Rutgers secondary. It should be in even worse for Rutgers because one of their top corners, Bleesuan Austin, is now out for the season. The Rutgers pass rush isn’t going to provide many scares for the Buckeyes offensive line (ranking 118th and 110th in standard and passing downs sack rates), so we might expect a more pass-heavy offensive gameplan than normal to exploit that defensive weakness.
  • Overall that may be what I’m most interested in seeing this week — what the game strategy looks like. With an opposing defense that is fairly solid against Ohio State’s main offensive strength, does Kevin Wilson lean on the passing game to target that weakness? Or will we still see a fairly even mix between the inside run game, the horizontal passing attack, and the occasional intermediate and deep pass? If Rutgers can slow the Buckeyes’ rushing efficiency and at least prevent significant yards-after-catch from short passes on the perimeter, then Ohio State will be forced to target the middle of the field. To be clear, while Rutgers’ defense has greatly improved since last season, they are not yet a juggernaut — but these are the kinds of games that Ohio State has to dominate in order to match up with defenses like Penn State’s or Michigan’s.

When Rutgers has the ball

OSU defense vs. Rutgers offense

Teams S&P+ 2016 Rush S&P+ Rush SR Rush IsoPPP Opp Rate 2016 Adj. Line Yards Stuff Rate 2016 Pass S&P+ Pass SR Pass IsoPPP 2016 Adj. Sack Rate Avg FP Drives
Teams S&P+ 2016 Rush S&P+ Rush SR Rush IsoPPP Opp Rate 2016 Adj. Line Yards Stuff Rate 2016 Pass S&P+ Pass SR Pass IsoPPP 2016 Adj. Sack Rate Avg FP Drives
Ohio State 9 15 28 (34.6%) 11 12 (30.3%) 4 28 (24.3%) 8 83 (41.7%) 48 78 3 (23.3) 23 (3.48)
Rutgers 121 75 64 (43.8%) 114 91 (36.3%) 61 57 (18.4%) 124 108 (34.5%) 126 100 6 (35) 58 (4.68)
  • The Rutgers offense is still not great, ranking in the bottom 10 in the country in overall S&P+ and 108th in passing success rate. Their two top running backs average 4.6 yards per carry and a 35% opportunity rate or less, and they are stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage on 18.4% of runs (57th). Ohio State’s defensive line is getting back towards dominance here, ranking 28th now in stuff rate and second in the country in overall tackles for loss (second to Penn State). I expect that ranking to improve after this week, especially because quarterback Kyle Bolin does not appear to be much of a threat.
  • Bolin has completed 57.3% of his passes and thrown six interceptions while averaging 5.1 yards per attempt. For comparison, J.T. has only one pick, is completing 63.3% of his passes, and is averaging 7.3 yards per attempt. His leading receiver is a tight end, Jerome Washington, but there are four receivers with similar catch and target rates. Janarion Grant is reportedly healthy, and he’s a dangerous returner, ranking 23rd in average punt return yards, so he could also impact the passing game.
  • But overall the Rutgers offense as a whole shouldn’t be a huge threat to the Buckeyes, and I don’t think this offense will give too many insights on the secondary’s development. It will be worth watching the personnel at corner — specifically the split in time between Arnette and Sheffield, and whether a younger corner like Okudah will get any more playtime.
  • The one area besides field position that Rutgers’ offense typically does well is in preventing sacks. Bolin has only taken three sacks this year on 117 attempts, and the offensive line ranks 22nd and 18th in standard and passing downs sack rate.

The 3 most important stats

  1. Rushing opportunity rate (offense). If there’s one single statistic that could determine how happy Ohio State fans are with the offense as a whole, my guess is that it is the percentage of runs that gain five or more yards. The Rutgers defense has been solid here, and any dip in the Buckeyes’ rushing opportunity rate will likely mean poor drive efficiency overall.
  2. Explosive passing plays of 15+ yards (offense). Ohio State has shown steady improvements in the passing game playcalling over the last two weeks. Rutgers’ pass defense shouldn’t be too much better than Army’s, so we might expect decent passing efficiency still — but that doesn’t guarantee how much better Ohio State will be at completing 15+ yard passes.
  3. Defensive passing success rate. The secondary is the biggest concern right now for Ohio State. The Rutgers passing offense hasn’t show much to make Buckeye corners nervous, so we should expect a more encouraging performance this week.

Picks

  • S&P+: Ohio State 38, Rutgers 12. 93% winning percentage
  • F/+: Ohio State by 25.5. 93% winning percentage
  • Adj. S&P+: Ohio State by 39. 98.8% winning percentage
  • Power Rank: Ohio State by 17.8. 89% winning percentage
  • My pick: Ohio State 42, Rutgers 10