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Advanced stats: Minnesota gives Ohio State a chance to work on the run game

Minnesota’s best quality is its run defense, so that should be good practice for the Ohio State offense.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota (57th in S&P+) is a lot like Indiana (55th) overall, but with a worse offense and a better defense.

They’re 3-2, but those two losses were both in-conference (to Iowa and Maryland), and both came by at least three scores.

But surprisingly, one of the Gophers’ wins came against Fresno State, which is 20th in the S&P+ rankings, and Minnesota’s best opponent to date (although Iowa is close, and may end up being the better team).

So how should we expect the Buckeyes to do against a team with a poor offense and a defense that excels at stopping the run?

If you’re unsure about the definitions for any stats, check out the advanced stats glossary.

These charts are intended to help visualize relative strengths and weaknesses. The farther apart the two teams’ radar points are from each other for any given statistic, the more lopsided that matchup is expected to be. The closer to the outer edge of the radar, the better. Here’s the above data in table form:

OSU offense vs. Minnesota defense

Teams OSU offense Minnesota defense
Teams OSU offense Minnesota defense
S&P+ Rk 3 16
Success rate 7 (52.1%) 21 (36.4%)
Marginal efficiency 10 2
IsoPPP 61 78
Marginal explosiveness 45 87
Open play big play rate 70 32 (5.8%)
Avg. FP 67 (30.1) 46 (28)
Points per scoring opportunity 5 (5.98) 98 (5.0)
Rushing marginal efficiency 52 7
Rushing marginal explosiveness 97 113
Rushing opportunity rate 32 (51.4%) 35 (43.1%)
Rushing stuff rate 66 (18.9%) 7 (28.5%)
Passing marginal efficiency 7 10
Passing marginal explosiveness 39 55
Sack rate 14 (2.6%) 112 (4.1%)
Standard downs marginal efficiency 13 1
Passing downs marginal efficiency 13 39
Havoc rate 2 (8.9%) 62 (16.3%)

And here’s the defense:

Minnesota offense vs. OSU defense

Teams OSU defense Minnesota offense
Teams OSU defense Minnesota offense
S&P+ Rk 27 111
Success rate 10 (33.3%) 101 (39.6%)
Marginal efficiency 24 89
IsoPPP 126 119
Marginal explosiveness 111 89
Open play big play rate 84 (7.8%) 105
Avg. FP 9 (25) 42 (31.1)
Points per scoring opportunity 27 (3.84) 111 (3.91)
Rushing marginal efficiency 21 83
Rushing marginal explosiveness 95 115
Rushing opportunity rate 12 (37.4%) 82 (45.5%)
Rushing stuff rate 15 (25.9%) 7 (12.3%)
Passing marginal efficiency 37 85
Passing marginal explosiveness 103 87
Sack rate 14 (9.9%) 106 (8.6%)
Standard downs marginal efficiency 46 75
Passing downs marginal efficiency 13 106
Havoc rate 5 (22.3%) 96 (17.5%)

And definitely check out the full team advanced stats profiles for both teams.

Alright, let’s get to the questions that will decide the game:


Is Minnesota’s defense legit?

The Gophers surprisingly rank 16th overall in defensive S&P+. That’s largely due to how well they perform on a play-by-play efficiency basis, ranking second overall in marginal efficiency. They’re roughly equal against the run and the pass (7th and 10th in marginal efficiency), and have the best adjusted standard downs efficiency in the country. They are also the best in the country against third-and-short, allowing opponents to convert just 1/3 of the time.

But, while defensive S&P+ is opponent-adjusted, the other metrics in the table above (anything without a “+” after it) are not (although garbage time plays are filtered out). So I think it’s worth putting Minnesota’s defense into context. While the Gophers held their first three opponents (NMSU, Fresno St, and Miami OH) to 10, 14, and 3 points, they also allowed Iowa and Maryland to score in the 40s over the last two weeks.

The stats from those two games are interesting. Iowa’s Nate Stanley had a really impressive day through the air, completing 59 percent of his passes for 314 yards (7.8 per attempt) and a 45 percent passing success rate (the national average is 41 percent, so that’s a good number). Five receivers had 40+ yards, with two Hawkeyes averaging over 20 yards per catch. However, Iowa didn’t have much success running the ball, with just a 33 percent success rate.

But, Maryland hardly passed at all — Kasim Hill attempted just 14 passes and totaled 117 passing yards. But they also ran all over the Gophers, with Ty Johnson totaling 11.2 yards per carry, 123 yards, and a 45 percent success rate, while Anthony McFarland averaged 18.7 yards per carry with 112 total rushing yards. Maryland’s rushing IsoPPP was an insane 2.61 (isolated points per play), while the national average is .92. Maryland only managed five total scoring opportunities on the day, showing a very boom-or-bust performance.

So on the whole, you have a picture of a defense that has been incredible at defense on a per-play efficiency basis, but has two relatively poor performances in a row, and in very different ways. We’re still working with limited data here, but this suggests that Minnesota has a solid defense, but maybe not 16th-best in the country solid. I think Ohio State finds some holes and still puts up some solid numbers, but that Minnesota has decent standard downs success, especially against the run.


Will the run game get going?

Speaking of the run, is this the week that Ohio State can get things going? Pretty much everyone acknowledges that even though the offense as a whole is putting up great numbers, there are questions about how the run game would perform in a do-or-die situation.

After all, 57th in rushing marginal efficiency is much worse than Ohio State’s standard under Meyer. A big part of that is with the stuffed runs. Running backs are getting stuffed on 18.9 percent of runs this season (66th nationally), up from 12.2 percent last year (3rd).

Many have argued that the lack of a QB run game is responsible for the declining rushing efficiency. But I have two problems with that as the explanation. First, there are plenty of teams without a running QB that manage to have an efficient run game.

Second, even with Barrett at the helm last season, Ohio State’s run game declined significantly at the end of the year. Against Michigan, Wisconsin, and USC, Dobbins had 5+ yard carries on 33 percent, 12 percent, and 23 percent of runs, respectively. The team’s best rushing success rate in those games was 42 percent against Michigan. UM and UW have great defenses, but the Trojans didn’t — so that’s not a sufficient explanation, either. Instead, we saw that defenses often forced Barrett’s read to make him keep the ball instead of handing off to Dobbins. But, without being able to efficiently pass the ball, the offense as a whole stuttered. This team doesn’t have the latter problem — when defenses load up to stop the run, Haskins just throws it over their heads instead.

However, the run game still needs to work out some kinks, and this stretch of easier games until Michigan State is perfectly timed to do so. The only problem is that Minnesota’s run defense is probably their best attribute. They are seventh overall in stuffing the run at, or behind, the line of scrimmage, 16th in standard downs line yards, and 35th in opportunity rate, or holding opponents to three yards or less per rush. Those are all areas where Ohio State has struggled this year.

Ohio State’s offense, despite big catch-and-runs from Parris Campbell, isn’t a huge explosiveness offense overall. But Minnesota has a propensity to allow some big plays, especially in the run game, where they’re 113th in rushing marginal explosiveness. So Dobbins could have a relatively inefficient day overall, but still break a big run or two.

Overall, if Dobbins and Weber do have consistent rushing success against Minnesota, with the offensive line performing better or with noticeable playcalling or scheme adjustments, then that should definitely be seen as a positive sign.


Will the offense get touchdowns in the redzone?

Like we’ve established above, Minnesota’s defense has great numbers this season, but it does have a few noticeable issues — allowing explosive plays and letting offenses score in scoring opportunities.

That latter weakness is an interesting advantage for Ohio State. Minnesota is 98th in points per scoring opportunity, allowing an average of five points every time opponents get a first down inside the Gophers’ 40. They’re also 84th in red zone touchdown percentage, allowing touchdowns on 23 of red zone trips.

Meanwhile, Ohio State’s offense averages 5.98 points per scoring opportunity, or fifth overall. So when Ohio State can put together a scoring opportunity, it’s likely to go for a touchdown instead of a field goal.


Can the pass rush get back on track?

This might be a tougher one despite the Gophers’ weaknesses. Minnesota is really good at preventing negative rushing plays, ranking seventh overall in stuff rate, but they’re also 106th in sack rate. Things got so bad that they benched their right tackle halfway through the Iowa game in favor of a 6’9, 400-pound true freshman who just started playing football three years ago.

But, Ohio State is obviously in a precarious injury situation on the defensive line, with Jonathon Cooper and Malik Harrison in concussion protocol, Robert Landers and Dre’Mont Jones dealing with nagging injuries, and Nick Bosa obviously out for a while. That means we’ll likely get extended time from Jashon Cornell and Tyreke Smith against the Gophers.