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Advanced stats: Ohio State will have to play its best game to beat Michigan

This is unfamiliar territory for Ohio State in the recent history of The Game.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State is in an unfamiliar situation. Not only are they home underdogs, but the Buckeyes are entering The Game where they’re not the playoff favorite in the matchup — Michigan is.

And the advanced stats agree with Vegas that Ohio State is an underdog (S&P+ favors Michigan by about 4.5).

We have a good sense for Ohio State’s strengths and weaknesses at this point, and we also know that the Buckeyes haven’t looked truly dominant in weeks. If you’ve felt like the offense and defense couldn’t agree to both take a step forward in the same week, you’re not alone — the stats back that up, too:

Those are Ohio State’s percentile performances for each game this season — as a whole, then offense and defense. Percentile performance is basically a single-game S&P+ rating, and it’s opponent-adjusted.

Basically this chart supports the idea that Ohio State hasn’t played a complete game on both sides of the ball since Tulane. And in the last three weeks since the bye, the Buckeyes’ offense and defense have traded who will take a step forward, and who will take a step back — the offense going from 73 percent to 26 percent then to 93 percent against Maryland, while the defense was bad against Nebraska (20%), great against the Spartans (92%), then back to bad (22%) against Maryland.

Ohio State is not in a good place when they’re hoping to put things together for the first time against an opponent ranked higher than 89th in the S&P+.

But there’s still some hope. The Buckeyes’ volatility works both ways, and it’s possible they really could put things together. OSU has improved their rushing offense in the last three weeks, and it seems like they’ve been just a few plays or situations short of excellence on both sides of the ball.

And even if they continue their volatility, a few lucky bounces their way could swing the game, too — Michigan’s statistical dominance isn’t overwhelming, after all. Turnovers are worth about five points on average, and the Wolverines are favored by about 4.5.

Let’s get to the numbers:

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. Michigan defense

Teams OSU offense Michigan defense
Teams OSU offense Michigan defense
S&P+ Rk 5 2
Success rate 7 2
Marginal efficiency 8 3
IsoPPP 93 19
Marginal explosiveness 81 9
Open play big play rate 59 16
Avg. FP 50 3
Points per scoring opportunity 24 79
Rushing S&P+ 57 9
Rushing marginal efficiency 49 10
Rushing marginal explosiveness 114 17
Rushing opportunity rate 34 3
Rushing stuff rate 67 15
Passing S&P+ 11 6
Passing marginal efficiency 4 2
Passing marginal explosiveness 68 13
Sack rate 11 3
Standard downs S&P+ 20 4
Passing downs S&P+ 12 5
Havoc rate 10 13

And here’s the defense:

Michigan offense vs. Ohio State defense

Teams Ohio State defense Michigan offense
Teams Ohio State defense Michigan offense
S&P+ Rk 38 23
Success rate 31 22
Marginal efficiency 48 35
IsoPPP 122 77
Marginal explosiveness 121 39
Open play big play rate 108 38
Avg. FP 4 11
Points per scoring opportunity 44 68
Rushing S&P+ 68 25
Rushing marginal efficiency 40 66
Rushing marginal explosiveness 125 35
Rushing opportunity rate 19 89
Rushing stuff rate 5 30
Passing S&P+ 93 7
Passing marginal efficiency 56 17
Passing marginal explosiveness 102 42
Sack rate 31 25
Standard downs S&P+ 69 6
Passing downs S&P+ 120 39
Havoc rate 20 11

And definitely check out the full S&P+ advanced stats profiles for both teams.

Let’s get to the questions that will decide the game:

Ohio State has to win the red zone — on both sides of the ball

This is the most important thing the Buckeyes can do. If you look at Michigan’s S&P+ Five Factors — the five stats most associated with winning — the Wolverines are good-to-elite in every area except in finishing drives, where they’re 68th (4.6 points per opportunity) and 79th (4.65) on offense and defense respectively.

Michigan’s offense stays on schedule well, but their drives tend to stall in the red zone. It’s the opposite for the Wolverines defense: they hardly ever let you move the ball, but they’re not so great inside the ten yard line.

Here’s the Wolverines in the red zone on both sides of the ball:

A scoring opportunity is considered to be a first down inside your opponent’s 40-yard line, so the stats above zero in on just the red zone. Sometimes teams can be pretty solid in one but not the other, suggesting that their issue is related to some specific situation — for example, Ohio State’s offense is 24th in finishing drives, but struggled to get touchdowns when they had first-and-goal, especially earlier in the season (they still rank just 84th in goal line success rate).

For Michigan, they’re mediocre in finishing drives on both sides of the ball, but the problems vary.

For the defense, they’re typically elite between their own 30 to 10 yard lines. In that range they are a top-5 defense, just like they are overall. But inside the 10, they rank 113th in success rate, which is just a staggering efficiency drop. Ohio State has gotten much better since the bye week in this area, focusing on varying personnel and scheme to make sure that they get touchdowns out of their red zone trips. That will be essential vs. Michigan, since they’re unlikely to get a ton of opportunities. Indiana played Michigan close by making the most of their limited scoring opportunities — they averaged five points per opportunity despite only four total drives that crossed into the Michigan 40.

The offense has a different situational problem. Strangely, they’re OK between the 30-21 yard lines and then terrible between the 20-11 yard lines (127th!). But then they’re back to a top-ten level of efficiency inside the ten yard line. It will be absolutely critical for Ohio State to 1) make sure that explosive plays don’t go for touchdowns, and 2) get stops between their own 30-11 yard lines, forcing field goals.

Can the Buckeyes keep Michigan off schedule?

Bill C. already looked at the few areas where S&P+ suggests that Ohio State might have an opening against Michigan. You should go read that.

In that article, he mentions that one of the key things Ohio State has to do is to keep Michigan’s offense off-schedule. This is Harbaugh’s best offense so far at Michigan, but it’s not unstoppable, either. Here’s Bill with a snapshot of how Michigan’s offense is exactly what Harbaugh wants:

They’re among the most run-heavy non-option teams in the country. They run 68 percent of the time on standard downs, 20th in FBS and nearly nine percentage points above the national average.

They move at a snail’s pace — 124th in adjusted tempo.

They don’t move backward — 11th in havoc rate allowed, 25th in sack rate allowed, 30th in stuff rate allowed (run stops at or behind the line).

Also, in open play, Michigan gets a first down on first or second down plays relatively infrequently (118th), but is 2nd overall in average third down distance and fourth in third down success rate, further emphasizing how methodical and steady the Michigan offense is.

That’s basically the same offensive profile that Harbaugh has aimed for since he got to Ann Arbor, but now the talent level is built up enough that he can actually run it effectively.

But again, it’s not an unbeatable machine. Michigan is only 66th in rushing marginal efficiency and 89th in the percentage of carries that go for 4+ yards (opportunity rate). Opponent adjustments and relatively frequent explosive runs (35th in marginal explosiveness, 38th in big play rate) must be the reason why the run game is ranked 25th in opponent-adjusted rushing S&P+.

The fact that a lot of runs are getting stopped for just 1-3 yard gains and they’re just middle of the pack in down-to-down rushing efficiency suggests that you could throw a wrench in the Michigan offense by consistently limiting the run and/or creating negative plays and then preventing the Wolverines from catching up.

They’ve been good at preventing negative run plays (30th in stuff rate allowed), but they’re still a run-reliant, schedule-based offense (20th in standard downs run rate and 124th in adjusted pace), so negative plays could be tough to overcome. And they’re also surprisingly not all that effective in third-and-short, at just 56th in success rate.

Karan Higdon has taken over as the clear lead back. He averages 5.3 yards per carry, a 45 percent opportunity rate, and -1.9 percent marginal efficiency. For comparison, J.K. Dobbins has averaged 4.7 yards per carry, a 55.2 percent opportunity rate, and 6.2 percent marginal efficiency.

And can they also limit the magnitude of Michigan’s explosive runs?

The problem for Ohio State is that Michigan can occasionally rip off long runs. They’re not Maryland-level in terms of their big-run play ability (what a weird sentence to type), but they’re still more explosive than efficient.

I’m expecting Michigan to get at least a few pretty big runs. The key will be to just make sure that those big runs aren’t 75-yarders like Maryland had. As mentioned above, winning the red zone (on both sides of the ball) is probably the one area that is most important for Ohio State getting the upset. So, ensuring that explosive runs are closer to 15 yards than 75 yards will go a long way towards an Ohio State win.

Indiana was able to limit Michigan’s rushing offense, leading to the Wolverines’ worst offensive performance of the season (by S&P+ percentile performance). Their rushing offense was less explosive than Indiana’s, and less explosive than the national average using IsoPPP. Higdon still crossed 100 yards on 21 carries, but he only averaged 3.6 highlight yards per opportunity.

It’s also worth mentioning that Shea Patterson is a really effective runner, even if he doesn’t do it a ton in this offense. He averages 6.7 highlight yards per opportunity.

But there is one bright spot, courtesy of Bill:

Big plays are becoming scarce as well. While the Wolverines have 20 rushes of 20-plus yards (36th in FBS), only three have come in the last four games.

Can Ohio State limit Michigan’s explosive receivers?

Michigan’s passing game is really good — 7th in S&P+ — but the Wolverines are definitely a run-first team even with a five-star quarterback under center. Shea Patterson only has 2,177 passing yards on 255 attempts (7.7 yards per attempt, 13 yards per completion, and a 65.9 percent completion rate). For comparison, Haskins has 3,685 passing yards on 424 attempts (8.3 yards per attempt, 12.5 yards per completion, and a 69.3 percent completion rate).

The passing game is mostly geared towards efficiency (17th in marginal efficiency) than explosiveness (42nd), but Michigan’s top three receivers are all more explosive than the national average. Donovan Peoples-Jones, tight end Zach Gentry, and Nico Collins all have over 40 targets and 460 receiving yards, easily separating themselves from other receiving targets this year. Peoples-Jones is less efficient than the other two, but also the most targeted, and has several highlight reel-worthy runs after the catch this season. The other two are steadier, with higher catch rates.

But the key is that all three have solid marginal explosiveness ratings, meaning that they’re more explosive than is expected given the down, distance, and field position. That’s a concern for both one-on-one battles — Collins is 6’4 and Gentry is 6’8 — and for yards after catch (Peoples-Jones).

Can Ohio State break a few explosive plays of their own?

There aren’t a lot of reasons for optimism looking through Michigan’s defensive stats. As good as Haskins and the receiving corps have been this year, the Michigan pass defense is 6th in overall passing S&P+. Their run defense is nearly as good, at 9th.

The only potential bright spots are in explosive plays, where they rank 17th and 13th in rushing and passing marginal explosiveness. Those are still elite rankings, but they’re the worst of Michigan’s regular numbers.

Indiana had the most success of anyone lately, and Stevie Scott and quarterback Peyton Ramsey both had relatively explosive days. Scott averaged only 4.6 yards per carry, but he averaged 5.2 highlight yards per opportunity (only getting a four yard carry on 40 percent of his runs, though). Ramsey finished with five carries for 68 yards and 8.2 highlight yards per opportunity, so that’s something. Haskins obviously isn’t the runner that Ramsey is, but the Buckeyes will likely have to hope for a few big plays, then to take advantage of situations (turnovers, special teams) and capitalize on Michigan’s surprisingly poor goal line defense.