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Advanced stats: Northwestern is built for close, low-scoring games. But Ohio State needs a blowout win.

Northwestern probably won’t score a ton of points, but they may not allow a lot of touchdowns, either.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time for another Big Ten Championship game. But before we get into the game itself, let’s talk about the playoff.

Ohio State almost definitely is going to need help in order to make it this time. The way I see it, they need three things to happen:

  1. Texas to upset Oklahoma (S&P+ probability: 19%)
  2. Alabama to beat Georgia by a healthy margin (S&P+ win probability: 57%)
  3. Ohio State to blow out Northwestern, not just win (S&P+ win probability: 88%, with a projected 20.2 point margin)

Obviously there are other variables — a Pitt upset could also muddy things up — but I think these are the three most important factors that will affect the Buckeyes’ postseason destination. Without an Oklahoma loss, Ohio State would have to hope a completely dominant win over Northwestern is enough to jump the Sooners in the rankings. I think that’s improbable though, because Oklahoma would have avenged their only loss of the season in the playoff committee’s eyes. Also, Alabama would need to beat Georgia convincingly to eliminate the Bulldogs (and therefore, two SEC teams) from playoff consideration. It’s definitely possible that a Clemson loss could be enough for Ohio State to leapfrog them (Pitt: 63rd in S&P+, Purdue: 38th), but I think it would have to be a pretty bad loss.

With that out of the way, the takeaway for this preview is that Ohio State not only had to beat Northwestern, they have to beat Northwestern big. Like — 59-0 big.

So, is Ohio State capable of a blowout win over the Wildcats?

And if so, how?

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. NW defense

Teams OSU offense Northwestern defense
Teams OSU offense Northwestern defense
S&P+ Rk 4 27
Success rate 8 42
Marginal efficiency 7 36
IsoPPP 71 41
Marginal explosiveness 63 37
Open play big play rate 42 30
Avg. FP 43 55
Points per scoring opportunity 22 24
Rushing S&P+ 48 20
Rushing marginal efficiency 30 14
Rushing marginal explosiveness 113 82
Rushing opportunity rate 31 29
Rushing stuff rate 69 33
Passing S&P+ 6 64
Passing marginal efficiency 5 80
Passing marginal explosiveness 43 19
Sack rate 11 122
Standard downs S&P+ 7 52
Passing downs S&P+ 8 19
Havoc rate 9 57

And here’s the defense:

NW offense vs. OSU defense

Teams Ohio State defense Northwestern offense
Teams Ohio State defense Northwestern offense
S&P+ Rk 35 108
Success rate 27 100
Marginal efficiency 55 113
IsoPPP 119 125
Marginal explosiveness 120 124
Open play big play rate 107 126
Avg. FP 2 39
Points per scoring opportunity 52 106
Rushing S&P+ 57 122
Rushing marginal efficiency 37 118
Rushing marginal explosiveness 124 106
Rushing opportunity rate 13 111
Rushing stuff rate 7 108
Passing S&P+ 79 80
Passing marginal efficiency 63 87
Passing marginal explosiveness 89 124
Sack rate 30 52
Standard downs S&P+ 58 108
Passing downs S&P+ 119 84
Havoc rate 20 57

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


Over two weeks ago, Bill C. tried to grapple with the fact that a very mediocre Northwestern team won the Big Ten West. Take a look at the whole article, but here’s how it starts out:

Some facts:

Northwestern went 0-3 in a non-conference schedule that featured home games against Duke and Akron.

The Wildcats are also one of only two Big Ten teams to allow Rutgers to stay within 14 points. In fact, they stayed within three. Northwestern almost lost to Rutgers.

They have been out-gained by nearly one yard per play and by more than 200 yards for the season.

They rank 104th in offensive success rate — the most predictive statistical building block for a season’s success — and 109th in overall Off. S&P+. Only one Fitzgerald offense has graded out worse. And a mostly solid defense still ranks a passive 105th in completion rate allowed and 123rd in sack rate.

They were projected 37th in S&P+ but rank a disappointing 77th. On paper, this is Pat Fitzgerald’s worst team since the 2011 team that went 6-7.

One more fact:

On Saturday night in Iowa City, the Wildcats clinched the Big Ten West title with two weeks to spare.

Yeah, the 78th-ranked team in S&P+ won the Big Ten West.

But that doesn’t mean that Northwestern can’t upset the Buckeyes or keep it to a close loss. Because even though the Wildcats have four losses and have played more like a 6-6 team (going by second-order wins), they also have kept every game close — in both wins and losses. In fact, they haven’t played in a game that has had a margin of victory more than 14 points in either direction, including losses to Michigan (by 3) and Notre Dame (by 10). In fact, 7 of their 12 games have been decided by one score.

So Ohio State has to do what no other team has done vs. Northwestern this year — make it really not close.

Here’s how Northwestern could keep it close

  1. Limit explosive pass plays
  2. Limit rushing efficiency
  3. Force field goals
  4. Win passing downs on defense
  5. Take advantage of good situations on offense (third-and-short, short fields, turnovers)

And here’s how Ohio State wins big

  1. Consistently move the chains with efficient passing
  2. Shut down Northwestern’s run game
  3. Prevent explosive plays
  4. Shut down the red zone

Ohio State must steadily move the ball through the air, without becoming unbalanced offensively

Above anything else, Northwestern’s defense excels in stopping the run. They rank 20th in rushing S&P+ and 14th in rushing marginal efficiency. They’re solid at getting stops at or behind the line (33rd) and preventing 4+ yard runs (29th).

But they also allow opposing offenses to throw efficiently, ranking 64th in passing S&P+ and 80th in passing marginal efficiency. They don’t allow big plays through the air — 19th in marginal explosiveness — but they rarely get to the quarterback 122nd in sack rate.

Put all of that together, and you can see the blueprint for how Ohio State’s offense should try to attack the Northwestern defense — with lots of passing, especially on standard downs, but without too many explosive pass plays. And that’s how many opposing offenses have tried to challenge Pat Fitzgerald’s team, as Northwestern’s defense is 120th in standards down run rate, with opposing offenses only running on 53.5 percent of standard downs.

That plays right in to Ohio State’s top offensive strength — efficient, if not explosive, passing. Northwestern will not have the athletes to match up with Ohio State’s receivers, much like Michigan. Instead, the Wildcats will play solid fundamental football that is geared towards preventing big plays and stopping the run.

The key for Ohio State will be to stay balanced enough with the ground game that Northwestern can’t just drop everyone in to zones and cloud the passing lanes and confuse Haskins’ reads.

Passing downs will also be really important. While the Wildcats rank 64th in passing S&P+ overall, they’re 19th on passing downs. They dominate third-and-medium and -long (14th and 26th in success rate), so it will be imperative for Ohio State to either get first downs on standard down plays or to win passing downs to keep drives alive.


Ohio State has to win the red zone

Since Northwestern’s defense prevents big plays (well, through the air at least) but allows offenses to steadily move the ball through the air, a blowout win will require Ohio State to take advantage of their scoring opportunities and not settle for field goals.

Northwestern ranks 24th in average points allowed per scoring opportunity — allowing just 3.93 on average — and 10th in the country in opponent red zone touchdown percentage (just 45.7%). They’re 19th in success rate between the 20-11 yard lines, 7th inside the 10, and 16th in goal line success rate. In short, you may be able to move the ball on the Wildcats, but it’s very difficult to get touchdowns.

Ohio State has improved in these areas, but they’re still very inefficient inside the 10, ranking 87th in inside the 10 success rate. The much-derided Martell package hasn’t worked very well without the threat of a pass.

But the Buckeyes still rank 22nd in average points per scoring opportunity, largely because of touchdowns from more than ten yards out — like Chris Olave’s pair of 24-yard touchdown receptions last week. Unless the Buckeyes have suddenly figured out how to be more efficient inside the ten, they’ll likely have to take advantage of pass plays between the 40-10 yard lines for well-timed explosive plays. This may be the key variable separating a win from a blowout win.


Ohio State’s defense should benefit from Northwestern being weak in areas where the Buckeyes are too, but must watch out for their situational defense

It’s not a surprise that Ohio State’s defense has allowed explosive plays (ranking 120th in marginal explosiveness), big runs, and efficient passing. But those are some of Northwestern’s weakest areas, too.

The Wildcats offense is 125th, 124th, and 126th in IsoPPP, marginal explosiveness, and open play big play rate (and also in the 100s in both rushing and passing marginal explosiveness). So any way you want to measure a team’s ability to make big plays, the Wildcats are very low on the list.

The Wildcats are also very inefficient running the ball, ranking 122nd in rushing S&P+ and 118th in rushing marginal efficiency. They’ve had to rely on freshman Isaiah Bowser, who averages 4.6 yards per carry and a 48.5 percent opportunity rate, which is near-average nationally (Dobbins’ is 54.4%, for comparison). They’re also not great through the air, ranking 80th and 84th in overall passing S&P+ and passing downs S&P+.

And finally, they’re not great in the red zone, ranking 106th in average points per scoring opportunities and 63rd in red zone touchdown rate. Interestingly though, they improve the closer they get to the goal line, going from 116th to 71st to 32nd in success rate between the 30-21, 20-11, and inside the ten.

So what do they do well?

Well, the Wildcats tend to take advantage moments. They’re 39th in average field position. They create third-and-short on 14.2 percent of third downs, which is 18th-best in the country, and they’re 36th in third-and-short situations. They’re also 36th in fewest turnovers lost. And as mentioned above, if they do get inside the ten yard line, they’re 23rd in goal line success rate and 32nd in inside the ten success rate.

So, the good news is that the worst parts of Ohio State’s defense line up well with Northwestern’s worst offensive stats. But that will place a lot of importance on how well Ohio State can win those key individual moments. It’s not a recipe for the Wildcats to score a ton of points, but when combined with their stingy defense (at least in terms of preventing big plays and forcing field goals), it could lead to a lower score game than Ohio State really needs.