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Advanced stats: The Spartans run defense is legit. Maybe legit enough to fuel an upset.

But can Brian Lewerke throw enough short passes to score on Ohio State’s defense?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Last week was a little disappointing. Most of us probably expected the Buckeyes to come out and win decisively after a loss and a bye week, but Nebraska got way too close to an upset instead.

Nevertheless, we saw clear changes in scheme and personnel, so there’s still room for optimism going forward. But Michigan State is a very tough opponent, with a legitimately awesome defense.

The matchup between Ohio State’s offense and Michigan State’s defense will be between two top-7 units. The matchup between the Spartans’ offense and Ohio State’s defense on the other hand, will not.

Let’s dig in to the stats:

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:

Ohio State’s offense vs. Michigan’s defense

Teams OSU offense MSU defense
Teams OSU offense MSU defense
S&P+ Rk 3 7
Success rate 9 16
Marginal efficiency 9 16
IsoPPP 76 46
Marginal explosiveness 70 43
Open play big play rate 49 17
Avg. FP 81 80
Points per scoring opportunity 13 11
Rushing S&P+ 88 2
Rushing marginal efficiency 54 1
Rushing marginal explosiveness 109 90
Rushing opportunity rate 36 1
Rushing stuff rate 67 2
Passing S&P+ 12 29
Passing marginal efficiency 5 55
Passing marginal explosiveness 62 16
Sack rate 15 72
Standard downs S&P+ 23 20
Passing downs S&P+ 16 6
Havoc rate 5 14

And here’s the defense:

Ohio State’s defense vs. Michigan State’s offense

Teams Ohio State defense MSU offense
Teams Ohio State defense MSU offense
S&P+ Rk 45 95
Success rate 53 101
Marginal efficiency 70 99
IsoPPP 112 105
Marginal explosiveness 107 110
Open play big play rate 106 90
Avg. FP 4 84
Points per scoring opportunity 47 108
Rushing S&P+ 49 87
Rushing marginal efficiency 54 111
Rushing marginal explosiveness 103 96
Rushing opportunity rate 26 107
Rushing stuff rate 13 83
Passing S&P+ 90 68
Passing marginal efficiency 61 70
Passing marginal explosiveness 96 107
Sack rate 26 49
Standard downs S&P+ 62 82
Passing downs S&P+ 121 58
Havoc rate 11 90

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

Just from looking at the radar profiles, you can get a pretty good sense for each team’s strengths and weaknesses:

  • The matchup between the OSU offense and MSU defense will be a great one to watch, particularly because of the improvements in the run game from last week; if they continue.
  • Ohio State’s offense is pretty evenly matched with Michigan State’s defense, except in a few key areas. The Buckeyes have an advantage in most passing categories (overall passing S&P+, marginal efficiency, sack rate), and are at a disadvantage in the run game (stuff rate, opportunity rate, marginal efficiency, and overall S&P+).
  • If the Spartans can make Ohio State one-dimensional, as the stats suggest, then that means that finishing drives will be all the more important — and the teams are dead-even in their rankings for average points per scoring opportunity.
  • The matchup between the other units looks much sloppier for both teams. Ohio State has an advantage in stopping the run, and Michigan State only has narrow advantages in overall passing S&P+ and in passing downs S&P+ — so stopping Lewerke on passing downs will be critical, since we shouldn’t really expect a lot of consistency from the Spartans offense otherwise.

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

Can the Buckeyes prevent Michigan State from shortening the game too much?

Michigan State loves to shorten games with long drives, limiting the total number of plays and possessions that the other team gets. This allows them to minimize their own talent deficiencies and other teams’ margin for error. In effect, by limiting the number of plays and drives, each individual play and drive matters a little bit more than usual. In turn, individual big plays (turnovers, havoc plays) affect the final result more. This is why the Spartans rarely get blown out, and why they can occasionally pull off narrow upsets over superior (talent-wise) teams (see: OSU-MSU 2015).

It’s no coincidence that they are 3-1 this season in games against teams ranked higher than them in S&P+. In their three wins, they held their opponents to fewer total plays than the national average of 70.3. The one loss in there was to Michigan, where the Wolverines’ defense completely prevented the Spartans from doing anything.

So, be on the watch for three-and-out drives for Ohio State’s offense, and long, clock-chewing drives allowed by the defense — they could allow random-ish mistakes like sacks or turnovers to impact the game’s final result much more than normal.

And don’t be surprised if the game is close throughout.

Can Ohio State continue their run game improvements against the Spartans?

An alternative way to ask this question might be, “Will Dwayne Haskins throw the ball 73 times again?”

Ohio State clearly had their best rushing effort of the season last week, with noticeable schematic and personnel changes in the red zone and overall. But can those changes still be effective against one of the country’s premier run defenses?

Before checking the numbers, I was honestly a little skeptical of the Spartans run defense. I’d heard that they have the top overall rushing defense going by yards per game, and they’re also third in average yards per rush, but I didn’t have a sense for how accurate those non-advanced stats were.

Well, unfortunately, the advanced stats back up their non-advanced counterparts. The Spartans are second in opponent-adjusted rushing S&P+, first in marginal efficiency, first overall in the percentage of opponents’ runs of 4+ yards (only allowing 33.3%), and 2nd in stops at or behind the line of scrimmage. The only area where they’re lower-ranked is in rushing marginal explosiveness, but this stat measures the magnitude of successful plays, and they rarely allow successful runs, so it can be swayed by very infrequent total defensive breakdowns. And sure enough, the Spartans have only allowed four runs of 20+ yards all season (which is second-best in the country).

So, yeah, I’d be surprised if J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber have the same degree of success this week, but it would also say a heck of a lot if they do – especially in the red zone. MSU is 20th and 18th in success rate between the 20-11 yard lines and inside the 10, respectively.

As a response to Michigan State’s incredible run defense, most teams throw the ball. A lot. As in, their defense faces a lower percentage of standard down runs than any other defense in the country – 45.6 percent. And their passing downs run rate is similarly low – 24.4 percent, 128th. That’s insane.

I get why though – their pass defense (29th in passing S&P+, 55th in marginal efficiency) is relatively worse than their run defense. They rarely allow explosive passes, but they’re fine giving up shorter, efficient passes in return, hoping to make opponents stall out before they get to the goal line. Further, most of their opponents’ successful passing comes on standard downs, since they rank sixth overall in passing down S&P+. So expect a good amount of early-down passing from Haskins, which is where he excels anyway.

Is there anything to worry about from Brian Lewerke?

Beyond the fact that opposing quarterbacks have had career days against this Ohio State defense, not really. He’s completed just 55.9 percent of his passes for 5.7 yards per attempt and just 11.5 yards per completion (both below average). He has an even touchdown to interception ratio.

But again, the Ohio State defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks to have their best games of the season with unfortunate frequency.

So will this be a field goal fest?

Michigan State hasn’t scored more than 24 points since their Week 5 win over Central Michigan. In fact, they’ve only scored 30 or more points against CMU, Utah State, and Indiana.

Looking at the Five Factors, the Spartans rank 99th in marginal efficiency, 110th in marginal explosiveness, 84th in field position, and 108th in points per scoring opportunity. There isn’t a single bright spot there. Their best opponent-adjusted summary statistic is passing downs S&P+, where they rank 58th. (If you’ve listened to “Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody” talk about it, you’ll recognize their critique that the Michgian State offense is essentially: run for a short gain on first and second, complete a long pass on third-and-long. Although they do rank 121st in third-and-long success rate.)

At 95th in offensive S&P+ overall, there’s not a lot to suggest that the Spartans should be much of a threat to get their fourth 30+ point game of the year against Ohio State.

…except that Ohio State’s defense has occasionally made average-to-bad offenses look solid (see: Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska).

Beyond what the film shows (which includes linebackers out of position, defensive backs struggling with man coverage, and safeties taking poor pursuit angles), the numbers paint a really clear picture of the Buckeyes’ defense right now:

  • Average at best down-to-down (70th in marginal efficiency)
  • With the occasional huge play allowed (107th in marginal explosiveness)
  • And giving up too many touchdowns in the red zone/past the 40 (47th in points per scoring opportunity)
  • But really good with field position (4th) so at least opposing offenses have to chew through a lot of yards to get to the end zone.

So, again – not a lot to suggest that the Spartans will move the ball very effectively against an average defense, but the Buckeyes defense obviously has some problems.

But what about Brendon White? It’s looking like White, along with more Cover-4, could be part of the answer at safety, along with more Shaun Wade as a cover safety. He especially excelled in run support against Nebraska in the second half. The statistics you see above for Ohio State’s defense are season-long, and White’s impact was largely felt in just a single half of a single game, so there’s a chance that the schematic adjustments and personnel changes could lead to a more cohesive, effective defense moving forward. But I’m holding back judgement until we get more evidence of that.

By the way, I’ve read a lot this week and last about the talent deficiencies on defense. I’m pretty skeptical of that interpretation of the defense’s problems. As we’ve said numerous times, this is solidly the most talented overall roster the Buckeyes have had – ever. Even in the problem spots – linebacker, safety, etc. – the Buckeyes are stocked with talent. In my opinion, the problems stem less from personnel and more from scheme, coaching, and player development than needing a talent upgrade. Yes, the corners are probably a step down from a pure athletic/talent perspective from the 2016-17 years — and sometimes a personnel change can help, like with Brendon White – but I think that this same group of players would be much more effective if you transplanted the whole group into a different scheme.

Anyway, back to field goals – besides the Spartans offense being pretty bad, the Michigan State defense also excels in limiting opponents’ scoring after they cross the 40. Opposing offenses average just 3.52 points per scoring opportunity, which ranks 11th in the country. They’re 20th and 18th in success rate between the 20-11 yard lines and then inside the 10, respectively.

The Buckeyes found a lot of success last week with a heavy package near the goal line with two tight ends and Wyatt Davis coming on as another jumbo tight end. Read all about that here. But still, given the quality of the Spartans’ red zone defense, you still might see both teams’ drives fizzle out in opponents’ territory.

Can the offensive line handle Kenny Willekes and company?

The Spartans have a clear leader in the pass rush department, and that’s Kenny Willekes. He leads the team with seven sacks and 13 tackles for loss. Only Brandon Bouyer-Randle (4 sacks) and Andrew Dowell (3) have more than 1.5 sacks on the team, and they’re both linebackers. So that’s at least one pass-rush star that the line will have to account for.

But the Spartans aren’t necessarily an elite pass rushing team. They rank just 72nd in sack rate, 97th in passing downs sack rate, and 86th in blitz down sack rate, but strangely, they’re also 16th in blitz down success rate, 22nd in blitz down big play rate, and 14th in overall havoc rate. That’s a weird group of stats rankings, but taken together it looks like their pass rush is pretty concentrated in one guy, and they’re far from elite overall at generating sacks, but the pass rush is still effective even if they’re not getting to the quarterback.

Part of the reason for this is that they seem to turn a decent amount of passes defensed into interceptions, ranking 23rd in that category (39%!). The other part of that is that, like we said above, everyone throws all the time against the Spartans (45.6% standard downs run rate, lowest in the country). So even though they’re fine in overall sack numbers, they have a low sack count as a percentage of the number of passes they face. Further, even if the pass rush doesn’t get home, they still seem to be effecting the play, as evidenced by the blitz down success rate.