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Advanced stats: Can Ohio State throw on a Washington defense that shuts down explosive plays?

UW has a veteran defense that ranks in the top 10 in points per scoring opportunity, and is top overall in marginal explosiveness.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Conference Championship-Utah vs Washington Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With all non-playoff bowl games, each team’s motivation to be there is a big factor. Ohio State has narrowly missed the playoff before, and won both of those New Year’s Six games against Notre Dame and USC.

Hopefully that won’t be a concern again this year for Ohio State. The Buckeyes have a chance to start off Ryan Day’s tenure with a win and build program momentum heading in to the second signing day and a critical offseason.

But the Huskies are really good. S&P+ projects Ohio State by 2.8 points with a 56 percent win probability.

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. UW defense

Teams OSU offense Washington defense
Teams OSU offense Washington defense
S&P+ Rk 4 3
Success rate 8 33
Marginal efficiency 5 22
IsoPPP 61 3
Marginal explosiveness 62 1
Open play big play rate 43 9
Avg. FP 38 91
Points per scoring opportunity 22 8
Rushing S&P+ 54 11
Rushing marginal efficiency 41 10
Rushing marginal explosiveness 121 16
Rushing opportunity rate 35 51
Rushing stuff rate 70 101
Passing S&P+ 5 19
Passing marginal efficiency 3 51
Passing marginal explosiveness 41 1
Sack rate 17 111
Standard downs S&P+ 13 25
Passing downs S&P+ 5 9
Havoc rate 7 68

And here’s the defense:

UW offense vs. OSU defense

Teams Ohio State defense Washington offense
Teams Ohio State defense Washington offense
S&P+ Rk 37 34
Success rate 29 30
Marginal efficiency 57 28
IsoPPP 119 86
Marginal explosiveness 120 78
Open play big play rate 100 28
Avg. FP 2 51
Points per scoring opportunity 51 113
Rushing S&P+ 79 34
Rushing marginal efficiency 45 31
Rushing marginal explosiveness 125 93
Rushing opportunity rate 16 39
Rushing stuff rate 7 55
Passing S&P+ 74 19
Passing marginal efficiency 60 23
Passing marginal explosiveness 77 42
Sack rate 32 57
Standard downs S&P+ 72 28
Passing downs S&P+ 114 36
Havoc rate 22 55

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

Ohio State has to keep Washington from racking up 20-yard plays

Washington ranks 78th in overall marginal explosiveness, 93rd rushing, and 42nd passing.

Those aren’t impressive numbers by themselves, but the Huskies also produce 20+ yard gains in open play (between your 10 and your opponent’s 30) on 9.3 percent of plays — which ranks 28th in the country.

That’s not Oklahoma levels of explosive play generation (the Sooners are first, with 14.3%), but that’s still a solid explosive play rate.

The thing to keep in mind here is that IsoPPP (where the Huskies are similarly ranked at 86th) measures the offense’s points per successful play, and marginal explosiveness adjusts IsoPPP for expected performance given down, distance, and field position. So it’s sometimes interesting to compare IsoPPP/marginal explosiveness with a team’s raw big play rate, because big play rate doesn’t filter down to only successful plays. Some offenses can generate explosive plays overall fairly frequently, but because they also are very efficient, their IsoPPP rankings are relatively lower. Big play rate doesn’t care how efficient you are — just how many big plays you create.

The Huskies might fall in to that category, at least to some degree. They’re top-30 in efficiency measures, but still produce 20+ yard gains relatively often, too.

It’s no secret that Ohio State has really struggled with explosive teams this season, no matter how efficient or inefficient they are. Maryland, for instance, ranks just 105th in marginal efficiency, but is third in the country in marginal explosiveness. It didn’t matter that Maryland only had a 40 percent success rate overall (which is below the national average), or that they only gained 4+ yards on 43 percent of their carries (again, below the national average) — they still managed to average 15 highlight yards per opportunity, with Anthony McFarland rushing for nearly 300 yards.

Washington’s Myles Gaskin isn’t known as an explosive running back. He averages 4.9 yards per carry with a 48.9 percent opportunity rate, but only 4.6 highlight yards per opportunity. They really don’t have any receivers who are obvious big play machines, either — only Ty Jones averages more than 16 yards per catch among the top seven targets (16.8). But Ohio State will need to ensure that no Husky turns in a career-best explosive performance.

Shut down the Huskies in the red zone

The Huskies offense is solid overall, ranking 34th in S&P+ and 28th in marginal efficiency, but they don’t light up scoreboards, largely due to their inability to convert scoring opportunities into touchdowns. Washington averages only 4.04 points per scoring opportunity, which ranks 113th in the country.

Looking only at the red zone (a scoring opportunity is broader — a first down inside your opponent’s 40), the Huskies rank 85th, 41st, and 88th in success rate from the 30-21, 20-11, and inside the ten. Their first-and-goal success rate is 51.6 percent , which is 73rd.

Inside the red zone, Myles Gaskin averages only 2.8 yards per carry when he averages 4.2 or better at every other part of the field. Similarly, Jake Browning only completes 48.8 percent of his passes in the red zone despite completing 64.7 percent or better elsewhere on the field.

The Buckeyes are far from stellar here, allowing 4.41 points per scoring opportunity (51st) and 113th in success rate inside their own ten yard line. But a few more stops than normal inside the red zone could easily be the difference in the game.

Put pressure on Browning

Jake Browning is a solid quarterback. His numbers don’t jump off the screen — 65 percent completion rate, 2,879 passing yards, 7.7 yards per attempt, 6.3 marginal efficiency (right around average) — but he’s been good-to-great overall. The Huskies’ passing offense ranks 19th in passing S&P+ and 23rd in marginal efficiency, after all.

But the Huskies aren’t especially excellent in preventing negative plays. They are 55th in havoc rate allowed, 57th in sack rate, 92nd in passing downs sack rate, and 55th in run stuffs allowed.

So the real story about Jake Browning is that he’s managed to put up solid numbers despite an average-to-below-average offensive line.

The real key for the Buckeyes will be winning passing downs, where the Huskies allow sacks 9.4 percent of the time (92nd). They’re still 32nd in passing downs marginal efficiency, so it’s a little all-or-nothing in those obvious passing situations.

Meanwhile, Chase Young said he’s healthy after battling ankle sprains this season, and the Buckeyes still ranked 21st in passing downs sack rate, despite missing Nick Bosa all season. This will also be Dre’Mont Jones’ last game to impress NFL scouts.

The big question for Ohio State’s offense: Can Haskins throw on this secondary?

If you know one thing about the Huskies heading in to this game, it should probably be that Washington’s secondary is really good, and it’ll be really tough to throw on them.

Ian Boyd previewed this matchup earlier this month:

The Huskies predominantly play single-high safety coverages like matchup cover 3. They accept that receivers will get one-one-one looks outside the hashes against those three DBs...

As much as Ohio State leans on being able to torch teams that try to match up outside on its speed, Washington leans on winning that exact matchup, so something has to give here...

The Huskies’ solution for teams that want to spread them out and attack the box defenders is to use smaller, faster box defenders...

When Ohio State sees that Washington will hold a safety (like the 200-pound Taylor Rapp) near the box to prevent easy numbers in the run game, the Buckeyes will spread the field. Then they’ll push the ball deep on those three Washington corners, or they’ll make the safeties and middle linebacker trade and cover crossers over the middle.

Read the whole article, but those quotes do a good job illustrating how Washington likes to play defense. And they’re good at it, too, ranking 19th in passing S&P+ and 9th on passing downs. They don’t get much pressure, ranking 111th in sack rate, and they allow a lot of completions, at 117th, but they’re willing to make a trade off to prevent explosive plays — they’re first in the country in passing marginal explosiveness.

This suggests that Ohio State will have to rely on winning one-on-one matchups and moving the ball steadily down the field rather than shooting for big plays. Statistically they’re very similar to Northwestern (in that they don’t get a ton of pressure and allow a high efficiency/completion percentage, but prevent explosive plays). The Huskies are just much better and run a different scheme (the Wildcats are 96th in passing marginal efficiency, 117th in sack rate, and 118th in completion rate, but 28th in marginal explosiveness).

As Boyd says above, it’s likely we’re going to see a lot of crossing routes to try and isolate certain defenders, counting on the Buckeyes’ veteran receivers to make catches. It’s likely that we’re going to see a lot of shorter gains in the passing game, but they may try a few deep shots to take advantage of man coverage. A well-timed wheel route could be effective here.

Finally, it should be surprising that the Huskies are top-ten in points per scoring opportunity, allowing just 3.54 on average. Interestingly, they’re less effective in the red zone itself (27th, 24th, and 37th in success rate between the 30-21, 20-11, and inside the ten). The Buckeyes might be able to win a close one with field goals, but that’s a sure-fire way to turn this into an ugly looking game.

The game will likely hinge on how Haskins and the receivers perform against this secondary, which features stars like Byron Murphy. The defense will still need to pressure Browning and stop the Huskies offense in the red zone, but the game will likely be determined by how well the Buckeyes can throw on this defense.