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Advanced stats preview: Now it’s time for an actual test

TCU is the first real challenge of Ohio State’s season. Can the Buckeyes keep up with explosive players on both sides of the ball?

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Southern Methodist Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

TCU is Ohio State’s first real test of the season.

Rutgers’ defense, which now ranks 52nd in defensive S&P+, is expected to be solid this season, but that is the only unit that the Buckeyes have seen so far that is even average (unless Oregon State’s offense continues its strong play).

The Horned Frogs are a solid matchup for Ohio State. By nearly any advanced statistical ranking you choose, TCU is a top-25 team:

Top level stats

Ohio State vs. TCU

Metric OSU TCU
Metric OSU TCU
S&P+ 2 22
Off. S&P+ 2 39
Def. S&P+ 15 24
ESPN FPI 2 29
ESPN Team Efficiency 5 16
ESPN Strength of Record 30 42
ESPN Game Control 3 51
FEI 5 24
Sagarin 2 18
AP Poll 4 15
Massey 2 15
Bovada Vegas Odds 4 18
Consensus Vegas Ratings 3 15

So how will Ohio State handle their first real test, not to mention their first road game?

I’ve changed up the format of the advanced stats previews. Instead of breaking down the game purely by offense vs. defense, I took a look at the numbers to figure out what questions each team must answer to determine the game. But first, here are both matchups in chart and table form.

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


Ohio State offense vs. TCU defense

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 offense vs. TCU defense

Teams Ohio State offense TCU defense
Teams Ohio State offense TCU defense
S&P+ Rk 2 24
Success rate 2 (62.4%) 14 (28.9%)
Marginal efficiency 10 10
IsoPPP 69 75
Marginal explosiveness 55 89
Avg. FP 59 (30.6) 10 (24)
Points per scoring opportunity 2 (6.78) 32 (3.4)
Rushing marginal efficiency 11 68
Rushing marginal explosiveness 40 92
Rushing opportunity rate 8 (63.8%) 65 (43.2%)
Rushing stuff rate 24 (12.8%) 59 (21.6%)
Passing marginal efficiency 10 7
Passing marginal explosiveness 65 97
Sack rate 32 (2.2%) 22 (10.9%)
Standard downs marginal efficiency 16 18
Passing downs marginal efficiency 4 16
Havoc rate 1 (4.4%) 17 (23.4%)

Ohio State defense vs. TCU offense

TCU offense vs. Ohio State defense

Teams Ohio State defense TCU offense
Teams Ohio State defense TCU offense
S&P+ Rk 15 39
Success rate 5 (24%) 5 (61.8%)
Marginal efficiency 12 11
IsoPPP 102 90
Marginal explosiveness 35 80
Avg. FP 38 (26) 4 (38.7)
Points per scoring opportunity 65 (4.25) 77 (4.47)
Rushing marginal efficiency 8 6
Rushing marginal explosiveness 19 46
Rushing opportunity rate 1 (20%) 3 (70%)
Rushing stuff rate 5 (36.7%) 43 (16%)
Passing marginal efficiency 28 39
Passing marginal explosiveness 39 94
Sack rate 3 (15.6%) 1 (0%)
Standard downs marginal efficiency 8 7
Passing downs marginal efficiency 60 16
Havoc rate 49 (18.5%) 18 (10.4%)

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

Now on to the questions that will decide this matchup:


Can the offensive line handle TCU’s pressure?

When asked about the play of his offensive line, Haskins said following the Rutgers game, “I think they’re doing a great job. Today was a lot of blitzing and trying to pick up protection. Now it’s getting ready for TCU, just calling IDs out and getting blitzes picked up. Just be ready for next week.”

I think Haskins has identified one of the offense’s biggest question marks for the game. TCU is extremely effective at getting pressure and making plays in opposing backfields — they rank 22nd in sack rate so far this season and 17th in overall havoc rate. Opposing offenses’ “blitz down success rate” is 8.3%, which puts TCU’s defense at 4th in the country. Finally, they get to the quarterback on 16% of passing downs, which is 12th nationally.

While the above stats are just for the first two games this season against Southern and SMU, those rankings exclude garbage time. They were similarly effective last season, ranking 15th in adjusted sack rate.

Ian Boyd explains how an undersized front seven manages to create so much havoc:

While Ohio State looks to force opponents to get around large people in confined spaces, the TCU front is geared around making it hard to block speedy people. They are constantly moving around with twists, stunts, and fast-flowing LBs supported by safeties. The Frogs also have their DTs try to tie up OL at the point of attack, to protect the LBs.

TCU’s defensive line is somewhat small and their linebackers definitely are on the smaller side — looking like safeties — but they trade size for speed and athleticism, which works remarkably well in the Big 12. It will be interesting to see whether TCU’s defensive speed can mitigate Ohio State’s size advantages.

The Buckeyes have only allowed two sacks so far this season, which has allowed Haskins to wait for passes to develop and deliver on-target throws. We don’t really know how he will handle more pressure and “exotic” plays that the TCU defense is likely to run.


Can Haskins spur a quick lead?

In his season preview for TCU, Bill noted that in 2017, “They [TCU] didn’t start games well. They ranked 75th in Q1 S&P+ and 83rd in Q2 before surging to 17th in Q3.” Their defense was similarly less effective in the first quarter, ranking 27th before rising to 9th or better in the later three quarters.

An early lead could be devastating, because TCU’s offense seems to match up better running than it does passing. As we’ll get to later, Shawn Robinson is more raw as a passer (although he has a heck of a strong arm), and Darius Anderson is a really solid running back. Further, Ohio State’s running game might have an advantage over TCU’s run defense. Those three things combined suggest that Ohio State could be well positioned to sit on a lead and grind out the game if they get up early.


Is Shawn Robinson accurate enough as a quarterback to take advantage of any holes in the pass defense?

As a freshman last season, Robinson completed only 13 of his 27 pass attempts (48%). 17 of those attempts came against Texas Tech in a 27-3 win, but he completed just six for 35.3 percent that day.

We don’t have a great read on his 2018 performance yet. He was solid against Southern U (17 for 24), but dropped off in Week 2 vs. SMU (16 for 29), although some of his accuracy problems could have been due to persistent rain throughout the first half (in which the offense scored only once).

But one thing to watch — again, on super-limited data — is that he’s averaged just 6.8 and 6.3 yards per attempt this season and last. Connecting the sub-par completion percentage and low average yards per pass with the tape of his passing suggests that he’s still raw as a passer — that he’s much more on the running end of the dual-threat spectrum.

But, he does have some weapons out wide. TCU can compensate for passing inaccuracy by still using easy, shorter throws that nevertheless put linebackers in conflict, punish an aggressive defensive line, and target inexperienced defensive backs. Like Schiano said this week, the defense has to watch TCU receivers on sweeps and tunnel screens, “It changes when they’re fast fast like these guys are... If you’re one step off, they’re out the gate.”

KaVontae Turpin, a 5’9 speedster known for his kick returns (he had two kick return touchdowns last season, and one already this year), gets a lot of attention, but sophomore Jalen Reagor might be the bigger threat. As a freshman, he led the team in receiving yards and averaged a strong 17.6 yards per catch. He was less marginally efficient than the national average, but significantly more explosive:

Turpin’s marginal efficiency is at an insane 24.8 percent right now with 8 catches on 9 targets. Reagor has been targeted far more than anyone on the team — 17 times, which is more than Turpin and third-targeted senior Jaelan Austin combined — but has only 7 catches (averaging 12.9 yards per catch). As you can see with Reagor’s marginal explosiveness rating above, he definitely tended towards explosiveness over efficiency.


Related, can Pryor and Wade stabilize the pass defense?

I completely agree with Bill Landis here about Shaun Wade’s impact: “It’s felt like in the past that OSU has been reluctant to change -- scheme or personnel -- until it loses. With Wade, the coaches saw a young player pushing for playing time and then rewarded him. It seemed to pay off, with Wade getting a couple of tackles and an interception.”

Wade’s increased playing time, whether at nickel corner or safety, should go a good ways in preventing big plays from that pair of wide receivers.

Isaiah Pryor also seems to be coming along, with Schiano noting his progression between Weeks 1 and 2.


Can TCU exploit linebacker inexperience for a solid run game?

Most of the concern around TCU’s offense seems to center on either Shawn Robinson as a dual-threat QB or the Horned Frogs wide receivers, but TCU seems to actually match up best in the run game, as seen in the radar chart above. The Horned Frogs have been excellent running this year, ranking 3rd with 70% of their carries going for 5+ yards. They also rank 6th in rushing marginal efficiency.

Darius Anderson and Sewo Olonilua are the two running backs to know — especially Anderson. As seen in the chart below, which plots out all FBS running backs with at least 50 carries last season by marginal efficiency (x axis) and explosiveness (y axis), Anderson was a little more efficient than J.K. Dobbins, but less than Weber, and less explosive than either Dobbins or Mike Weber:

TCU’s backs have had a strong start to this season too. Anderson’s marginal efficiency is 22.1 percent, with a 76.5 percent opportunity rate (meaning that over a third of his runs go for 5+ yards), and he’s averaging 6.2 yards per carry overall.

Olonilua’s numbers are also stellar, but with a slight bump in explosiveness: 24.9% marginal efficiency, 56.3% opportunity rate, and 6.4 yards per carry. Anderson only has one more carry than Olonilua this year, but the latter averages twice as many highlight yards per opportunity (6.04 to 3.18), suggesting that Olonilua gets stuffed more often, but also breaks longer runs than Anderson (which is surprising, considering Olonilua is 20 pounds heavier).

And the Ohio State linebackers have still been a question mark this season with three new starters. Looking at the defensive unit havoc rate, the line ranks 13th, the secondary is 54th, but the linebackers are 120th, creating havoc on just 1.6 percent of plays. Yikes.

But as strong as the TCU run game has been, it isn’t without a notable weakness — negative plays.

From Bill’s preview: “Though the [TCU] run game was mostly efficient, the failures were pretty dramatic. Despite the excellent success rate, they still ranked 114th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 115th in power success rate.”

They rank 43rd in stuff rate so far this season, with 16 percent of their runs stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage. Ohio State is fifth in the country here, stopping runs 36.7 percent of the time. If the Buckeyes’ defense can put TCU behind the chains, it’s not clear whether Robinson will necessarily be able to pass them out of a hole.


Can the Ohio State defensive line overwhelm a young TCU offensive line and create negative plays?

In 2017, the Horned Frogs had four All-Big 12 offensive linemen on a unit that was solid in pass protection, ranking 33rd in adjusted sack rate overall. All four are gone in 2018.

Things seem to be fine so far after facing Southern University and SMU in the first two weeks, because they’re one of just 12 teams to not allow a sack so far this season (Ohio State has allowed two).

But Ohio State’s defensive line really is looking like one of the best in the country. Pro Football Focus has Ohio State’s defensive line as best in the country with a 17.9 percent pass rush win percentage, while S&P+ shows similar stats — not only are they third overall in sack rate, but they are first overall in passing downs sack rate, getting to the quarterback on an incredible 25 percent of passing downs.

So we don’t really know exactly how good the TCU offensive line is — just that they were excellent last year, but have had to rebuild the line this year. But, what we do know is that they’ll be facing arguably the best defensive line in the country.


What about the hidden factors, like field position, turnovers, and scoring opportunities?

TCU has relatively struggled with maximizing scoring opportunities (drives that reach a first down on or inside your opponent’s 40 yard line) on both sides of the ball. They only average 4.5 points per scoring opportunity on offense (77th) and allow 3.4 on defense (32nd). Ohio State’s offense is excellent at maximizing scoring opportunities (2nd, 6.8 points), but has some work to do defensively in that area (65th, 4.25 points).

If Ohio State can keep avoiding field goal tries — while maintaining a solid 18th-best success rate in open-field (the part of the field between your 10 and your opponent’s 30) standard downs success rate — then that will be huge.

But even more importantly, the defense has to limit TCU’s scoring opportunities. The Horned Frogs have just a 50 percent success rate inside opponents’ 21-30 yard line (40th), and a 60 percent success rate inside the 10 (45th). Preventing TCU from getting inside the OSU 40 — then forcing field goal attempts when they do — will be key.

TCU generally excels at field position, and it’s no different this year, where they rank 4th and 10th in average starting field position. The Buckeyes appear to be at a disadvantage here, so avoiding three-and-outs and maximizing the scoring opportunities they get will be key.


Picks

  • S&P+: Ohio State 39, TCU 20 (86.9%)
  • F/+: Ohio State by 6 (63.6%)
  • My pick: Ohio State 42, TCU 24

As you can see, S&P+ and F/+ differ pretty significantly, with S&P+ spotting Ohio State nearly two touchdowns more than the combined F/+ projection. I tend towards S&P+’s projected margin of victory here. These are two fairly balanced teams, and hidden yards and explosive plays could quickly change the dynamic of the game, but overall Ohio State is more talented and has notable advantages on both sides of the ball.

Ohio State’s keys are:

  • Preventing the TCU defense from getting pressure.
  • Solid linebacker play/preventing TCU running backs and Robinson from establishing a consistent running game. Limiting explosive plays.
  • Creating negative plays from the defensive line.
  • Minimizing TCU success in the red zone.