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Advanced stats preview: One more tune-up game for Ohio State

The Buckeyes get one more chance to improve the defense and get the run game rolling before heading to Penn State.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Tulane Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

This is Ohio State’s last chance to get the early-season issues fixed, or at least on the right track, before heading to what is likely to be the toughest game of the season against Penn State (the Buckeyes’ win probability is just 61% by S&P+ — their next-lowest is Michigan at 77%).

Tulane is an interesting final tune-up game, mostly because of their unique offense. It is triple-option-ish, but with some notable differences. Here’s our Wake Forest blog to explain:

The first point to make is that this is a different style of option attack that we have seen against Georgia Tech and Army in the past couple of seasons. The Yellow Jackets and the Black Knights run the option from under center and play with a conservative tempo to eat as much clock as possible. The Green Wave, on the other hand, run the option attack from the shotgun and pistol formations, using a no huddle style to keep opponents from subbing. There is also a difference in personnel. While traditional option teams will mainly use a fullback and 2 running backs in the backfield, Tulane seems to prefer a tight end, a running back, and then either a wide receiver in motion or a second running back in the back field.

I’d also encourage you to take a look at these highlights from Tulane’s game vs. Oklahoma last season.

You’ll notice what looks like a number of RPO passes, which Georgia Tech certainly isn’t doing. Additionally, Tulane passes much more than traditional triple-option teams — their standard downs run rate was just 63.3%, which is 35th-most (for comparison, Georgia Tech runs on 80.6% of standard downs, and Navy on 89.3%). (That doesn’t mean that Tulane is especially efficient at passing, but we’ll get to that later).

So on the surface, the Tulane offense seems like almost a distraction for the Ohio State defense — who wants to prepare to face an offensive system that they Buckeyes won’t see again all year? But defending against Tulane’s system will require extreme gap discipline, dealing with the no-huddle and lack of substitutions, containing outside runs, several elite receivers and defending against the pitch on options. Essentially, Tulane’s offense has been all big plays with no consistency... which sounds like what the Buckeyes defense has struggled with. You can trust that Willie Fritz has been focused on exploiting weaknesses at linebacker and safety. And I could imagine that more practice in big-play prevention will pay dividends against Penn State next week.

Top-level stats

Ohio State vs. Tulane

Metric OSU Tulane
Metric OSU Tulane
S&P+ 2 79
Off. S&P+ 2 89
Def. S&P+ 24 79
ESPN FPI 3 87
ESPN Team Efficiency 5 88
ESPN Strength of Record 8 N/A
ESPN Game Control 13 N/A
FEI 3 78
Sagarin 2 95
AP Poll 4 N/A
Massey 2 96
Bovada Vegas Odds 3 N/A
Consensus Vegas Ratings 3 N/A

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. Tulane defense

Teams Ohio State offense Tulane defense
Teams Ohio State offense Tulane defense
S&P+ Rk 2 79
Success rate 6 (59.4%) 96 (43.4%)
Marginal efficiency 11 89
IsoPPP 60 32
Marginal explosiveness 64 38
Avg. FP 54 (30.4) 29 (25.8)
Points per scoring opportunity 11 (5.96) 26 (3.61)
Rushing marginal efficiency 18 67
Rushing marginal explosiveness 57 43
Rushing opportunity rate 15 (56.8%) 61 (45%)
Rushing stuff rate 61 (18.2%) 125 (12.2%)
Passing marginal efficiency 13 101
Passing marginal explosiveness 63 49
Sack rate 25 (2.4%) 114 (2.7%)
Standard downs marginal efficiency 27 57
Passing downs marginal efficiency 5 120
Havoc rate 3 (8.3%) 109 (12.9%)

And here’s the defense:

Tulane offense vs. OSU defense

Teams Ohio State defense Tulane offense
Teams Ohio State defense Tulane offense
S&P+ Rk 24 89
Success rate 15 (32.5%) 116 (34.7%)
Marginal efficiency 46 96
IsoPPP 111 4
Marginal explosiveness 92 7
Avg. FP 6 (23.6) 51 (30.5)
Points per scoring opportunity 72 (4.43) 26 (3.61)
Rushing marginal efficiency 43 68
Rushing marginal explosiveness 102 11
Rushing opportunity rate 10 (33.3%) 81 (45.1%)
Rushing stuff rate 29 (25.4%) 71 (18.9%)
Passing marginal efficiency 52 108
Passing marginal explosiveness 63 14
Sack rate 10 (11.4%) 127 (13.2%)
Standard downs marginal efficiency 59 109
Passing downs marginal efficiency 36 59
Havoc rate 38 (19%) 121 (20.8%)

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

Now on to the questions that will decide this matchup:

The big question: Can Ohio State prevent Tulane’s explosive plays?

As you can see in the radar chart above, Tulane appears to have five major statistical advantages over the Buckeyes, and four of them relate to explosiveness: rushing and passing marginal explosiveness, overall marginal explosiveness, and IsoPPP.

(In case you’re seeing those terms for the first time, check out the advanced stats glossary, and IsoPPP measures how big your successful plays are, while marginal explosiveness adjusts IsoPPP for down, distance, and field position).

Tulane’s offense is not only interesting schematically, but as evidenced by their radar chart, they’re extremely boom-or-bust:

  • Tulane is successful on just 34.7% of offensive plays (116th!)
  • But when they’re successful, they’re often really successful, ranking 4th and 7th in IsoPPP and marginal explosiveness.
  • That applies to both rushing (68th in efficiency, 11th in explosiveness), and passing (108th and 14th).
  • Tulane is stuffed on 18.9% of runs (71st) and has an adjusted sack rate of 13.2% (127th), with an overall havoc rate allowed of 20.8% (121st)

To summarize: About 1/5 of Tulane’s offensive snaps go for no gain or a loss and they struggle with efficiency overall. But when they get a successful play, it’s often for a big gain.

Again, that’s basically the same profile as Ohio State’s defense, but reversed: they’re usually very good on most plays, limiting efficiency well (15th overall), and generating a lot of negative plays (10th in sack rate, 29th in stuff rate). But they also occasionally allow 93-yard runs (92nd in marginal explosiveness).

A lot will come down to defending the pitch man. Again, here’s Wake Forest blog Blogger So Dear:

Then, of course, there is the pitch, which can always lead to some huge plays if the defense isn’t careful...This is why the option is so difficult to stop. The defense can’t just use their superior size and athleticism to stop the offense. They have to play with discipline and focus or they’re in danger of getting gashed.

Tulane running back Darius Bradwell has the most carries this year, and has performed well, but the biggest threat is probably former four-star Texas Tech transfer Corey Dauphine, who has a team-leading 236 rushing yards on just 19 carries (16.3 highlight yards per opportunity). He’s rushed for at least five yards on 58 percent of his carries this season.

You also have to worry about the top two receivers, Darnell Mooney and Terren Encalade. Neither one is big, but both are explosive — they average 17.1 and 22.5 yards per catch. Mooney is more efficient and Ecalade is more explosive in the slot, and both could give Ohio State’s defensive backs some trouble.

I don’t mean to make out Tulane’s offense to be a world-beater — at 89th in opponent-adjusted offensive S&P+, they’re clear not. Wake Forest held them to 17 points, and UAB held them to 24 points (both were Green Wave losses). But still, they have three dangerous skill players, specialize in creating explosive plays, and require excellent assignment football.

Expect the Buckeyes to create a ton of negative plays (they’re third-worst in adjusted sack rate!), which will lead to punts most of the time, but also expect a few more big plays allowed — unless the defense really can make some strides at linebacker and safety.

Can Ohio State consistently score in the red zone?

Spoiler: Yeah, probably. But Tulane is solid in the red zone, limiting opponents to 3.6 points per scoring opportunity, which is 26th in the country.

Ohio State ranks 11th here even after failing to score on several first half opportunity vs. TCU, so the Buckeyes should be fine. But I’m interested to see the Buckeyes’ red zone success rate, particularly passing the ball, and whether Haskins keeps the ball on more reads in the red zone.

Can the Buckeyes get the run game rolling?

Spoiler: Yeah, probably. It’s not like Ohio State is doing poorly here, but they are lower-ranked than normal at 18th in marginal efficiency. They also fell from 21st to 61st in stuff rate (allowing run stuffs on 18.2% of runs after just 12.8% before last week).

That was a major thing from the TCU game — TCU held Ohio State to one-yard runs of less on an insane 41% of runs last week. The offensive line started to play better in the second half, but it’s still something to keep an eye on.

Tulane is pretty bad at getting pressure, though. They rank 109th in overall havoc rate, 114th in sack rate, and 125th in stuff rate. So it’s not an issue this week (or shouldn’t be), but it’s still worth noting.