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Advanced stats preview: Rutgers’ defense should provide a decent test for Haskins’ offense

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But, the Rutgers offense is another story...

NCAA Football: Texas State at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Rutgers may not be the most exciting Week 2 opponent for Ohio State, but the Scarlet Knights should be a great tune-up game, especially for the Buckeyes defense.

Rutgers’ offense is extremely unlikely to even provide the same challenge that Oregon State’s provided last week, but then again, the Buckeyes’ problems allowing explosive plays were due more to assignment breakdowns than anything specifically to do with the Beavers’ offensive strengths.

Top level stats

Overall rankings

Metric OSU Rutgers
Metric OSU Rutgers
S&P+ 4 68
Off. S&P+ 1 119
Def. S&P+ 46 15
ESPN FPI 3 72
ESPN Team Efficiency 11 58
FEI 3 97
Power Rank 6 83
Sagarin 2 94
AP Poll 4 N/A
Massey 2 84
Bovada Vegas Odds 4 N/A
Consensus Vegas Ratings 4 N/A

The biggest surprise here is that Ohio State’s defensive S&P+ ranking falling all the way into the 40s. That’s a huge fall from 8th in the preseason projections, and can be explained by changes in the S&P+ methodology:

1. Changing the garbage time definition.
2. Keeping preseason projections in formula all season.
3. Making S&P+ more reactive to results early in the season. These changes were all made because they help improve both performance against the spread and absolute error, or the difference between projections and reality.

The third change best explains Ohio State’s defensive fall. Almost assuredly, the Buckeyes defense is better than 46th, but S&P+ is now more reactive to early-season results — and allowing 31 points to one of the country’s worst offenses in 2017 (even if almost all of the yardage allowed came on just seven plays!) will destroy your S&P+ rating.

Rutgers projects as a mediocre-to-bad team with a solid defense and a bad offense — so overall a little improved over Chris Ash’s squad last season.

Here’s the advanced stats glossary, and as mentioned above, there have been some noticeable changes to the S&P+ methodology this season. One thing to remember — any stat with a “+” indicates that the metric is opponent-adjusted.

Offense: Top offense vs. Rutgers’ surprisingly solid defense

This chart is 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 (i.e., don’t expect many run stuffs from the Rutgers defense).

Ohio State offense vs. Rutgers defense

Teams Ohio State Rutgers
Teams Ohio State Rutgers
S&P+ Rk 1 15
2017 Returning Production 48 18
2017 Success Rate+ 2 72
2017 IsoPPP+ 4 61
2017 FP+ 17 119
2017 Red Zone S&P+ 9 68
2017 Rushing S&P+ 4 61
2017 Passing S&P+ 3 81
2017 Standard Downs S&P+ 2 83
2017 Passing Downs S&P+ 10 41
2017 1st Down S&P+ 2 80
2017 2nd Down S&P+ 4 84
2017 3rd Down S&P+ 4 51
2017 Adj. Line Yds 8 105
2017 Opp Rate 2 (46.1%) 70 (38.7%)
2017 Power SR 21 (76.1%) 68 (67.6%)
2017 Stuff Rate 3 (12.2%) 125 (14.2%)
2017 Adj. Sack Rt 30 105

Like he did at Ohio State, Ash has built some surprisingly solid defenses at Rutgers. Their current ranking of 15th in the country is likely a good deal better than the Scarlet Knights’ defense actually is, but the S&P+ rankings are a little volatile this early in the season, where extremely limited data has a larger impact on the rankings (another example: Ohio State’s defense ranking 46th).

But it’s impressive that Rutgers plays at this high of a level on defense given the situations the offense puts them in. For example, Rutgers defense ranks 119th in field position+, an opponent-adjusted metric for the defense’s average starting field position, and the offense ranked 129th — second to last in the country! — in first down rate, meaning that they only got first downs on approximately 51% of their drives. That ensured that the defense didn’t get too much time to rest on the sidelines.

The Scarlet Knights’ biggest advantage is the percentage of returning production from 2017 — they rank 18th overall in defensive returning production, which will especially benefit from a really solid secondary.

At least last season, the Rutgers defense could be described as passive, as Bill explains: “Perhaps in part because Ash and coordinator Jay Niemann — who’d fielded an attacking defense at NIU — knew that any failed risk would result in more points than their offense could match, Rutgers fielded a terribly passive front seven last year. The Knights were 125th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 105th in Adj. Sack Rate; they reacted pretty quickly, however, and still held opponents at or below their season averages. In the Knights’ four wins, they allowed only 15 points per game.” Last week against Texas State, Rutgers won 35-7 overall and actually managed 11 tackles for loss, so maybe that’s changing a little.

Rutgers only ranked 81st in overall passing S&P+ last season, but managed to be better on passing downs, at 41st. They should be even better in the secondary this season, with three experienced guys returning from 2017 along with corner Blessuan Austin, who was fourth in the Big Ten in passes defensed in 2016 but was injured last season.

So while I wouldn’t expect the Rutgers pass rush to be all that formidable, their back seven should provide a decent challenge for Haskins and the passing game. It will be interesting to watch how Haskins does with more crowded passing lanes than he had last week, and whether that might result in an interception or two.

From a run defense standpoint, Rutgers is mediocre overall, but is relatively good at preventing explosive runs (probably due to the strength of the secondary). They were one of the worst teams in the country at stuffing the run, so expect consistent gains, but just don’t go in expecting Weber and Dobbins to absolutely dominate (though it wouldn’t really surprise me if they overperform, either).

Defense: If Rutgers is also able to score 31 points...

Rutgers offense vs. Ohio State defense

Teams Ohio State Rutgers
Teams Ohio State Rutgers
Proj. S&P+ Rk 46 119
Returning Production 109 82
Success Rate+ 7 93
IsoPPP+ 6 108
FP+ 34 38
Red Zone S&P+ 5 80
Rushing S&P+ 2 43
Passing S&P+ 9 126
Standard Downs S&P+ 6 92
Passing Downs S&P+ 11 107
1st Down S&P+ 5 117
2nd Down S&P+ 3 88
3rd Down S&P+ 37 51
Adj. Line Yds 1 48
Opp Rate 1 (27.9%) 84 (36.9%)
Power SR 39 (63.6%) 100 (61.3%)
Stuff Rate 10 (24.6%) 95 (21.3%)
Adj. Sack Rt 19 35

So that was a lot of positive words about the Rutgers defense. But the offense doesn’t have quite the same track record.

Then again, it’s also a much different looking offense than the Scarlet Knights fielded a year ago. Quarterback Giovanni Rescigno lost the starting job to true freshman Artur Sitkowski. Sitkowski was a big get for Chris Ash, who flipped to his home state team after being committed to Miami in November. He had been starting for powerhouse IMG Academy in Florida. Sitkowski’s debut for Rutgers was a mixed bag: he completed 23 of his passes for over 200 yards, but averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt, with a 43% success rate, and worst of all, three interceptions. And I think we can confidently say that Ohio State’s defense is better than Texas State’s.

But despite his turnovers, it seems likely that Sitkowski offers more upside to the passing game than Rescigno, and he’s likely to improve with another start under his belt.

The other bright spot for the Rutgers offense is running back Jon Hilliman, a grad transfer from Boston College. Hilliman was a bigger, powerful runner, but he’s not super efficient (37.7% success rate and -5.4% marginal efficiency, which was in the bottom quartile of 150+ carry running backs last year) and doesn’t offer much in the way of explosiveness either. I don’t expect the Rutgers running back to be much of a threat, even if their line is young and shows some promise.

Overall, the Rutgers offense has some upside, but it’s probably a while away from realizing its potential. However, surprises happen, especially when young defenders without much playing experience make the wrong reads and fill the wrong gaps. If Rutgers finds any offensive success, it’s likely due to the Buckeyes making mistakes rather than the Scarlet Knights’ offensive excellence.

I fully expect the Buckeyes to clamp down on the explosive plays allowed (they currently rank 104th in plays of 30+ yards allowed), especially if Tur Borland and Jordan Fuller get more play time. But if they don’t, then that could be bad new for the TCU and Penn State games coming up.