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Analytics show Ohio State’s defense passed Nebraska test, offense to be tested by Michigan State

The Buckeyes are in rarified air amongst college football teams this season.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Landis and Ari Wasserman made a great point on a recent episode of their podcast 4 to 6 with A&B. They mentioned that Ohio State easily passed the first big test for their defense, and next week’s game against Michigan State would be the first big test for their offense.

While Indiana and Cincinnati are top-40-ish opponents, it’s clear that Nebraska’s offense is a step up — maybe not an elite opponent, but top-30-ish nonetheless. And Michigan State’s defense is an order of magnitude better than any that the Buckeyes have faced this season.

Before we get to our Michigan State preview, let’s go through some of the important stats from the Buckeyes’ big road win.

Base stats

Stat Ohio State Nebraska Margin 2019 National Avg
Stat Ohio State Nebraska Margin 2019 National Avg
Yards Per Play 7.73 4.13 3.61 5.70
Overall SR 0.55 0.41 0.14 0.42
Rush SR 0.54 0.51 0.03 0.42
Pass SR 0.56 0.24 0.32 0.41
Rush YPP 7.78 5.91 1.87 4.94
Pass YPP 7.64 1.14 6.50 6.49
Stuffed Run Rate 0.10 0.20 -0.10 0.19
Opportunity Rate 0.62 0.54 0.08 0.47
Overall Exp Rate 0.27 0.09 0.18 0.13
Rush Exp Rate 0.28 0.14 0.14 0.12
Pass Exp Rate 0.24 0.00 0.24 0.14
Avg SR Gain 13.37 9.65 3.71 12.54
Havoc Rate Allowed 0.09 0.21 -0.12 0.18

And here are the EPA base stats:

EPA base stats

Stat OSU offense vs. Nebraska defense OSU defense vs. Nebraska offense Margin National Average 2019
Stat OSU offense vs. Nebraska defense OSU defense vs. Nebraska offense Margin National Average 2019
Avg EPA 0.43 -0.34 0.76 0.00
EPA SR 0.55 0.38 0.16 0.43
Avg EPA Rush 0.41 0.19 0.22 -0.02
EPA SR Rush 0.52 0.46 0.06 0.43
Short-Yd Rush EPA 0.93 -0.38 1.32 0.15
Avg EPA Pass 0.45 -1.26 1.71 0.03
EPA SR Pass 0.60 0.25 0.35 0.44
RZ EPA 0.35 -0.19 0.54 0.00
RZ EPA SR 0.51 0.38 0.12 0.43
Std Down EPA 0.41 -0.22 0.62 0.01
Pass Down EPA 0.19 -0.91 1.10 -0.02

And finally, situational stats:

Situational stats

Stat Ohio State Nebraska Margin
Stat Ohio State Nebraska Margin
Rush Rate 0.67 0.63 0.04
Std Down Rush Rate 0.75 0.68 0.07
Pass Down Rush Rate 0.38 0.36 0.02
Redzone SR 0.48 0.43 0.05
Scoring Opp SR 0.49 0.50 -0.01
Short Yd SR 1.00 0.50 0.50
Scoring Opp Rate 0.91 0.30 0.61
Scoring Opp TD Rate 0.60 0.33 0.27
Redzone Drive Rate 0.73 0.20 0.53
Redzone TD Rate 0.75 0.50 0.25
1st Down SR 0.54 0.42 0.12
2nd Down SR 0.43 0.44 -0.01
3rd Down SR 0.77 0.33 0.44
4th Down SR NA 0.50 NA
Std Down SR 0.65 0.47 0.18
Pass Down SR 0.38 0.18 0.20
Avg Yds - 3rd 6.08 5.50 0.58

If those stats seem unfamiliar, here’s what each means:

  • First, this comes from play by play data filtered to only run and pass plays (no penalties or special teams), with sacks counting as pass attempts rather than runs.
  • A play is defined as a success if the offense efficiently moved towards a first down, defined specifically as 50 percent of necessary yards on first down, 70 percent of remaining yards on second down, and all remaining yards on third or fourth down. So success rate is successful plays divided by total plays.
  • Explosive plays are defined here as plays of 13+ yards. Some coaches measure that differently (i.e. 15+ yards or with varying definitions based on whether it’s a run or pass) but we’ll keep it simple and stick to 13+ yard gains.
  • Average success rate gain (Avg SR Gain) is the average yards gained on only successful plays. Since you can think about explosiveness in terms of both rate and magnitude, this stat roughly captures the magnitude of successful plays.
  • Stuffed runs are rushes for no gain or a loss.
  • Opportunity rate attempts to measure how often a running back and offensive line “do their jobs” — defined here as getting 4+ yards per rush.
  • Short yardage rush success rate is how often the offense gets the first down on runs of two yards or less to go (i.e. in third-and-one or goal line situations).
  • A scoring opportunity is when an offense runs a play inside an opponent’s 40 yard line (or has a long touchdown from outside the 40). So scoring opportunity touchdown rate is how often the offense goes on to score a touchdown if it gets inside the 40.
  • Here’s 538’s Josh Hermsmeyer’s summary of expected points added, or EPA: “EPA is calculated by taking the expected point value of every down, distance and field position (“game state”) combination before a play is run, and subtracting it from the expected point value of the new game state after a play is run.” Basically, it allows you to assess the value of every single play, and by extension, the effectiveness of individual players and teams, relative to what we would expect based on prior game state data.

The concern heading in to this game was that Nebraska’s defense was just successful enough on a per-play basis to slow down Ohio State’s offense, while Adrian Martinez, Maurice Washington, and JD Spielman would create explosive plays because the Buckeyes defense hadn’t yet faced an offense like the Huskers’.

That did not happen. Instead:

  • Ohio State had a +14% success rate margin, indicating far higher per-play efficiency. That’s a little lower margin than the Cinci or Indiana games (as would be expected), but it’s still dominant. EPA success rate (which is the ratio of positive EPA plays divided by negative EPA plays) makes the margin even more positive for Ohio State at +16%.
  • Ohio State was far, far more explosive, creating explosive plays on 27% of plays compared to just 9% for the Huskers. Their average successful play was also almost 4 yards per play more than the Huskers’, too. Nebraska was held to nearly 3 yards per successful play less than the national average.
  • EPA illustrates the above two bullets very succinctly: Ohio State’s EPA per play was 0.43, while Nebraska’s was -0.34. The fact that Ohio State’s EPA per play was even more positive than Nebraska’s was negative tells you just about all you need to know.
  • Like you might expect, Nebraska’s per-play passing EPA was very bad, at -1.26, and passing downs were nearly as bad, at -0.91. With Ohio State’s offense operating at the level it did, Nebraska would have needed to be both efficient and explosive through the air to keep pace with the Buckeyes. They did not, forcing three interceptions and just a 44% completion rate, 25% EPA pass success rate, and just 24 sack-adjusted passing yards for Martinez.
  • Speaking of sacks, Ohio State had four on the night and an overall havoc rate of 21% (which was the lowest rate on the season, actually — OSU had a ~1% higher havoc rate vs. Cincinnati). They also stuffed 20% of Nebraska’s runs.
  • The drive stats were very descriptive for the game’s outcome. Ohio State created scoring opportunities on 91% of drives, while Nebraska did just under 1 in 3. And they only scored a single touchdown on those three scoring opportunities. One of those scoring opportunities was Okudah’s interception from on his back.
  • The Buckeyes dominated passing downs defensively, holding Nebraska to just an 18% passing downs success rate. Ohio State’s offense wasn’t incredible on passing downs itself, but their 65% standard down success rate meant that they didn’t need a ton of passing downs to begin with.
  • One interesting thing to note (that is likely just a result of garbage time in the second half, which hasn’t been filtered out of these stats) is that Ohio State’s standard downs run rate was 75%! Usually you try to vary your run/pass playcalling on standard downs — especially because passing is generally more efficient — but Ohio State’s offense really didn’t need to against this Nebraska defense. I’m guessing it will be a much different story against Michigan State.

I’ll leave you with a few charts. First, here’s Dobbins’ average rushing EPA for his career, with yet another solid effort:

This week against Michigan State will be a huge test for Dobbins. This year he’s only had one game — his first against FAU — with a negative per play rushing EPA. Michigan State’s defensive average rushing EPA is -0.35, which is 8th overall in the country (Ohio State’s is 22nd, for reference).

Thanks to collegefootballdata.com, here’s how OSU compares to everyone else in offensive and defensive SP+:

This does a great job capturing where Ohio State fits in to the national landscape. Michigan State is a far worse offensive team, but they also have the second-best defense in the country (Wisconsin, who Ohio State faces at the end of the month, currently has the top-rated defense). Nebraska is basically a slightly worse Indiana.