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Michigan State is big test for Ohio State’s offense we’ve been waiting for

The Spartans have the first elite defense the Buckeyes will face this year — and they’ll see a few.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The Ohio State offense has already gotten a few solid tests from Cincinnati and Indiana, but Michigan State’s defense is the first elite unit that the Buckeyes will have faced on either side of the ball.

The Spartans currently rank 2nd overall in defensive SP+ and 4th in defensive FEI. For context, Ohio State ranks 3rd in both defensive SP+ and FEI.

What happens if the Spartans can slow down the Ohio State run game, which is currently 12th in rushing success rate? Can Fields and the wide receivers throw even without a run threat? Or what happens if the Buckeyes’ efficiency drops? Can they still maximize their scoring opportunities?

This is a great test for the Buckeyes, especially when Wisconsin and Penn State have defenses that are similarly elite, but with much better offenses.

How will Ohio State attack the Spartans defense?

OSU offense vs. MSU defense

Stat Ohio State Michigan State National Average
Stat Ohio State Michigan State National Average
Avg EPA 0.33 -0.19 0.00
EPA SR 0.54 0.38 0.43
Rushing EPA 0.24 -0.35 -0.02
Rushing EPA SR 0.51 0.32 0.43
Short Rush EPA 0.09 -0.76 0.15
Passing EPA 0.47 -0.08 0.03
Passing EPA SR 0.59 0.42 0.44
RZ EPA 0.33 -0.14 0.00
RZ EPA SR 0.53 0.39 0.43
Std Down EPA 0.31 -0.37 0.01
Pass Down EPA 0.29 -0.17 -0.02
  • The Spartans are better against the run than against the pass — they allow a 30.6 percent rushing success rate (8th) but a 36.8 percent passing success rate (40th), and average -0.35 rushing EPA but just -0.08 passing EPA.
  • That’s also confirmed in their standard down vs. passing down EPA scores — -0.37 on standard downs and -0.17 on passing downs.
  • Whether because of who they’ve played or because opposing offenses have identified their weakness, opponents have passes pretty heavily against the Spartans, running on just 48.7 percent of standard downs — that’s 109th-most in the country. Ohio State ran on 75 percent of standard downs vs. Nebraska, and they’re 22nd overall in standard down rush rate for the season (although part of that is because the Buckeyes have been in a lot of blow outs and have just run more overall in the second halves of games).
  • So will Ohio State stick to what has been successful so far or will they adjust to the Spartans defense? If the offense does keep up its high standard down rush rate and is still efficient than that would be a pretty good sign that the Buckeyes can run on just about anyone.
  • Even if MSU’s passing success rate suggests that Fields should find some success, there’s not a ton in the Spartans statistical profile that suggests that the passing game will create a lot explosive plays, since they allow an explosive pass rate of only 8 percent, which is 7th-best in the country, and their average yards allowed per successful play is just 10.9, which is 14th-best. So that would suggest that the Buckeyes find success with the quick outs they’ve used so frequently through the first third of the season.
  • They’re also not quite as elite in scoring opportunities as they are on an overall per-play basis. They allow touchdowns on 47 percent of scoring opportunities (35th) and allow red zone drives on 24 percent of possessions (42nd). You can also see this in the fact their red zone EPA (-0.14 is higher than their overall EPA (-0.19).
  • The Spartans do a great job creating negative plays. They currently stuff 32.8 percent of runs at or behind the line of scrimmage, which is 3rd-best in the country. And they are 4th overall in havoc rate, with havoc plays on 29.6 percent of plays. That’s... really impressive.

So where does that leave the Buckeyes offense overall? Well, I have to address the fact that the “they ain’t played nobody” argument is kind of understandable. Indiana’s 29th-ranked SP+ offense is the best offense they’ve faced so far. But with opponent adjustments, the Spartans still rank as the 2nd-best defense in the country. So I don’t think the Buckeyes just blow out Michigan State like they have through five games, especially if the run game is more inconsistent. I think the upset risk is relatively low, like 20 percent or so, but I would be a little surprised if the Buckeyes can get into the 40s against this defense.

MSU offense vs. OSU defense

Stat Michigan State Ohio State National Average
Stat Michigan State Ohio State National Average
Avg EPA -0.01 -0.36 0.00
EPA SR 0.44 0.31 0.43
Rushing EPA -0.24 -0.22 -0.02
Rushing EPA SR 0.41 0.31 0.43
Short Rush EPA -0.49 0.28 0.15
Passing EPA 0.22 -0.52 0.03
Passing EPA SR 0.48 0.30 0.44
RZ EPA -0.04 -0.35 0.00
RZ EPA SR 0.43 0.30 0.43
Std Down EPA -0.22 -0.01 0.01
Pass Down EPA -0.07 -0.67 -0.02
  • I think the common wisdom is that the Spartans offense is nothing to fear. They rank 62nd in SP+ and 57th in offensive FEI, 71st in overall success rate, and 60th in explosive play rate. They also average -0.01 EPA on offense, which means their average play is just worse than you would expect based on down, distance, and field position.
  • The Spartans are roughly as good throwing the ball as they are bad at running the ball, averaging -0.24 in rushing EPA and 0.22 in passing EPA.
  • Interestingly, their success rate rankings don’t really vary between rushing and passing, ranking 70th and 64th in rushing and passing success rate. So what’s bringing up their passing EPA? It likely comes from explosive passing plays, where they average a 15-yard passing play on 17 percent of passes (39th). That’s mostly from Darrell Stewart Jr., who averages nearly 16 yards per catch.
  • They are the reverse of their defense, better on passing downs (-0.07 EPA) than on standard downs (-0.22 EPA). Note that neither of those ratings are good — they’ve both negative compared to expected EPA. But they’re still significantly worse on standard downs. That likely comes on second downs, where their 33.9 percent success rate is 109th in the country. Surprisingly, the success rate numbers disagree with EPA here, as they rank 45th in standard downs success rate and 84th in passing downs success rate. My guess here is that they have had some of their most explosive passing plays on passing downs, even if they’re relatively unsuccessful overall.
  • They are decent at preventing negative plays, allowing havoc plays on 15.9 percent of plays (41st), but they still are tackled at or behind the line on 21.2 percent of runs (91st).

Basically, the Spartans offense doesn’t seem too threatening, since it still mostly lacks a run game. But Brian Lewerke has been a little better at creating explosive passing plays than you might expect. This shouldn’t matter much if Ohio State’s offense finds any kind of success.