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Advanced analytics project Ohio State to beat Wisconsin by two touchdowns

Hello, old friend.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

By taking down Minnesota last week, Wisconsin gets another shot at the Buckeyes after losing 38-7 earlier this season.

When Ohio State entered its stretch run, which began with Penn State, I wondered if the Buckeyes would have the endurance to beat three top-15 SP+ teams in a row (9th, 12th, and 10th). No matter how good you are, that’s still a difficult thing to do.

And it’s not a foregone conclusion that the Buckeyes will win this week, despite the fact that Ohio State beat Wisconsin soundly earlier in the season and that the Buckeyes have fairly clearly been the top-performing team in the country this year. But, as should be obvious, the Buckeyes are heavy favorites: SP+ gives them a 79% shot, while 538’s model puts it at 77%.

The Buckeyes shouldn’t have any trouble staying motivated for the game. First, there’s still an outside chance that a narrow loss would kick the Buckeyes out of the playoff. For example, if LSU, Clemson, Utah, and Oklahoma all win this week but Ohio State loses, their playoff odds drop to 25% — well below those four. (However, to be fair, my guess is that 538’s model slightly over-weights the importance of a conference championship... but would the Buckeyes really want to test that theory?) Second, seeding really matters! The second-place team (either LSU or Ohio State) will likely have to play Clemson in the semi-finals... and no one wants that (if UGA upsets LSU, my guess is that Ohio State would then face LSU instead). So not only does Ohio State want to win — they want to win solidly to emphasize their case for the top spot.

As you can see in the chart above, which plots average offensive expected points added (EPA) by average defensive EPA, Clemson is riiiiiiight there next to the Buckeyes. Imagine if the Buckeyes path to the championship required consecutive games against Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Clemson, and LSU?

(If you’re wondering what EPA is, I’d encourage you to check out the explanation at the start of my Penn State preview.)

You’ll also notice in the chart above how close Wisconsin is to that top tier of teams too. They’re pretty darn good!

What happened the last time these two teams played?

As you can see in Bill Connelly’s advanced box score above, Ohio State’s offense was held in check for a half, but improved as the game went on. Other things of note:

  • J.K. Dobbins had an explosive rushing performance, as demonstrated by his highlight yards per opportunity and the team’s rushing IsoPPP
  • Chase Young’s 7 havoc plays were just ridiculous
  • The passing game was pretty limited, with Fields throwing for only 4.85 yards per attempt
  • Wisconsin had a 30% success rate and below-average explosiveness, so eventually the Buckeyes’ run game created enough big plays to overcome a Wisconsin team that couldn’t do anything offensively.

Wisconsin’s defense is good — it just probably can’t hang with Ohio State for four quarters

The chart above shows the matchup between the Ohio State offense and Wisconsin defense by EPA percentiles (which are the percentiles for each stat’s z-scores). There are a few interesting things here:

  • Wisconsin seems to be marginally better at preventing big plays than stopping down-to-down success, as seen in the difference between average EPA and EPA success rate percentiles, although Ohio State did pretty well producing big plays on the ground last time.
  • Speaking of which , there is a fairly large difference between Ohio State and Wisconsin’s average rushing EPA. This suggests that more big runs could be in store... but there’s an even bigger difference between the two teams in passing EPA per play. I’m wondering if we might see more emphasis on the Ohio State passing game against Wisconsin. Rashod Bateman had plenty of success last week against the Badgers secondary, and I wonder if the Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson might be able to create a few more explosive plays now that Fields seems to have gotten more comfortable with timing his deep balls. It will also help to be playing this game indoors, instead of in a cold rain as in too many of the Buckeyes’ games this season.
  • One of the most interesting things to note here is the difference between Wisconsin’s defense on standard vs. passing downs, where they basically fall off a cliff. Justin Fields has dominated passing downs this season, whether through efficient passes or running as in the Penn State game, and it seems like that trend should continue here. However, my guess is that the Buckeyes will try their best not to run Fields if they can at all avoid it.
  • One of Wisconsin’s worst stats is in red zone efficiency, suggesting that drives that get into Badgers’ territory should end in touchdowns rather than field goals.
  • So, in total, I’ll be watching whether Wisconsin can be as efficient on standard downs as the above chart suggests, whether the Buckeyes can generate more explosive passing, and whether they can maximize their red zone opportunities.
  • One final note: the chart below shows offensive efficiency compared with average EPA on only successful plays. It’s a helpful way of showing efficiency vs. explosiveness. Ohio State’s explosiveness has inched a little closer to LSU/Oklahoma levels. Wisconsin is both less efficient and less explosive.

Once again, it’s all about making the Badgers one-dimensional

The chart below suggests that this matchup — between the Badgers offense and Ohio State defense — should be closer than the opposite. But the Buckeyes effectively shut down the Badgers during their earlier game this season — why was that?

  • For the most part, Ohio State was able to shut down the Wisconsin run game (Taylor had a 35% success rate and 2.6 yards per carry), and the passing game followed. Jack Coan didn’t have enough time in the pocket to throw because Chase Young was racking up sacks, so the Badgers were reduced to inefficient rushing attempts and little else.
  • Going by the rushing EPA numbers alone, you’d think that Wisconsin might be able to run some on the Buckeyes — but I have confidence in the defense’s ability to shut down the run game because the Badgers are so one-dimensional.
  • Interestingly, the Badgers are much worse on passing downs than on standard downs, as was the case for their offense. If I were the Badgers OC, I might try passing — and play action in particular — on standard downs, assuming Chase Young and company aren’t destroying any slower-developing pass plays without sending extra pass rushers. Basically Wisconsin has to avoid getting in obvious passing situations where Ohio State can unleash the pass rush. Play action on standard downs might hurt a defense that is keying on the run schematically.
  • I’d also wonder if the Badgers might double-teaming Young like Michigan did, but the Badgers just don’t have the athletes at wide receiver like Michigan does. Ohio State can more easily play with three linebackers on field (including Tuf Borland if they want) against Wisconsin, where they absolutely could not against Michigan.
  • One of the biggest margins for the Buckeyes looks to be in the red zone. This may be the key, as Ohio State should have a big advantage in forcing field goal attempts from scoring opportunities. As long as the defense isn’t allowing explosive runs to Jonathan Taylor, this statistical profile suggests that the Badgers will slow down the closer they get to the end zone, and then get in trouble on passing downs.