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Three stats that could determine the winner of The Game

From scoring defense to McCarthy’s stats vs. top-50 defenses to red zone conversions, there’s a lot to dig into.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Ohio State at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Matt Tamanini Matt Tamanini is the co-managing editor of Land-Grant Holy Land having joined the site in 2016.

On Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023 at 12 noon ET in Michigan Stadium, perhaps the most dramatic installment of The Game in history will finally happen. Between now and then, there will undoubtedly be millions of hours and column inches spent talking about sign-stealing, cheating, softness, suspensions, RICO charges, coverups, computer crimes, and many more salacious storylines, but when it is time to get the game underway, those things will mostly fade into the background as two of the best college football teams in the country will square off for the Big Ten East’s spot in the conference championship game, a virtual guaranteed berth into the College Football Playoff, and the ability to control their own destiny to win the national title.

While a suspended coach or a two-game losing streak very well might factor into the motivation for the players and coaches, it will be what the teams are able to do on the gridiron that will determine who comes out on top. So, we are going to dive into three statistics that very well could play a major part in determining this weekend’s winner.

There are undoubtedly plenty of other things that will come into play for both teams on Saturday, and we will spend the rest of the week breaking those things down, but these three areas are what jumps out less than 24 hours after the two teams wrapped up their penultimate regular season games.

1) TTUN and Ohio State have the two best scoring defenses in the country

Not only will Ohio State and their rivals almost certainly be ranked No. 2 and No. 3 respectively by the College Football Playoff committee when they head into the regular season finale, but they will also come in as the two top defenses in the country when it comes to giving up points.

Jesse Minter’s squad has given up just 99 points across its 11 games this season for an obvious average of 9 points per game. That is undoubtedly an impressive total, but also impressive if Ohio State’s 102 points allowed. Were it not for Minnesota kicker Dragan Kesich’s 54-yarder in the fourth quarter on Saturday, the two teams would have come into the game giving up the same number of points. Instead, the Buckeyes enter at a 9.27 points-per-game average.

Ohio State has given up the fewest touchdowns in FBS this season, allowing only 10, their rivals are in second placing having surrendered only 11. Logic dictates that, barring especially explosive scoring plays by either special teams or defenses, whichever defense gives up the fewest points this weekend will win.

But, while averages are useful in providing a complete picture of where teams are, this weekend, both defenses will be tasked with facing off against one specific offense. On Saturday, the home team will enter the game as the No. 11 scoring offense in the country, putting up 38.3 points per outing, while OSU is 24th nationally at 33.6 ppg.

But, because of the different non-conference schedules that the two teams played, it might be more instructive to look at the two teams’ stats against common opponents. In those matchups — all against Big Ten teams — Ohio State has scored 33 points per game, while their rivals have scored one touchdown more at 40 points. So, there is no doubt that, from a statistical standpoint, the Buckeye defense will have the tougher task on Saturday when it comes to slowing down the opposing offense.

Offense vs. Common Opponents

Opponent Ohio State TTUN
Opponent Ohio State TTUN
Indiana 23 52
Maryland 37 31
Michigan State 38 49
Minnesota 37 52
Penn State 20 24
Purdue 41 41
Rutgers 35 31
Total Points 231 280
Points Per Game 33 40

2) J.J. McCarthy has completed 12 passes in his last six quarters of action and OSU is the best pass defense in FBS

Despite the prolific offense that the team from Ann Arbor has shown this season, one emerging factor that could swing the game in Ohio State’s favor is the fact that starting quarterback J.J. McCarthy seems to have hit a wall in terms of his productivity — and perhaps in the trust that his coaching staff has in him.

Two weeks ago, in a game against Penn State which was not decided until late in the fourth quarter, the one-time Heisman favorite did not officially attempt a single pass. Granted, his team did pull out the 24-15 victory, so perhaps he did not need to, but this surprising development definitely drew some attention. Now, he was 7-for-8 in the first half for 60 yards, but the offensive line was giving up an increasing number of pressures, and it appeared that offensive coordinator and interim head coach Sherrone Moore was uncomfortable with how McCarthy was handling that.

Then this weekend, the QB went 12-for-23 for 141 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT vs. Maryland. While the Terrapins are not necessarily known as a dominant defense, this performance does shed some additional light on what type of performer McCarthy might be against above-average defenses. The Terps are the No. 43 passing defense in the country, they were only the fifth such team that McCarthy has faced so far this season. In those games, he has gone 68-for-95 (71.6%) for 838 yards (167.6 per game), 6 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions.

As has been the case all season, McCarthy is excellent at completing passes — he is third nationally with a 73.8% completion percentage — but, his yardage output tends to be very low against quality passing defenses.

Currently, Ohio State is the No. 1 passing defense in the country, allowing only 144.3 yards per game.

J.J. McCarthy’s Stats vs. Top-50 Passing Defenses

Opponent Rank Date Completions Attempts Yards Touchdowns Interceptions
Opponent Rank Date Completions Attempts Yards Touchdowns Interceptions
Rutgers 5 Sept. 23 15 21 214 1 0
Penn State 6 Nov. 11 7 8 60 0 0
Bowling Green 29 Sept. 16 8 13 143 2 3
Maryland 42 Nov. 18 12 23 141 0 1
East Carolina 45 Sept. 2 26 30 280 3 0

3) Ohio State’s rival has the No. 2 red zone defense in the country

Anyone who has watched the Buckeyes this season knows that their offense behind quarterback Kyle McCord is nowhere near as prolific as it has been in recent years when led by Dwayne Haskins Jr., Justin Fields, and C.J. Stroud. But one area where that has been especially detrimental to OSU’s success has been in the red zone.

In 2022, the Buckeyes were second nationally in red zone conversions, scoring on 95.24% of their trips inside the 20; they were sixth in FBS in red zone touchdown percentage at 74.6%. However, this season, OSU is 61st in red zone conversions at 85.11%, on 47 trips through 11 games, the team has scored 29 TDs and 11 field goals. Simple math will tell you that Ohio State has been kept out of the end zone 18 times when getting without 20 yards of the goal line and been turned away completely seven times.

This is especially concerning for Buckeye fans as their regular season finale opponent is second nationally in red zone defense and No. 1 in terms of allowing red zone touchdowns. TTUN has allowed scores on only 66.67% of opponents' red zone trips and only allowed six touchdowns on 18 opportunities (33%).

Ohio State’s inability to consistently score in the red zone has been incredibly concerning to both fans and head coach Ryan Day alike. Throughout the season, the Buckeyes have tried different things to get the offense going down close to the goal line, including the Devin Brown QB-run package that eventually got him injured to running more end-arounds with Marvin Harrison Jr. and Xavier Johnson.

Unless they just score routinely from beyond 20 yards, if Ohio State wants to escape Ann Arbor with a win on Saturday, they must find a way to convert more consistently in the red zone.