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Advanced Stats Preview: Ohio State

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Both teams have advantages running the ball, but who will get more stops?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It's finally (almost) here! While there's a lot of fear (oh no, Urban Meyer doesn't lose bowl games!) and optimism (Ohio State ain't played nobody) out there in the Notre Dame universe, advanced stats anticipate a very close game with some advantages for each team.

Notre Dame Rushing Offense vs. Ohio State Run Defense

ND Rushing Offense

OSU Defense

Avg.

Rk

Avg.

Rk

Rushing S&P+

128.7

3

118.1

17

Rushing Success Rate

45.8%

34

36.8%

23

Rushing IsoPPP

1.29

7

0.98

33

Adj. Line Yards

125.8

2

110

31

Opportunity Rate

46.1%

4

30.6%

5

Power Success Rate

66.7%

59

66.7%

73

Stuff Rate

21.1%

86

19.2%

77

Across the board you can see small edges here from Notre Dame's running game, even against a very solid Ohio State front. The few areas where the Irish haven't been excellent - running in power situations and being stuffed too often - aren't strengths for the Buckeyes either. Ohio State has faced three of the top 50 rushing offenses in S&P+, and they aren't who you would expect (FYI, while much more talented Michigan is 61st and Michigan State 98th) - Maryland (11th), Western Michigan (35th), Penn State (38th) averaged 206 yards on the ground (5.02 YPC). Some of those yards may have been accumulated in garbage time, since the average score of those games was 42-17, but I wouldn't anticipate the run game getting bottled up.

The biggest story not told by these numbers is the impact of injuries to Ohio State's front, where defensive tackles Adolphus Washington (solicitation) and Tommy Schutt (foot injury) are likely out. Notre Dame's offensive line played its best game of the season against Stanford and may be as healthy as they've been since the opener against Texas in Glendale. Keep an eye on DeShone Kizer's carries, as I have feeling in the last game of the year Brian Kelly may let him take a few more hits.

Advantage: Notre Dame

Notre Dame Passing Offense vs. Ohio State Pass Defense

ND Passing Offense

OSU Defense

Avg.

Rk

Avg.

Rk

Passing S&P+

130.9

8

137.2

4

Passing Success Rate

45.9%

24

28.7%

1

Passing IsoPPP

1.59

31

1.56

95

Adj. Sack Rate

109.7

52

158.6

6

A Top-10 passing offense against a top-5 passing defense should be fun to watch. The Buckeyes have made their opponents incredibly inefficient in the passing game, but that IsoPPP number definitely catches your eye - when they've been beat, it's been for big yardage. Sound familiar? It's almost exactly the same IsoPPP as Notre Dame's pass defense (although with a worse success rate it's happened more often for the Irish). Ohio State has given up 6 passes of over 50 yards, which should make Will Fuller salivate.

This shows why it will be critical for the Notre Dame offense to run the ball effectively and avoid falling behind - there just won't be many open receivers to consistently throw to against this defense. The Buckeye pass rush may be slowed a little with starters out in the defensive interior, but there's still a Joey Bosa and extremely athletic linebacking corps to account for. Against Temple and Boston College DeShone Kizer made some bad decisions under pressure, and it'll be critical for blockers to excel in blitz pickup and Kizer to make better decisions (sometimes taking the sack is OK!) in this one.

Advantage: Slightly to Ohio State

Ohio State Rushing Offense vs. Notre Dame Run Defense

OSU Rushing Offense

ND Run Defense

Avg.

Rk

Avg.

Rk

Rushing S&P+

124.7

8

105.1

51

Rushing Success Rate

50.5%

9

40.5%

54

Rushing IsoPPP

1.13

36

1.14

91

Adj. Line Yards

119.5

8

115.4

19

Opportunity Rate

46.8%

1

34.8%

30

Power Success Rate

75.0%

22

66.7%

73

Stuff Rate

18.3%

48

23.1%

28

Unless Ohio State's run defense falls apart without Washington and Schutt, this is likely the biggest advantage in the game. With a billion talented options led by Ezekiel Elliott and JT Barrett, the Buckeyes have been extremely efficient and pretty explosive running the ball. Statistically, it's essentially Stanford's rushing efficiency with much more explosiveness and a scarier running threat at QB. Elliott has broken tons of big runs on the biggest stages and should be the primary concern, especially for a defense that has at times ran itself out of position or taken poor angles to lead to big runs.

Taking a second to look outside the numbers, I actually like Notre Dame's chances stopping the run against a vanilla Ohio State running game - very few teams have out-muscled the Irish defensive line, and in big games it's mostly been explosive runs or the passing defense that have been the weak points. But as Eric showed breaking down the Ohio State-Michigan game, it should be anything but a conservative game plan from Urban Meyer. He has an exceptional record in bowl games for a reason, and the thought of him watching all of the trick plays and misdirections that have confused this Irish defense in 2015 and maniacally scheming how to hit a long play with Barret, Elliott, Braxton Miller, Michael Thomas, or Jalin Marshall gives me fever dreams.

Looking for optimism? Jarron Jones returns for the Irish, which could be a small or decent impact, but either way should be a net positive keeping the defensive interior a little more fresh. Brian Van Gorder and Co. did a very strong job bottling up Christian McCaffery in the final game of the season, so there's something to build on there. Notre Dame has the athletes with Jaylon Smith, Shumate, and Redfield to contain Ohio State if they can be in the right place at the right time.

Advantage: Ohio State

Ohio State passing vs. Notre Dame pass defense

OSU Passing Offense

ND Pass Defense

Avg.

Rk

Avg.

Rk

Passing S&P+

118.5

26

109.1

36

Passing Success Rate

44.1%

40

35.6%

26

Passing IsoPPP

1.53

52

1.56

96

Adj. Sack Rate

103.9

58

90.7

83

This is a much more even match-up on paper than I think most Notre Dame fans feel it is on the field. Why the pessimism? For one, the absence of KeiVarae Russell, paired with all the talent in Ohio State's receiving corps that leads you to believe they're capable of being much better than these numbers show now that the QB rotation has ended (they were #2 in Passing S&P+ a year ago with most of the same players).

Can Notre Dame replicate what worked for Michigan State shutting down Ohio State's offense? Probably not, but they also shouldn't need to hold Ohio State to 14 points - limiting the Buckeyes to some degree may be enough. The Spartans played their corners in off-coverage, devoted 7-8 players to stopping the run most plays, and dared the Buckeyes to beat them with deep passes or quick throws underneath.  While the Irish have the front seven to pull off stopping the run, this means Devin Butler, Cole Luke, and Max Redfield holding up one on one against players like Miller, Marshall, or Thomas in space. Barrett struggled in that game but it was also rainy, windy, and cold - zero chance of that combination reappearing inside University of Phoenix stadium. Still, I'd rather pick my poison making Barrett make deep throws under pressure or hitting short passes than get gashed by the Ohio State running attack. It's as good of a strategy as any Notre Dame has, but I'm also sure Urban Meyer is ready for it.

Advantage: Slightly to Ohio State

Special Teams:

New charts, with details courtesy of FEI:

ND Special Teams

Efficiency (Rk)

OSU Special Teams

Efficiency (Rk)

Punt

-.14 (16)

Punt Return

.14 (25)

Kickoff

-.02 (43)

Kickoff Return

.04 (48)

Punt Return

.13 (26)

Punt

-.21 (10)

Kick Return

-.02 (74)

Kickoff

-.09 (13)

Field Goal

.48 (9)

Field Goal

-.59 (121)

While FEI rates Notre Dame's special teams #9 overall and Ohio State's 39th, looking above you can see these teams are fairly evenly matched. Both teams are solid both punting and returning punts. Ohio State has an advantage in kickoffs, where the Irish are not great in returns, but if anything the takeaway there is that CJ Sanders may need to just take a knee a few times. The only big disparity that should have a big impact is in field goal kicking, where Notre Dame has a big advantage with Justin Yoon. The Buckeyes made a change in November, with Jack Willoughby (7 of 11) replaced by Sean Nuernberger (0 of 1). Willoughby had missed all three of his attempts of over 40 yards, and Nuernberger was 13 of 20 in 2014, so expect Ohio State to take chances on 4th down in Irish territory, which many times is the right move even if you have confidence in your kicker.

Advantage: Slight edge to Notre Dame

Not settling for field goals and field position will be a big deal:

What to watch for:

  • Red zone, red zone, red zone. It's been a growing concern for the Irish offense, and Ohio State's defense is excellent in the same area, giving up just 3.73 points per opponent trip inside their 40 (9th nationally). Will extra practices lead to some new wrinkles in the red zone and improvement in decision-making from DeShone Kizer here?
  • The running games really fuel both offenses - Notre Dame will have to be successful on the ground to open up the passing game, and the opportunity may be there - Ohio State's defensive havoc rate is led by their now-weakened defensive line as opposed to their linebackers. On the opposite side of the ball, Ohio State runs on nearly two thirds of standard downs and 44.3% of passing downs (15th most often) - can Notre Dame force the Buckeyes into situations where they'll have to pass and have been less effective (9th offensively on standard downs; 26th on passing downs)?
  • Combine a very solid offense (14th overall in S&P+) and defense (8th overall) and good special teams and you'll see that Ohio State has benefitted from great starting field position advantages, starting possessions at its own 34 (4th in the land) and opponents starting on their own 25 (3rd nationally). The Irish defense will need as many long fields as possible against this dynamic Buckeye offense and can't afford to lose the field position battle.

Predictions:

  • FEI likes Notre Dame 26-25. I've listed this projection first because not only because it's the only one that has the Irish winning, but also because FEI's projections have been spot on for Notre Dame's close games. At Clemson it predicted a 25-20 loss (final score: 24-22), vs. Navy a 40-21 win (final score: 41-24), vs. USC a 32-24 win (final score: 41-31), and at Stanford a 32-29 loss (final score: 38-36). At the very least the margins of victory and winners have been eerily similar, and in a couple of those games it was near exact.
  • S&P+ predicts Ohio State 32.4-28.0, and gives the Buckeyes a 60% win probability. This is a slightly more favorable view than the Vegas lines, which are holding steady around 6.5 points. The Power Rank views Ohio State as the 2nd best team in the nation but also has the Buckeyes only favored by around four points.