When we looked at the S&P+ matchups of OSU’s offense against Michigan’s defense, it was mostly a stalemate of strength vs. strength, with one identifiable statistical advantage to each side. When we compare the stats of Michigan’s offense against OSU’s defense, the numbers do not suggest an even matchup. Although, the numbers also do not fully appreciate just how good Michigan’s run blocking has become in the past month. And after seeing Iowa run in big gashes against OSU’s defense while Michigan was running for 400 yards per game, I have certainly seen visions run through my mind of a potential repeat of that dastardly number of 313.
The biggest unknown is who will play quarterback. Harbaugh has OSU’s game-planning right where he wants it…not knowing which of 3 QBs will play. Coach Harbaugh, how is Peters? “He’s coming along.” Coach Harbaugh, how is Speight? “He’s coming along.” I’m sure we won’t know until Michigan’s offense takes the field.
Over the course of the season, Michigan has been better at being explosive than consistent (40th in IsoPPP, 91st in Success Rate). OSU’s defense has been a bit more vulnerable at giving up the explosive play than being beaten consistently (25th in IsoPPP, 14th in Success Rate). Perhaps Michigan will catch a few big plays, particularly in the running game (18th best rushing IsoPPP). We’ve certainly seen Higdon & Evans do that very thing multiple times in the past month.
RUSHING: Though Michigan may have some big plays in the running game, they may have more trouble having consistent success in terms of moving the chains efficiency (69th in rushing Success Rate vs. OSU 3rd in preventing “successful” plays).
PASSING: Michigan’s passing numbers are certainly not scary, but that’s also because attempts have dwindled since going with Peters. However, pass defense is not OSU’s defensive strength. Despite all the criticism OSU’s pass defense has faced, the problem has not been cornerback #12 Denzel Ward, who has had an excellent season. The trouble has come from the other CBs and also safeties. But the worst part of OSU’s pass defense has actually come from linebacker play. It was the LBs who were regularly beaten by Mayfield throwing to TEs & backs. The LBs were awful at Kinnick when the Iowa TEs put up a huge day. (Ironically, 2 of the 3 starting linebackers did not play against Sparty after getting dinged up by Iowa, and the linebacker group had its best game of the season against MSU.) As coincidence would have it, TEs & backs are precisely the norm for the passing attack of a full-on Harbauffense. This has been even more the case with Peters. It’s very possible that using TEs & backs as a comfort zone for Peters (if he plays) will allow Michigan to do good things in the passing game against OSU’s LBs.
Michigan’s offense is actually better against the national average on passing downs (21st) than on standard downs (49th). OSU’s defense is also more vulnerable on passing downs (37th in Success Rate, 54th in IsoPPP) than standard downs (8th in Success Rate, 12th in IsoPPP).
If these trends play to form on Saturday, OSU’s defense may be more likely to win a number of plays on standard downs, but Michigan’s offense come up with big plays on passing downs, even running the ball when behind the chains (42nd in Line Yards on passing downs vs. OSU’s defense being only 46th in Line Yards on passing downs). I can see this happen on 2nd down after minimal gain on first down (OSU’s defense is 2nd in S&P+ on 1st down but drops to 41st on 2nd down, whereas Michigan’s offense is only 82nd on 1st down but jumps up to 18th on 2nd down). That equates to OSU’s defense getting a 1st down smother of minimal or no gain, with Michigan’s offense having a good chance to make up for it on 2nd down even with 8+ yards to go. Therefore, the Fancy Stats suggest Michigan’s offense does not need to stay ahead of the chains as much as OSU’s offense needs to.
The area we all know that is most advantageous for OSU’s defense is their D-line pass rushing (#1 D-Line Havoc Rate in the nation) against Michigan’s O-line (118th in Adj. Sack Rate). Shall we expect Michigan to run 70%+ of their snaps? It will be interesting to see how Michigan will scheme for successful passing plays while avoiding having its QB put on his back again.
Both defenses appear to be in line to get multiple sacks. Any of these sack plays, particularly if resulting in a turnover, could end up being the determining factor in the game’s winner.