Chris Kopech (@ckopech), an editor over at Land-Grant Holy Land, graciously took some time to exchange some questions and answers we had for each other about the upcoming matchup between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Ohio State Buckeyes.
You can find my answers to Chris's questions here:
Here is a summary of our correspondence:
The Daily Gopher: Ohio State is one of the most nationally visible programs in the country so we probably know a little bit more about the Buckeyes than some of our other opponents going into this matchup. This being said, what would you say are the major differences between a JT Barrett run offense and a Cardale Jones run offense and do you think this change will effect the performance of the Buckeye offense?
Land-Grant Holy Land: Yours is a good, timely question that I think is best answered by using a comparison in the Halo game universe. Stay with me.
J.T. Barrett, with his silky smooth moves, and his ability so seemingly slide and burst in many directions, is a quarterback built for the Urban Meyer system. He is most certainly a heavy assault craft on the ground, with great feet, and a gun attached to his shoulder, but, as we know (and he rigorously rejects), it isn't the best gun available, and can be somewhat under powered. Basically, Barrett is a Covenant Wraith Tank.
Then there's Cardale Jones. Big, hulking, lacks the speed and explosiveness of his counterpart, but can more than make up for it in brute force. And he can throw the ball a country mile, to boot. That makes Cardale the Buckeye equivalent of a UNSC Scorpion.
The point here, both are dangerous pieces of weaponry, but must be used in the right way. Barrett could use his moves to slide away from defenders, throwing when he has to. With Jones, you get brute force. In the right hands, either are great weapons. But we didn't see the same success earlier in the season. That will have to change against Minnesota.
(In this metaphor, Braxton Miller is a Covenant Ghost with sick moves and low shields and is prone to explode too often. I play too many video games.)
TDG: So far this season, many people believe that Ohio State hasn't "looked the part" of a defending national champion with a multitude of returning starters at their disposal. However, they are undefeated (that's the main goal isn't it?), they rank very well in F/+ at 8th in the nation, considering they haven't played the two toughest games on their schedule yet (Michigan State and Michigan), and they've won their last three games by an average margin of 30.3 points. What do you think of this perception and the fact that the Buckeyes came in at 3rd in the first College Playoff Rankings?
LGHL: I think the "looks the part" perception is mostly correct, but horribly biased by the last three games of the 2014 season. You beat a good Wisconsin team 59-0, then Alabama, then Oregon, you expect that kind of performance. When you don't get it, the world falls apart.
But advanced stats are starting to tell a more realistic story. Back in mid-October, the Buckeyes were slotted 28th in the S&P+ rankings, with projected losses to Illinois and Michigan (the latter in a blowout). Now, Ohio State is now 4th in that metric, and projected to beat Illinois and be much closer to Michigan in the season finale. Right now, 3rd seems about right for the Buckeyes, but perceptions can change quickly. A close win won't help the resume, while a blowout win would keep things rolling in the right direction. A loss? Well...
TDG: Let's turn to the matchup at hand. With the re-insertion of Cardale Jones as the starting quarterback, how do you see the offense attacking a respectable Gopher defense (24th in the nation in S&P+ defensive rating) on Saturday? Will Jones (6.4 carries per game this year) run less than Barrett (17 carries in last year's game against Minnesota) would have?
LGHL: When Jones was the starter, there was an inclination by the coaching staff to stick to a very strict diet of "our quarterback is a running quarterback". And that made a lot of sense, as that threat opens up the passing game, as well as the ground game for Ezekiel Elliott. But the thing that really affected that was how sub-par Jones was as a runner while he was starting. Without that threat, the passing game suffered, too.
My hope is that the coaching staff has wisened up a bit and realized that the plan needs to shift with whomever is under/behind center, be it Jones, or his backup for this game, Braxton Miller. I think Jones runs much less than Barrett did last year, likely hits his average, and the biggest factor that decides this game is Elliott.
TDG: The Buckeyes' defense ranks 12th in defensive rating S&P+ but they haven't really faced any vaunted offenses this season, outside a respectable Indiana ranked 20th in offensive rating in S&P+. They also allowed the 100th ranked offense in Maryland to score 28 points at the Shoe in early October. No one will mistake Minnesota for Baylor, as the Gophers rank 87th in offensive rating. What kind of performance do you see in the cards for the Ohio State defense coming off of a bye week and playing at home?
LGHL: Make no mistake, this defense is very, very good. But make no mistake, this defense is prone to making some...mistakes. There's usually one or two plays each game that are head-scratchers (the long Sam Rogers TD in the Virginia Tech game most notably), as well as allowing more than a few explosive plays by good athletes (looking at you Indiana and Maryland).
There is always the chance that a big yardage play will Silver Bullets look like duds. Bear in mind, however, the defense is opportunistic, and forces turnovers at critical times (to the tune of four fumble recoveries and nine interceptions). Mitch Leidner has been fine this year, but will have to avoid mistakes (6 INTs so far this year) against a hungry secondary.
TDG: The most disturbing statistical difference between these two squads I found in my research for this matchup was their FEI Field Position rating for the 2015 season. Ohio State is first in the nation in this statistic. Minnesota is 109th (out of 128 FBS teams!!!)... Gulp. Since Minnesota's success last season and their style of play is necessitated on keeping opposing offenses deep in their own territory and playing with a reasonable field on offense, their success has plummeted in general this season. How do you see this monumental difference in field position rating playing out on Saturday?
LGHL: Minnesota fans are probably going to meet one of the Buckeyes' most important weapons a few times this game. Say what you want about Joey Bosa, or Elliott, or Miller, or Jones, but the most effective weapon all year has been Cameron Johnston, and he's probably the reason why Ohio State's rating is so high this year. Johnston's leg is, at the same time, a muscled up four iron (he can drive the ball far from tight lies) and a deft lob wedge (he can drop the ball on a spot from 50 yards away). If Minnesota's defense stops the Buckeyes between midfield and the Ohio State 40, they shouldn't celebrate too hard, because there's a great chance the Gopher offense will snap the ball in the shadow of their own endzone after a Johnston punt.
It's crazy to suggest, but trying to stop the Buckeyes when they get to "four-down territory" might actually be preferable to having a Johnston punt completely flip the field.
TDG: Lastly, what are your official predictions for the game? Will Ohio State cover the massive spread of 23.5-point that Vegas has assigned to this matchup? Or will the lack of a true running threat from the quarterback position slightly stall the offense and make this game too close for comfort?
LGHL: Minnesota is coming off of a huge letdown against Michigan (sorry about that one, Gophers) and a huge emotional hit when Jerry Kill retired (way more sorry about that one). After two straight losses, the last place the Gophers probably want to be is in Ohio Stadium at night with 105,000+ screaming for blood.
That said, the Buckeyes looked pedestrian with Jones earlier in the year, and while the coaching staff will likely make some changes, there's no guarantee they will work. Ohio State is 3-5 against the spread, 1-4 at home. The advanced stats only like Ohio State by 20.2, but I think the Vegas number is fair this week, if a little conservative. Buckeyes cover.
Thanks for the answers Chris, hope all of you Buckeye fans enjoy the night game in primetime on Saturday night!