What to Expect with New Offensive Coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca (Part 1): Looking Back to Look Foward

By Nate Wilmot on March 2, 2020 at 8:30 am
Oct 19, 2019; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) warms up prior to the game against the Michigan Wolverines at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
© Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

As we prepare for another change at the helm of the offense, we start by looking back to where we came from Hall to Rahne and everyone in between.

What defines a good or great offense is highly subjective and determinant on the system employed, the available talent, and the overall philosophy of the team. Depending on each of these, teams may strive for ultimate efficiency and an ability to wear teams down (Wisconsin) while others, any team led by Mike Leach, has the goal to move the ball as quickly as possible and run up the scoreboard. The Godfather of College Football Analytics and creator of SP+ (formerly S&P+) Bill Connelly uses factors of efficiency, explosiveness, field position, points-per-trip inside the 40, and turnovers to boil a team’s performance into one highly respected number. 

Today, and for this entire series, we will look at a mix of basic (rush and pass yards, scoring, etc.) to determine how PSU has held up through the last eleven seasons versus the rest of college football. Later, we’ll explore some more advanced statistics for PSU and finally, make predictions about what we might expect for PSU in 2020 as Kirk Ciarrocca fully implements his scheme.

Background: All stats are pulled from cfbstats.com which is a GREAT repository of information dating back to 2009 and data includes ONLY Division IA (FBS) competition. All graphs were made using Tableau Public.

Rush Yards per Game

The graph below is representative of what we’ll be exploring throughout the article and is worth a bit of explanation. Each gray circle is an FBS team’s performance each year and the gray line is the national average for that year. The Nittany Lion is PSU’s performance for that year. Also shown is whom our Offensive Coordinator was for that season.

FBS rush yards per game - 2009 to 2019

Over the last decade, PSU’s rushing attack has been sort of “meh” except for 2018 where the Miles Sanders led rushing attack ranked 29th nationally with an average of 205 yards/game against a national average of 171 YPG. On the flip side was the Jon Donovan led 2014 team (this will become a theme…) which ranked 118th out of 128 teams with an average of 101 YPG. Other than these two years though, the performance has been generally right around average. Even the years of JoMo as OC couldn’t produce above-average rushing attacks despite having Saquon Freaking Barkley. This sort of doesn’t matter though – see below.

Pass Yards per Game

When we flip over to the passing game, we see some pretty big changes, owing to the strengths of the different coordinators and maybe them playing to their personnel. The 2017 season, led by Trace McSorley in his 2nd year as a starter, was the best PSU performance of the time period. That year, the team averaged 290 YPG passing, good for 21st nationally.

FBS total yards per game - 2009 to 2019

On the flip-side, the 2018 performance is somewhat disappointing with 218.1 YPG (74th nationally against a 227 YPG national average) considering the personnel that we had. At QB we had: Trace as a 3rd-year starter; experience at receiver in Juwan Johnson, DeAndre Thompkins, etc.; an emerging pair of superstars in KJ and Pat (no last names needed); and good receiving backs.

Otherwise, it’s sort of a mixed bag again. The BOB years were pretty good in spite of the sanctions and with starting a walk-on QB in year one and a true freshman in year two. The Donovan years were average or below...right in line with my memory.

Total Offense

Putting it all together on a total offense basis leads me to a couple of conclusions. First, we really need to appreciate the job that BOB did to hold the ship together post-sanctions. In 2012 and 2013 his offenses produced an above-average 417 yards (45th) and 433 yards (42nd) respectively. Considering the below-average performance of 2011 and the steep drop-off the following year (there’s JD again) it’s easy to see why BOB got the Houston job when he did. He far exceeded expectations in an untenable situation while he was here.

FBS total per game - 2009 to 2019

The flagship year for production though was the 2017 season – 18th in the country at 460 YPG (397 national average). That 2017 team probably should’ve made the playoff and except for an untimely injury or two against OSU and a bad drop against MSU, they would’ve been there.


The yards are great, but points are what win ball games, and no one has produced points for PSU like Joe Moorhead has produced points. In 2015, under Jon Donovan, we produced 23.2 PPG (97th) and the defense was clearly the strength to maintain winning seasons those years. Enter JoeMo, who immediately changed this trajectory and turned in a national rank of 18 (37.6PPG) in 2016 and t-5 (41.1PPG) in 2017. Then, with similar personnel, we took a bit of a step-back in 2018 (33.8PPG, 23rd) under the guidance of Ricky Rahne. This was still a pretty high-powered offense even if it may not have felt it coming off 2017.

FBS points per game - 2009 to 2019

Summary - The Basics

Again, this is the first in a several (many?) part series on what we should expect as Coach Ciarrocca takes over the offense and was a retrospective on the basics of PSU’s offense in the last decade. On first pass, life was breathed into the program by the arrival of Joe Moorhead and he helped revitalize a program that was being suffocated by Jon Donovan’s offenses. Since JoMo’s departure, it seems we’ve regressed a bit in all basic aspects of production under Ricky Rahne. We will see if that regression is still apparent under a few more specific and advanced stats but the initial implication is that two-fold.

Going forward, people will expect to see improvement quickly by Coach Ciarrocca and the fanbase will not be satisfied with further regression. We know that improvement is possible under a new OC because we saw it. Look again at the 2015 to 2016 changes. Sure, we know that the personnel improved (Trace, Saquon, Gisecki, etc. all came into their own). But so too did the entire offensive philosophy because we brought in someone with a track record. Kirk Ciarrocca has that track record too. In the coming weeks, we’ll dig into what he’s done in his career to give us some confidence.

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