Midterm Review: What Do Advanced Stats Tell Us About Penn State's Offense Through Six Games?

By Bill DiFilippo on October 12, 2017 at 8:37 am
This offense may look different from last year's, but it's still an awesome unit.

Adriana Lacy, Roar Lions Roar


We're at the midseason point for Penn State football, as the squad is currently on its bye. Through six games, the Nittany Lions are 6-0, are the fourth-best team in the country by S&P+, and in the eyes of many, are the best team in the Big Ten. For the first time in years, Penn State has national title aspirations. It's been pretty fun, hasn't it?

As it turns out, last year's Big Ten champions also had their bye through six weeks. We were dealing with a good team (17th in S&P+) but the thought of winning the Big Ten was insane. Hell, finishing the regular season undefeated was crazy talk, too.

So we decided to take a look at Penn State's advanced statistical profile to find out how the team is different this year. This doesn't necessarily mean better or worse, but how is the team playing football compared to how it did during the 2016 campaign. Here are the resources we are using:

  1. Penn State's 2017 advanced statistical profile
  2. Penn State's 2016 advanced statistical profile at the end of the season
  3. Penn State's 2016 advanced statistical profile through six weeks, thanks to the Wayback Machine

Additionally, you're going to want to keep the advanced stats glossary pulled up for a point of reference.

We're breaking down the Nittany Lion offense, defense, and special teams unit. To start, let's discuss the Penn State offense. You might be surprised to learn that it's good. You might also be surprised to learn that it's functioning differently than it did last season. Here's how...

1. The Home Runs Aren't There (Kinda), But They're Playing Way Smarter

It's really easy to think that Penn State's offense isn't as good this year because the team isn't swinging for the fences (and connecting) as often. Last year, the Nittany Lions were the second-most explosive offense in the nation. They were the fourth-most explosive passing offense in America, too. Trace McSorley was taking shots, it worked, and it was fun as hell to watch.

But as Bill Connelly said when he appeared on Roar Lions Radio, Penn State is no longer functioning like an offense that relies on big plays, and that's perfectly fine, as they're one of the most efficient offenses in the sport. To put it into other sport terms, Penn State isn't hitting home runs this year at the same rate, but their batting average is way up.

There are two metrics within S&P+ that illustrate this: IsoPPP (explosiveness) and success rate (efficiency). You can check out the definitions of both here, but basically, IsoPPP measures points per play per successful play, while success rate asks how good your team is at getting 50 percent of the yards you need on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

Here's how Penn State's overall IsoPPP, passing IsoPPP, and rushing IsoPPP on offense are different over the last two years.

  2016 (6 Weeks) 2016 (Full) 2017
IsoPPP 1.42 (20th) 1.47 (2nd) 1.27 (27th)
Passing IsoPPP 1.89 (5th) 1.95 (4th) 1.48 (57th)
Rushing IsoPPP 1.05 (84th) 1.05 (72nd) 1.02 (27th)

And here's how Penn State's overall success rate, passing success rate, and rushing success rate are different over the last two years.

  2016 (6 Weeks) 2016 (Full) 2017
Success Rate 40.6 percent (84th nationally) 41.2 percent (80th) 46.8 percent (25th)
Passing Success Rate 37.9 percent (88th) 42.4 percent (50th) 45.1 percent (33rd)
Rushing Success Rate 43.2 percent (62nd) 40.2 percent (100th) 49.0 percent (24th)

What this means is that Penn State is a team that will still go for big plays sometimes, but not as frequently as it did last year, especially through the air. This is also the part where I remind you that McSorley currently has five more touchdowns and 161 more yards than he did at this point last year while completing 67 percent of his passes, compared to 58.1 percent of his passes at the same point. 

Basically, it's very possible that the one "weakness" this offense has (relatively speaking) is the inability to make big plays through the air. This is fine, because the team is doing everything else as well if not better, and in some cases, way better. Additionally, Penn State numbers, save for rushing success rate, actually improved as last year progressed. Who would have figured that playing together more might lead to an offense that functioned better?

And yes, I know the schedule was more difficult last year, but the offense is still executing, and looking through the prism of defenses Penn State has gone up against, it has still faced a top-20 unit by S&P+ (Indiana) and a top-25 unit (Iowa) and managed to execute, even if it had flaws in both games. Against the Hoosiers, Penn State struggled to run the ball. Against the Hawkeyes, it struggled to finish drives with touchdowns. Both of these things are obvious if you watched the games.

Oh, also, Saquon Barkley is very good. But you knew this, so I don't need to spend too much time talking about it. In fact, point No. 2 will put how good he is into context a little.

2. We Have Identified The Biggest Area For Concern And You'll Never Guess What It Is (Ok, That's A Lie)

It's the offensive line. Well, kind of. Based on the numbers, I would go as far as to venture that the line is the most hit-or-miss unit on the team.

So I am about to use two metrics: Stuff rate and opportunity rate. The former is how many rushes go for zero yards or fewer. The latter is when a line produces at least five yards of rushing; here's a further explanation by Football Study Hall.

Generally speaking, the first five yards are considered the line's responsibility, the next five are split evenly between the runner and the line, and anything over 10 yards is all on the runner.

Got that? Cool. Look at this silliness:

  2016 (6 Weeks) 2016 (Full) 2017
Opportunity Rate 38.5 percent (78th nationally) 38.2 percent (84th) 44.7 percent (16th)
Stuff Rate 22.4 percent (110th) 23.9 percent (119th) 24.5 percent (120th)

So basically, when Penn State runs the ball, there's a really good chance that it's either going for at least five yards or, at most, zero yards. Considering Penn State's solid rushing IsoPPP, its very good success rate, its opportunity rate that is just a hair below Wisconsin's (45.1 percent, 12th nationally), and its stuff rate that is one of the worst in America, I would venture to say that Penn State's offensive line is weird as hell. The good news is that when the Nittany Lions can get the ball past the line of scrimmage, it's fairly close to being an elite rushing attack.

Still, it's not great that a quarter of Penn State's rushing attempts don't go anywhere. There are some other weird statistics in here — for example, the Nittany Lions are not good at line yards per carry (read about line yards here) on passing downs (2nd-and-8 or more, 3rd-and-5 or more, 4th-and-5 or more) and they're average on standard downs (first downs, 2nd-and-7 or fewer, 3rd-and-4 or fewer, 4th-and-4 or fewer) — but I would argue those aforementioned four stats are the big ones.

This kind of leads me to agree with something Franklin said earlier this week when asked about possibly moving Brendan Mahon to tackle.

I think this might be a good idea? At the very least, I don't think it's a bad idea, and having continuity along the line may fix some of Penn State's issues. It also makes me think of something Andrew Callahan of Lions247 wrote in his weekly breakdown of games, which is necessary reading and I will quiz you on it next week, so read up. This tidbit comes from his most recent write up on the offense, namely one of the main reasons why it struggled early on against Northwestern.

The same explanation Lions players and coaches have offered all season: the inability to finish a needed block here and hold another one just a half-second longer there. Insufficient or missed blocks accounted for three of the six negative plays Penn State suffered on designed hand-offs.

Callahan pointed out that the team changed its rushing attack at a certain point against the Wildcats due to this. He explains it better than I do, so go read it.

Anyway, the numbers prove that the Penn State line has trouble finishing blocks, but when it's able to do that, the rushing attack thrives. The team seems to know that, too, based on what they're all saying. They have, at this point, a week and a half until they face the three best defensive fronts they'll face all season in Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State, so count me as extremely interested to see how the team tries to solve this issue.

As for the passing game, McSorley's sack rate of 6.7 percent is a little higher than his rate at the end of last season (5.6 percent), but it's also a little lower than his rate at this same point last year (7.3 percent), interestingly enough. Also, here's how the team's passing and standard down sack rates are different compared to the points we've been using the last two seasons.

  2016 (6 Weeks) 2016 (Full) 2017
Standard Down Sack Rate 4.6 percent (65th nationally) 4.4 percent (55th) 3.7 percent (47th)
Passing Down Sack Rate 8.6 percent (74th) 6.6 percent (46th) 13.8 percent (119th)

Gonna say something very obvious: Teams are better at going after McSorley when they predict before the play that Penn State is throwing the ball. Who know? But what this also tells me is that the Nittany Lions are great at keeping McSorley upright when teams are running defensive plays/throwing out defensive personnel that are keying in on stopping Barkley. Again, this is obvious.

Keep McSorley upright on passing downs — which is both on the line and on him to various extents — and I posit that the aforementioned lower passing IsoPPP number will go up. When Penn State is giving McSorley time to throw and he's not getting into trouble with how he moves around in the pocket, this passing attack is going to take a step forward.

To sum this entire section up, the offensive line is rather good, except for the times when it is struggling. Please keep reading Roar Lions Roar dot com for this hard-hitting analysis.

3. In just about every other Phase of the game, The Offense Has Been Fine-To-Really Good

We already touched on Penn State's efficiency and explosiveness. It has also been really good at winning the field position battle (it is fifth in average field position) and average at finishing drives (60th in points per trip inside the 40). Its starting field position is six yards better than average, while its average at finishing drives is 0.25 points above the median. Also, with the offense's ability to hang onto the ball and the defense's ability to take it away, the Nittany Lions are second in expected turnover margin and first in actual turnover margin.

Penn State is good on standard downs (25th in success rate, 45th in IsoPPP) and on passing downs (27th and 33rd). Its adjusted line yards (108th) and, as we just touched on, sack rate (119th) on passing downs could ... be better, but those numbers are fine on standard downs (55th and 47th, respectively). 

Looking at all of this, there's one conclusion I think is fair: With more consistent (not better, since it is pretty good when it's on, but consistent) offensive line play, this offense can go from being great to fantastic. I don't even mean the line turns into one of those indomitable Alabama lines that eats people and churns out pros, I just mean a line that is consistent and gives Barkley more room to run and McSorley more time to throw. Is that possible? Maybe! But even if that doesn't happen, this has still been a really, really good offense so far.

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