Offensive Review: Can the Nittany Lions Get Even Better?

By Craig Fritz on June 1, 2018 at 8:15 am
The Penn State Nittany Lion Loves S&P+
Adriana Lacy - Roar Lions Roar

Penn State's offense exploded on to the national scene in 2016, pummeling opponents with dazzling plays at seemingly the most opportune times. In 2017, it was more of the same for the Nittany Lions, as quarterback Trace McSorley grew more comfortable in Joe Moorhead's system, all-time great Saquon Barkley had a monster season, and the offense ground opponents into dust. Penn State vaulted from a pedestrian 59th rated S&P+ offense in 2015 to top-20 units each of the last two years (18th in 2016, 10th in 2017).

The question now is can this ridiculous level of production continue, and dare we say improve? It's certainly a tall order for new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne.

For this exercise we will use Bill Connelly's advanced statistics profile for the Nittany Lions. If you've never heard of S&P+ before, here's some introductory reading. Basically, Bill's formulas measure how successful a team is offensively or defensively in specific situations on the field. There's a lot to digest here, but we'll pick out a few key elements for examination.

First, let's take a look at the biggest offensive improvements year-over-year for Moorhead's system (increases of more than 15 spots nationally).

overall 2016 rank 2017 rank difference
efficiency 80 8 72
Turnover margin 54 11 43
  • Call it whatever you want, the serum, the cure-all, the big fix. Penn State moved from a team with below-average efficiency to one that was among the absolute best in college football at moving the chains. As far as S&P+ projections are concerned, Efficiency is "by far the most important of the factors (Five Factors)." If you can stay on schedule, you get more opportunities to score and become harder to beat. This jump was just ridiculous, and also shows the time it takes to get immersed in a new offensive system.
  • They took care of the ball and created turnovers. Obviously, this eliminated more empty possessions and created more chances to score.
rushing 2016 rank 2017 rank difference
rushing s&p+ 68 4 64
rushing success rate 100 22 78
rushing isoppp 72 11 62
adjusted line yards 120 63 57
opportunity rate 84 9 73
power success rate 118 89 29
stuff rate 119 95 24
  • Holy big jumps again. Overall, Penn State's rushing attack was light years better in 2017. What was just a stagnant, toothless attack two years ago, turned into an effective strength. 
  • Moving from the bottom to the top-25 in Rushing Success Rate (50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down) correlates with the big jump in overall offensive efficiency. 
  • The major strides in Rushing IsoPPP again stress efficiency but also explosiveness.(Iso Points-Per-Play allows us to look at offense in two steps: How consistently successful were you, and when you were successful, how potent were you?) 
  • Congrats go to the offensive line for the huge increase in Opportunity Rate (which is the percentage of carries in which the offensive line “does its job” and produces at least five yards of rushing for the runner). 
  • There's still work to do. The middle-of-the-pack Adj. Line Yards show that Saquon Barkley made something out of nothing often (but not as often as 2016). Power Success Rate (percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown) and Stuff Rate (percentage of runs where the runner is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage) went from abysmal to just bad. Without Barkley, the onus to keep the run game clicking will be on the hogs in the trenches.
passing 2016 rank 2017 rank difference
passing success rate 50 11 39
  • There weren't major jumps in the passing game overall. Penn State's bombs-away Passing S&P+ slipped from second in 2016 to sixth last year, which is basically negligible. One area where there was big improvement was Passing Success Rate, which as noted above, means they got the needed yardage for each down an distance situation with much more regularity. They relied less on explosiveness, and more on efficiency. 
standard downs 2016 rank 2017 rank difference
standard down success rate 97 30 67
standard down line yards/carry 123 101 22
standard down sack rate 55 30 25
  •  Again, some great, some not great. Improvement is always welcome, but sub-100 Standard Down Line Yards Per Carry is not a recipe for sustained success without a magician at running back. Allowing fewer sacks in non-obvious passing situations is an excellent thing.
  • Success on Standard Downs was one of the largest year-over-year improvements and fits right in with the excellent efficiency numbers.
Passing downs 2016 rank 2017 rank difference
passing down success rate 42 3 39
passing down line yards/carry 127 69 58
  • Passing Downs are 2nd-and-8 or more, 3rd-and-5 or more, or 4th-and-5 or more. These are also called obvious passing situations. Trace McSorley and his receivers turned a pretty good passing down success rate into an absolutely lethal one in 2017. Even when opponents knew the Lions were going to throw, they couldn't stop the Blue and White.
  • Another bright spot for the OL appears. From the nation's worst unit for "doing their job" for rushes on passing downs in 2016, the big uglies made a nice jump toward respectability last year. There's still work to be done.
situational 2016 rank 2017 rank difference
1st quarter s&p+ 62 2 60
2nd quarter s&P+ 27 6 21
3rd down s&p+ 62 2 60
  • In 2016, it was sometimes painful how long it took the offense to get going (Pitt, Minnesota, Wisconsin), but the Nittany Lions put the pedal to the metal right out of the gate in 2017. The first quarter improvement is ridiculous, and likely one of the largest jumps in the country. Overall, the unit was rated no worse than eighth nationally in any quarter. 
  • There's that efficiency thing again. Penn State absolutely cleaned up on third downs in 2017. The 2016 marked was a significant upgrade from 2015's horrific 89th ranking, but the jump last year was just outrageous.
special teams 2016 rank 2017 rank difference
punt success rate 28 10 18
punt return success rate 96 14 82
  • Blake Gillikin was generally a known quantity, but he and his punt coverage units got even better in 2017. Penn State consistently gave opponents long fields, thanks to Gilly's boot and the players on coverage.
  • Punt Return Success Rate was the largest single improvement for the entire team. Improved blocking, better return schemes, DeAndre Thompkins' speed and vision on full display; whichever strings Charles Huff pulled last year for the punt return unit worked amazingly well. It would serve the team very well to stay in the top 25 of this metric with the de-emphasis of kickoff returns.

This is the first post in a series looking at the year-over-year improvements or declines in performance across the Nittany Lion offense and defense. Next up we'll look at the areas of largest decline for the offense. [Part 2 - Offensive Decline] [Part 3 - Defensive Improvement] [Part 4 - Defensive Decline]