Deep Stats: Opportunities and Challenges for the 2019 Penn State Offense

By Craig Fritz on June 20, 2019 at 1:07 pm
Penn State Quarterback Sean Clifford
RLR Staff

A year ago, I wrote about the lofty standard that new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and his starless offense had to live up to. I think we all now realize how difficult it is to replace three all-time greats and maintain the same levels of efficiency, scoring, and explosiveness. While there were some bright spots, generally the offense dropped off precipitously in most categories and overall fell from 10th nationally in 2017 to 36th in 2018.

Our analysis today centers around 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. Notably for 2018, Bill tweaked his formulas and added "Bill Walsh stats" along with some other changes.


This section is all about the tough task of making the good even better. These are spots where the 2018 Nittany Lions thrived over 2017. There aren't many, but the trick is still maintaining this improved level of production. Without beating around the bush, all of the gains were made in the rushing game. Interesting, isn't it? While the mega-plays out of the backfield pretty much left with Saquon, the Penn State running game was knocked backwards far fewer times in 2018.

category 2017 2018 difference
stuff rate 95 34 +61
standard down line yards/carry 101 18 +83
Passing down Line yards/carry 69 51 +18
  • Stuff rate is just what it sounds like, the percentage of runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. This stat confirms what your eyes already told you: Miles Sanders always fell forward. The jump here is pretty astounding, moving from just above "putrid" to solidly "better than average." Maintaining this level would be a great sign for Ricky Slade and the gang.
  • Not only did Sanders mitigate negative plays with his running style, but the offensive line got WAY better in doing their jobs in the run game. In the S&P+ system, rushing success/failure is a shared burden by the line and the backs. Standard downs are 1st-and-10, 2nd-and-7 or fewer, 3rd/4th-and-4 or fewer. This means that when the team was on schedule, the OL moved from trashy to nearly elite in "doing their jobs" on running plays.
  • On passing downs, which are situations where the team is behind the chains and off schedule, the OL wasn't as great in holding blocks for the running game. This makes sense though because generally opponents send more pressure packages on passing downs, meaning there are more rushers to account for than on standard downs. 
  • Interestingly, and not in the chart above, Penn State seemed to have a philosophy shift on passing downs. Penn State's run rate on passing downs moved from 110th nationally in 2017 with Joe Moorhead to ninth in 2018 under Rahne. He called a run on nearly 45% of passing-down plays. Moorhead called runs just 26% of the time in the same situations. There are a lot of reasons for this change, but it's definitely something to remember.


If you're looking for areas where Penn State's offense can improve in 2019, well you've come to the right place. Be forewarned, this is not a pleasant review. Maybe pop some Pepto and take a nap before venturing on. Long story short, the passing game was a complete disaster.

category 2017 2018 difference
Offense s&P+ 10 36 -26
Isoppp 19 57 -38
success rate 8 56 -48
field position 7 28 -21
finishing drives 14 63 -49
turnover margin 11 72 -61
  • We've already noted the overall drop in offensive rating. It's not terrible to be in the mid-30s nationally, but it's not nearly as fun either. All of these measures are part of S&P+ Five Factors. Generally, if you win the five factors, you win the game.
  • Speaking of fun, Isolated Points Per Play or IsoPPP is a measure of how consistently you were successful, and when successful, how potent you were. It's part of the statistical package that quantifies explosiveness on offense. According to Bill, teams that win the explosiveness battle go on to victory 86% of the time. Dropping to average here is not good.
  • Nor is falling nearly 50 spots in Success Rate. This is a measure of efficiency. To achieve success, a team needs to get 50% of needed yards on 1st down, 70% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd/4th down. So not only was Penn State less explosive, they were also less efficient. This drop is the type of thing that leads to your defense playing 100+ plays multiple times because you cannot sustain drives. Teams that win the efficiency battle win the game 83% of the time.
  • While 2018 didn't feature the elite Field Position status (short field for offense/long field for defense) we saw in 2017, it was still solid. Gains here have obvious and significant benefit. 
  • Finishing Drives is measure of how you end possessions that cross your opponent's 40-yard-line. You must have points in a majority of these situations. If you win the drive-finishing battle, you win the game 75% of the time. This absolutely must improve.
  • Rounding out the stench, Penn State dropped 60 spots in turnover margin. The wild stat here is fumble luck. Normally you expect to recover about 50% of fumbles. In fact, that's exactly what happened when the Lions were on offense. Opponents recovered 13 of Penn State's 24 fumbles. Conversely, Brent Pry's squad only nabbed 7 of opponents' 24 fumbles! That's a huge statistical outlier. 
category 2017 2018 difference
Passing s&p+ 6 64 -58
adj. sack rate 56 90 -34
passing down s&p+ 2 69 -67
passing down marginal efficiency N/A 122 N/A
3rd and Long Success rate N/A 92 N/A
Blitz down sack rate N/A 106 N/A
  • Woe is me. Drops, inaccuracy, bad routes, drops, some more drops, and drops. Without DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki, Saeed Blacknall, and Barkley, Penn State's passing game was a shell of its former self. The receivers were BAD. Among regulars, only Sanders had a catch rate north of 60%. Contrast that to 2017 where Blacknall was the only regular with a catch rate UNDER 62.5%! 
  • Basically all facets of the passing game failed. Across all situations, sacks went way up. This was especially true on passing downs and blitz downs. When the opponent knew Penn State needed to throw, they decked Trace McSorley with regularity. 
  • Passing down failures basically sum up the totality of the offense's struggles. When the down and distance dictated a passing play, Penn State was bad overall, completely inefficient, unsuccessful in gaining required yardage, generating big plays, and getting the quarterback beaten like a drum. 
  • They were also in those situations far too often. The Lions ranked 113th in 3rd-and-short percentage, meaning a majority of 3rd downs were medium to long distance. That is not a recipe for success.

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 challenges and opportunities for the defense. 

Hit up the comments to talk about your biggest concerns or optimisms for the 2019 offense.

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