In the 2019 season we saw first hand how efficient an offense run by Kirk Ciarrocca can be. We saw it score 31 points with 460 yards of offense and 339 yards passing. We saw the efficiency - 90% completion rate - as Tanner Morgan ate up the Penn State secondary. But was this typical of a Ciarrocca offense?
In Part 1 we looked at a somewhat mixed history for Penn State over the last 11 seasons. We showed how Bill O'Brien likely overachieved his roster. We showed how Jon Donovan either underachieved or appropriately achieved depending on how you feel about the cards he had to play. Then, we saw how quickly an apparent offensive mastermind, Joe Moorhead, can turn things around. Today we will look at the same four basic stats - rushing and passing yards per game, total offense, and scoring offense - to examine if we might expect Kirk Ciarrocca to be more Donovan or Moorhead.
Background: As before, 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. Also, for the graphs below, logos circled in red are the last year of WMU or Minnesota prior to Ciarrocca's arrival. Logos in green are the years of Ciarrocca.
RUSH YARDS PER GAME
We start again with rushing yards. To recap the Penn State teams, we have never really been above national average in rushing with the exceptions of 2018 and 2019 where Ricky Rahne - maybe because he put more focus in rushing, maybe because the OL started to live up to the hype, or maybe for some other reason - has put Penn State in the realm of "good".
Below is the graph of the two Ciarrocca teams - Western Michigan from 2013 to 2016 and Minnesota (2017 - 2019). In the years prior to the arrival of Ciarrocca and Fleck WMU was not a rushing team. Their best year since 2009 was the 2012 campaign where they averaged about 140 RYPG. In Ciarrocca's first year this took a nosedive and dropped to a 105 yard average (114 out of 125). This is... not a great look. But look at that trajectory from year one to year four. By the time Ciarrocca left, they were ranked in the top 30 nationally in the stat (29th, 218 YPG). That's good but we can't wait until 2024 to see the same payoff. We will talk more about the personnel impacts that may have contributed to this rise later.
Minnesota on the other hand has always been a solid rushing team. They've had NFL backs on their roster and the midwest is consistently ripe with solid OL talent. In 2016, they averaged 175 RYPG which was right around average and in 2017, KC year 1, they improved slightly. Over the full three year sample, Fleck and Ciarrocca maintained solid rushing performance and finished on a high note in 2019 - 38th nationally and 182 YPG.
So, what should we expect in 2020? In 2019, Penn State averaged 178 YPG and considering the returning production at both running back and an experienced, athletic OL, rushing should improve. The fundamentals of the offense will not be grossly different so the learning curve should be low and Ciarrocca has shown the ability to run the ball. The real question is: what will be the rush/pass split? It was discussed that Minnesota in 2019 wanted to control the clock and this lends to favoring the rush. On a yard-per-carry (YPC) basis Penn State was actually better than Minnesota in 2019 (4.56 versus 4.23) but Minnesota had 47 more carries on the season. Look for the YPC to approach 5 yards in 2020 - this is FANTASTIC.
PASSING YARDS PER GAME
On the Penn State side, this is where Moorhead made his money. We aired it out with deep, 50/50 balls and had the receivers to win those match-ups in 2016 and 2017. In the two years since, we didn't and this caused a drop back to below average passing under Ricky Rahne.
Ciarrocca had drops in production in his first year of both programs. The 2012 WMU squad was a very strong passing team and dropped to below average in 2013. In 2016, Minnesota was bad. In 2017 they got worse. As with rushing though, in both cases, Ciarrocca had a very strong upward trajectory and got his teams to being above average quite quickly. The 2019 Minnesota team was easily the best Minnesota passing attack over the last decade and finished the season at 260 YPG (39th in the country).
You might look at both instances of year one of Ciarrocca and have pause for 2020. The drops are worrisome but I think it's worth discussing the personnel a bit here. In both cases, there was QB uncertainty in that first year. In Ciarrocca’s first year at WMU the leading passer was Zach Terrell (freshman) and he got off to a rocky start. He ended his career with around 12,000 yards passing and 96 touchdown passes. These would both destroy the Penn State records. At Minnesota, the 2017 QB duties were shared by Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft who combined to throw for 1500 yards on 47% completions. Both were off of the 2018 team and the passing leader was Tanner Morgan who, over the last two years as a freshman and sophomore, has thrown for 4600 yards and 39 touchdowns. Ciarrocca can develop quarterbacks and Penn State has a rising junior who has started a full season. Clifford is in for a BIG year in 2020.
For Penn State, Moorhead was the peak in 2017 and like passing, we've seen a regression to the mean under Rahne.
For Ciarrocca, we again see a first year drop at both of his stops in Michigan and Minnesota. The 2013 WMU offense was pretty terrible - 312 YPG and 116th national rank. The 2017 Minnesota team was somehow worse (308 YPG; 120th). Not even Jon Donovan was ever that bad.
But again, look at the trajectories. In year 2 at WMU they jumped by over 100 YPG versus year one and hit a high point in 2015 with 480 yards of offense (18th). Even at Minnesota, who hadn't been above average in a decade finished 27th nationally (442 YPG). In contrast, PSU 2019 had 390 YPG and ranked 74th.
Different stat, same story. Under Ciarrocca there was a first year drop at both WMU and Minnesota followed by an upward, positive trajectory. The 2016 WMU campaign was stellar (39.4 PPG, 12th), and the 2019 Minnesota squad was far and away their best since at least 2009 (34.6 PPG, 17th). Only the 2016 and 2017 PSU teams (37.6 and 41.1 PPG) would've bested either of the output of 2016 WMU and 2019 Minnesota. The Minnesota stat is especially noteworthy because they were viewed as a ball-control team.
Sure, on first glance the consistency in first year declines under Ciarrocca may be cause for concern, but I am hopelessly optimistic that we don't see the same trend. Penn State is equipped to perform now and has far superior talent than any of the previous offenses Ciarrocca has had at his disposal.
To wit, 247 sports only has talent composite data back to 2015. The talent composite is meant to look at the total talent available on a roster and playoff caliber schools are in the mid-900's. The 2016 WMU team had a value of 443.16 points (81st nationally) and the 2019 Minnesota squad was 621.36 (ranked 46th). This is already a considerable upgrade in talent and Ciarrocca has proven he can utilize this against the tough competition of the Big Ten. The 2020 numbers won't be available until the summer, but in 2019 Penn State had a talent composite of 857.34, which was the 10th most talented roster in the nation.
Get excited people... get very excited.