What To Expect With New Offensive Coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca (Part 3): How Have the Lions Fared in Terms of Avoiding Havoc?

By Nate Wilmot on March 20, 2020 at 8:00 am
Sep 9, 2017; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Joe Moorhead (center) looks on from the sideline during the fourth quarter against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Pitt 33-14.
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

This is the 3rd installment of our statistical look back at Penn State’s offensive production from 2009 to 2019 with an eye towards Kirk Ciarrocca’s takeover in 2020. This is an introduction to a new-ish advanced statistic of Havoc Avoidance Rate (HAR) that demonstrates a team’s ability to scheme and execute against negative plays and looks at the previous five OC’s performance in this metric.

If you missed parts one or two in series be sure to catch up. In Part One, we looked back at what Penn State's offense has been since James Franklin took over. In Part Two, we looked at Kirk Ciarrocca's past offenses and how productive they were.

Bill Connelly and the Football Outsiders team have used Havoc Rate as a positive defensive stat for years. Defensive Havoc is defined as the percentage of the plays where the defense has a significant disruption of an offensive play. These include sacks, tackles for loss, interceptions, pass breakups, and fumbles caused. However, I have found only one instance where Connelly uses the inverse of havoc as a positive stat for offenses.

I believe that considering how an offense does at avoiding havoc plays can be a very strong indicator of both scheme and execution. For scheme, if an offense has significant tendencies on some combination of personnel, formation, motion, and play, good defensive coordinators will out-scheme said offense and put their players in a better position to execute. In terms of offensive execution, everything from an offensive line's blocking, to receivers running the proper routes, to quarterbacks making the correct reads goes into minimizing havoc. So, the percentage of plays where an offense avoids havoc would seem to be a simple and effective metric at demonstrating performance.

We're going to repurpose this statistic into Havoc Avoidance Rate (HAR). Access to reliable pass break-up numbers is iffy at best, so, unfortunately, that part of the equation must be excluded. The calculation I used here is:

(Total Plays – Sacks – TFL – Interceptions – Fumbles) / Total Plays.

Below is the HAR in each year of our data study with the small gray bars being the national average. We find that the national average of HAR is circa 85% each year and has limited variation.

There have only been two teams to top 93% of HAR and they were the 2017 and 2018 Army squads. This statistic lends itself to extremely run have offenses (run to pass ratios of nearly 10-to-1) which minimize opportunities for sacks and interceptions. The service academies, in general, tend to be extremely disciplined and execute their schemes at very high rates.

Compare this with the three teams to have HAR of <72% (2014 Wake Forest, 2019 Akron, and 2009 Washington State). Each of these squads had double-digit interceptions, gave up at least 46 sacks and 110 TFLs, and fumbled the ball 14, 22, and 27 times respectively. Those are bad. Don't be them.

Penn State HAR against national average.

Turning our attention to the Penn State teams of the last decade, we see similar performances to the basic stats earlier. First, Bill O'Brien's teams apparently executed his scheme very well. The 2012 team had Penn State’s top HAR at 90.4% (4th nationally) and the 2013 team also had an above-average 88.4% (17th). Galen Hall’s teams similarly had above-average performances with 2009 being the worst year at 88% HAR.

Then, in 2014 and 2015, things took a turn as John Donovan took over. His offenses had HARs of 81.7% (117 out of 128) and 81.0% (114th) respectively. The main contributors to those poor numbers were defenders getting into the backfield, leading to increases in tackles for loss and sacks.

  Tackles For Loss Per Season Sacks Per season
2009-2013 (Pre-Donovan) 50 16.4
2014 99 44
2015 94 39

While it's clear that the offense significantly regressed in terms of HAR (and most other key stats) as compared to the end of the Paterno era and the O'Brien years, it's less clear where the majority of the blame should lie. Some say it all lays on the shoulders of Donovan, while others suggest that most of the damage was done by O'Brien leaving the offensive line room barren. The truth is likely a combination of both, but the Moorhead years do cut Donovan a little bit of slack in hindsight.

Most fans believe that Moorhead is a strong strategist and schemes his offenses as well as anyone. He also benefitted from having the best running back in program history (Saquon Barkley) and a mobile quarterback (Trace McSorley), yet his offenses still came in below average in HAR (77th and 81st nationally). Sacks were down under Moorhead (26.5 per season as compared to 41.5 under Donovan), and tackles for loss were slightly improved (89 and 91 allowed in 2016 and 2017 with the national average being 70), but both areas were still bugaboos for the offense. While Franklin and his staff focused on the offensive line upon their arrival, this was still only two years into his regime. Moorhead was given a bit more to work with on the line than Donovan, but his offenses still had many of the same struggles.

Enter Ricky Rahne. In his two years as offensive coordinator, Penn State's HAR remained virtually the same as the two years prior. In 2018, they ranked 60th out of 130 and 91st in 2019. The 2018 season (85.3%) was actually the best since O'Brien's last year and also the first to top the national average. Interceptions and sacks were basically the same across 2018-2019, though the TFL numbers saw an uptick from 69 in 2018 to 75 in 2019. Still a huge improvement from the 93+ average under Donovan and Moorhead, but also still a far cry from the near-50 average during the Hall and O'Brien years.

So what does all of this really mean for Penn State? For starters, there is likely considerable credence to the argument that Donovan and Moorhead were at least partially victims of circumstance. Since Franklin took over, he has made significant strides in offensive line recruiting but linemen require patience for the payoff. Even the best recruits in the trenches are often not ready for several years.

The difference between the two, though, was that Moorhead was far better schematically and managed to work around these deficiencies and generate significant offensive production despite relatively poor HAR numbers. Donovan could not and it led to Penn State's worst HAR performances of the last decade.

Now, the Lions will introduce Kirk Ciarrocca, another new offensive coordinator, into the mix. This time, he'll not only inherit a roster chocked-full of blue-chippers but an experienced and talented offensive line room. With those built-in advantages, the question becomes whether or not he'll be able to help get his new team back to the O'Brien era levels of HAR and truly harness all of that star power at his disposal.

Next time, we'll take a look at how Ciarrocca's offenses have fared in this regard in the past, and what that could tell us about his future at Penn State.

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