This is the 4th 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 a continuation of the introduction of a new-ish advanced statistic of Havoc Avoidance Rate (HAR) that demonstrates a team’s ability to scheme and execute against negative plays. Now, we look at Ciarrocca's past offenses.
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. In Part Three, we looked at Penn State's recent HAR performances.
Last time, we dug into Penn State's recent history of Havoc Avoidance Rates, and found that keeping opposing defenses at bay has been a bit of a struggle for James Franklin's teams. Only one coordinator, Joe Moorhead, was truly able to overcome those struggles to lead a high-scoring, highly-productive offense.
But what about Kirk Ciarrocca? How have his teams performed in relation to this metric?
In part two of this series, we discovered that at both Western Michigan and Minnesota, the performance numbers dipped a bit in Ciarrocca's first year at the helm. Was this also true of each school's HAR?
As shown in the tables below, there is in fact a similar first-year drop trend. As discussed in previous posts, and as is true for most new coordinators, there were likely growing pains that contributed to the drops.
Despite these issues, though, in Ciarrocca’s seven seasons as a coordinator, his lowest HAR was 84.9% (2017 Minnesota). Compare that to Penn State, where the best season since 2014 was the 2018 squad with a HAR of 85.3% and an average of 83.5% from 2014-2019.
This may not seem like a large discrepancy, but it becomes more significant when you consider the context. Both Penn State and Ciarrocca's offenses have averaged about 70 offensive plays per game over the past 11 years. Ciarrocca's average HAR is 86.2% while James Franklin's Penn State is 83.5%. That comes out to about two nearly opportunities per game for an interception, fumble, drive-killing sack, or crucial tackle for loss. When you consider how many one-score games the Lions have found themselves on the losing end of in the past three seasons alone (2017 MSU, 2017 OSU, 2018 MSU, 2018 OSU, 2019 Minnesota), those two opportunities become a lot more meaningful. Each of those games could have been swung in a different direction with just one play, or lack of one play.
The summary of Ciarrocca’s career performance against national averages is below. Sure, those first-year dips are still there, but it's not hard to see how his presence could improve the Penn State offense. The red circles indicate the seasons previous to Ciarrocca's arrival.
An additional breakdown of the contributing factors to the HAR is below. Expecting a return to O'Brien/Hall-level results is unrealistic, but comparing to the more recent coordinators provides a better look at how high the potential is for the Penn State offense to become extremely dangerous with Ciarrocca.
The Franklin years have averaged 33 sacks allowed and 86 tackles for loss. If Ciarrocca is able to scheme his offense in a way that reduces those numbers and gets them closer to his own averages of 23.9 and 60.6, respectively, that would be a huge boon. And when one looks at what Ciarrocca is walking into, there's no reason to think that isn't possible.
A returning starter at quarterback, an experienced and talented offensive line, one of the country's top tight ends, and arguably the best running back room in the country all could make for a powerful group. Wide receiver production will need to improve from 2019 and will certainly play a big role in improving Penn State's HAR, but there is more than enough talent at the position and contributors should be able to be uncovered.
The first-year dip that has been noticeable across this study is certainly a concern, but it's also worth remembering that the offense he will be taking over in State College is infinitely more talented than the offenses he took over in Kalamazoo and Minneapolis.
It's also worth noting that one of Ciarrocca's offenses' biggest issues in terms of HAR has been interceptions, a number that should trend downwards in State College. Sean Clifford has plenty of room to improve as a quarterback, but generally did a nice job of protecting the football a year ago as a first-time starter. Having a signal-caller with experience and an incredibly potent run game to lean on should help limit turnovers in 2020.