Penn State and Kirk Ciarrocca: WAR Performance 2009 to 2019

By Nate Wilmot on April 13, 2020 at 9:12 am
Oct 26, 2019; East Lansing, MI, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) warms up prior to a game against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

In the past month we looked at the performances of Penn State’s former offensive coordinators and teams led by Kirk Ciarrocca through a variety of statistics. Today, we will apply the principles of our advanced rating system (WAR) to understand what to expect from Coach Ciarrocca and the Nittany Lions in 2020.

As a reminder, WAR is made up of two primary statistics:

  • Points-per-Minute (PPM) – the points scored per minute of offensive possession
  • Offensive Ball Control (OBC) – square root (yards gained per possession times minute offensive possession)

PPM represents the explosiveness metric while OBC represents a team’s offensive efficiency. The product of PPM and OBC represents a team’s Offensive Effectiveness (here forth labeled O-WAR). Below is a graph of PPM (y-axis) versus OBC (x-axis) for every FBS team against FBS opponents from 2009 – 2019. What we find is that there is a relationship between PPM and OBC with an R-squared of 0.32. But these are not highly correlated which allows each, independently, to judge an offense.

PPM versus OBC

Before we jump into analysis of our main subjects (Penn State and Kirk Ciarrocca) it’s important to set the baselines for PPM, OBC, and O-WAR and we will do this by looking at the averages of each metric using the 2009 – 2019 data.

The mean of PPM is 0.93 and the median is 0.91.

  • Top 25% > 1.068
  • Top 10% > 1.26
  • Top 2.5% > 1.53
  • The best PPM since 2009 is 1.86 (2013 Baylor)

For OBC, the mean is 30.8 (yard*min/possession)1/2 and the median is 30.9.

  • Top 25% > 33.0
  • Top 10% > 34.8
  • Top 2.5% > 36.6
  • Best OBC since 2009 is 40.9 (2010 Nevada)

Penn State from 2009 to 2019


Penn State has had five above average teams, five below average teams, and one perfectly average team in the last 11 years in terms of offensive explosiveness. Frankly, it’s easy to think back on the PSU teams since 2009 and guess which these teams were. The graph below shows each Penn State team by year against all other FBS teams.

PSU - PPM by Year

The worst of the group was the 2011 squad that averaged 0.59 PPM (bottom 10% since 2009) and obviously the John Donovan led teams were also poor with 2014 producing 0.66 PPM and 2015 generating 0.79 PPM which rank 1,205 and 974 (out of 1,383 total teams). Sandwiched in between the two JD teams was the 2010 Nittany Lions at 0.74 PPM.

On the positive side, the 2016 and 2017 offenses, coordinated by Joe Moorhead, produced virtually identical 1.36 and 1.35 PPM which are both easily top 10% and rank 82nd and 84th respectively. As with some of the other stats as we’ve seen in earlier posts, there was a drop-off with Ricky Rahne leading the offense, but he still maintained top 25% production with 1.22 (2018) and 1.15 (2019).


In terms of OBC, only one PSU squad ranks close to the top 10% and it was the 2009 team with a value of 34.6 (ranked 155th). And there was only other team to control the ball at a top 25% rate (2017, 33.5, 269th ). Following these two, the O’Brien teams (2012 and 2013) were more ball control offenses and averaged 32.8 and 32.6 which are each above average.


The bottom performances for Penn State were 2015 (28.7) and 2014 (29.3). These are below average and rank 1,036 and 957 for the time period. This is also a place where Coach Rahne didn’t help his defenses much. Both the 2018 and 2019 offenses were below average in ball control, and anecdotally, especially in 2018, that manifested by tiring the defenses late in the Ohio State and Michigan State games. Even in 2019, there was significant stress put on the defense late in the Michigan and Indiana games that were partially a result of the offense not being able to control the ball. The team of course won both of those 2019 games, but neither of those games should’ve been as close as they ended.

Kirk Ciarrocca at Western Michigan (2013 – 2016) and Minnesota (2017 – 2019)


We shouldn’t expect an explosive offense from Coach Ciarrocca. Even with his best teams the best PPM that he had was the 2016 WMU team that averaged 1.16 PPM (83rd percentile). At 1.02 PPM, the 2019 Gopher ranked 424th from 2009 – 2019. That ranked 43rd for the season, compared to PSU’s at No. 15. His other two seasons at Minnesota were both below average at 0.90 (2018) and 0.71 (2017). His worst season was an awful 0.58 (2013 WMU) which ranks one spot behind the 2011 PSU squad and is in the bottom 10% of the eleven years. Below is the PPM by year for Penn State, Western Michigan, and Minnesota. The years coordinated by Ciarrocca for the Broncos and Gophers are circled.

kc ppm

There is a strong  correlation of PPM to points-per-game (PPG). And at face value, you might think that Ciarrocca’s teams didn’t produce points. In fact, if you used a simple trendline equation against Ciarrocca’s teams, you get the results in the table below. Compare those to the actual points scored by Ciarrocca’s teams, and you see that in every case other than the 2013 WMU team, he outperformed the expected output by as much as 5 PPG. In fact, out of the 1,300+ teams in the study, three of Ciarrocca’s squads (2016 WMU, 2015 WMU, 2019 Minnesota) rank in the top 26 in terms of outperforming the expected correlation of PPM to PPG. This is why the OBC value is so important to WAR. And for what it’s worth, the 2016, 2018, and 2019 PSU squads underperformed by about two points per game each.



This is truly the place that Ciarrocca’s teams shine. Having an experienced offensive line, strong backfield, and second year starting quarterback make me very enthusiastic for the 2020 season. Remember that Penn State’s best season in OBC was the 34.6 that Galen Hall managed in 2009 and was ranked 155th. Ciarrocca has had three seasons that are in the top-14 of all teams since 2009. The 2015 WMU team ranks fourth at 39.8 while the 2014 WMU a and 2015 are back-to-back at 13th and 14th with nearly identical 38.41 and 38.39 values. These teams average about 44 yards/possession, and 34 minutes of possession all of which are top-5% values. The plot below highlights Ciarrocca's teams versus Penn State's performances.

kc obc

I fully expect this to be a boon for the Penn State defense too. I truly believe that offensive ball control has been a real issue for PSU from 2017 – 2019, but for the most part, Brent Pry has managed to deliver. The strength-of-schedule adjusted D-WAR for Penn State over these three years ranked sixth, 17th, and 10th in 2017, 2018, and 2019 (more on this in coming posts). On the other hand, the best defense that Ciarrocca had ranked 41st (2017 Minnesota) in adjusted D-WAR. So, never has Brent Pry had an offensive counterpart with the ability to keep his defensive unit fresh and never has Kirk Ciarrocca had a defensive coordinator with the ability to stifle opposing offenses as well as Pry does. Combine these facts with the combination of returning talent on both sides of the ball for Penn State, and it really looks like this can be the start of a magical run for the Lions.

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