Penn State Football: Biggest Reason for 2021 Optimism

min read
Andrew Doughty @DoughtyBetMGM Jun 15, 2021, 1:21 PM
Sean Clifford #14 of the Penn State Nittany Lions prepares to take the snap against the Maryland Terrapins during the first half at Beaver Stadium on November 7, 2020 in State College, Pennsylvania. Fans were not permitted to attend the game due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Kent State was bad in 2013. One year after a program-record 11 wins led to head coach Darrell Hazell’s departure for Purdue, the Golden Flashes were bad in Paul Haynes’ first season. They weren’t historically bad–managing four wins, something the next five Kent State teams couldn’t do, and kept it close against 10-win Ball State–but they were still bad, particularly on defense, where they ranked 113th in Defensive F/+ and allowed opponents to average more than six yards per play. 

The defense wasn’t bad, however, against Western Michigan, holding the Broncos to 14 points, 11-for-23 passing, 4-for-12 on third downs, and 40 yards on their first 15 plays (zero points and four punts) in a 32-14 win. They allowed two touchdowns, including one on a short field after a fumble.

Kent State’s inept defense had no issue containing Western Michigan’s offense, nor did any other FBS team in 2013. In P.J. Fleck’s first season as head coach and Kirk Ciarrocca’s first season as offensive coordinator, the Broncos’ offense was miserable, ranking among the nation’s worst in every notable area, including Football Outsiders’ OFEI (117th), OPE (116th), OTD (119th), OAY (119th), OBD (105th), and OTO (107th). Even throwing to a young receiving star in Corey Davis, freshman quarterback Zach Terrell was awful, and senior quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen was worse. The offensive line, frankly, sucked, which led to a non-existent running game (3.4 yards per attempt) and 2.2 turnovers per game. 

One year later, nothing sucked about Western Michigan’s offense. Across the board, the Broncos’ unit dramatically improved as they jumped from one win to eight wins:

OFEI: 27th
OPE: 19th
OTD: 18th
OAY: 25th
OBD: 59th
OTO: 61st: 

Terrell wasn’t awful (26 passing touchdowns and 9.4 yards per attempt), nor was an offensive line that led a consistent running game (4.4 yards per attempt) and helped trim turnovers by nearly 30 percent.

In Ciarrocca’s third year, Western Michigan’s offense improved again, as it did in his fourth year. And when Ciarrocca followed Fleck to Minnesota in 2017, the Broncos’ offense declined, as did Minnesota’s offense in his first year as offensive coordinator. In nearly every area, the Gophers’ offense dipped and they ranked among the nation’s worst each of those six metrics for 2017:

OFEI:  95th
OPE: 102nd
OTD: 101st
OAY: 103rd
OBD: 91st
OTO: 102nd

And just like Western Michigan’s offense from 2014-16, Minnesota’s offense took big jumps in the following years as Ciarrocca built one of the nation’s best attacks with Tanner Morgan, Rashod Bateman, and some of the best talent in program history:

OFEI: 82nd (2018) to 7th (2019)
OPE: 84th to 10th
OTD: 76th to 7th
OAY: 62nd to 7th
OBD: 47th to 47th
OTO: 121st to 77th

In only one area (and only one time) in three returning years at Western Michigan (2014-16) and two returning years at Minnesota (2018-19) did Ciarrocca’s offense decline; the Gophers’ offense dipped from 102nd to 121st in OTO from 2018 to 2019. 

Now as Penn State’s seven-figure quarterbacks coach offensive coordinator after departing Minnesota for his “dream job” last December, the 55-year-old former longtime FCS assistant is rebuilding another offense. Ciarrocca inherited an offense from Ricky Rahne that ranked in the top 25 nationally in 2019 in most areas, including OFEI (21st). The Nittany Lions fell short of playoff expectations but matched their highest win total (11) in the last 25 years and scored at least 27 points in 10 of 13 games, including 28 against a Michigan unit that finished 14th in DFEI. 

And there was no homecoming honeymoon in 2020 for Ciarrocca, a Pennsylvania native:

OFEI: 48th
OPE: 68th
OTD: 58th
OAY: 54th
OBD: 41st
OTO: 97th

“Listen, I’m not happy with the results, believe me,” Ciarrocca said a week after Penn State scored 27 points in a win over Michigan, their first win of the season after starting 0-5 for the first time in school history. “It’s definitely still a work in progress,” Ciarrocca added. “It’s not where I want it to be . . . “We’ll get there. When? We’ll see.”

Ciarrocca wasn’t happy with Western Michigan’s results in 2013, either, nor was he happy with Minnesota’s results in 2017. The Broncos got “there” a year later and more “there” in 2015 and 2016, as did the Gophersin 2018 and 2019, respectively. And while personnel questions litter Penn State’s offensive depth for 2021, they have a proven offensive coordinator who’s overhauled offenses and can get where they want to be.

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88.

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About the Author

Andrew Doughty

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM with a focus on college football, NFL, college basketball, and NASCAR. A graduate of the University of Kansas, he previously wrote for Sports Illustrated and HERO Sports.

Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM with a focus on college football, NFL, college basketball, and NASCAR. A graduate of the University of Kansas, he previously wrote for Sports Illustrated and HERO Sports.