UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State’s offensive numbers dropped substantially this season, which probably should have been expected given the enormous personnel losses sustained by the Nittany Lions.
Running back Saquon Barkley, tight end Mike Gesicki and receiver DaeSean Hamilton were among the most successful PSU players ever at their positions, and replacing them proved to be very challenging.
The loss of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, now Mississippi State’s head coach, also was a huge blow. Perhaps the biggest blow of all, in fact, given that Moorhead was the architect of the high-powered attack that saw PSU scoring seemingly at will the past two years.
First-year offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne has drawn heavy criticism at times this year for some of the offensive struggles. He learned Moorhead’s system the previous two seasons and kept it intact this year, but with far less impressive results.
What Rahne had to learn this year was how to handle the criticism that comes with the higher profile job.
“For me personally, I learned this,” Rahne said Friday. “We have 650,000 living alumni — I think it’s actually 637,000, but we’ll go 650,000. If 1,000 of them are saying something negative or positive about you on a social media platform such as Twitter or something like that, you’re dealing with an incredibly small percentage of people.
“I think that’s the thing that all of us have to remember all the time is that, whether it’s good or bad or whatever, most of the people are just right in the middle. They just want to see Penn State be as successful as possible and do it the right way. Yeah, I’m sure they’re upset at certain times, I’m sure they’re excited at certain times. But it’s the very fringe people that are going to be actually making their opinions felt to you.”
Penn State finished the regular season ranked 46th in the country in total offense, down from 19th last year. The Lions are 30th in scoring offense at 34.6 points per game, compared to seventh last year at 41.1 points.
The most glaring aspect of the offensive dropoff is that PSU was leading the country in scoring after four games at 55.5 per contest heading into a home showdown against Ohio State. The Lions averaged just 24.1 points over the final eight games, including only seven in a loss at Michigan and 17 in a home loss to Michigan State.
“We started off well, and we ended pretty well,” Rahne said, the latter a reference to scoring 38 in the finale against Maryland. “I think in the middle there we just needed to be more consistent as an entire unit, me included.”
The biggest change in PSU’s offense this season came in the passing game. The Lions averaged 290.2 yards passing per game a year ago, but that number plummeted to 215.8 this season.
“Quite frankly, we got a little bit better in the run game,” was the first reason Rahne gave.
And he’s right. Even with Barkley, Penn State averaged 170.2 yards rushing last year, and that number rose to 208.6 this season with Miles Sanders leading the way.
Still, dropping 75 yards per game on average through the air took away PSU’s ability to score quickly from anywhere on the field. That changed the entire dynamic of the offense.
“It was just probably some timing issues,” Rahne said of the passing game falloff. “We were just a little bit off at times here and there, and that little bit in the passing game can be a major deal.
“There’s a big difference between you make a catch for a 50-yard gain or make a completion for a 50-yard gain and now all of a sudden you’re averaging 270 as opposed to 220. So I think those are the things. We just didn’t hit enough explosive plays, and we need to be able to convert those in the future.”
One huge issue with the offense may have just been confidence. As in quarterback Trace McSorley, and perhaps Rahne, losing confidence in the receivers after they dropped a lot of passes early on.
Penn State’s run-pass option attack has always been at its best with McSorley taking off and running at times. But once the receivers kept dropping passes, a switch was made to run McSorley more than ever.
That ultimately got him hurt.
And after the record-setting quarterback got hurt, he was a shell of the player we’d grown accustomed to seeing.
McSorley rushed for 175 yards on 25 carries in the loss to Ohio State — he was the only reason the Lions had a chance in that game — and he carried 19 times for 107 yards two weeks late in a 33-28 win at Indiana.
But the following week, McSorley suffered a right knee injury in the first half against Iowa. He returned in the second half to lead PSU to victory, but the damage had been done for the next few weeks because McSorley was hobbled.
He couldn’t run well at all, and while he was already having a tough season throwing the ball, it got even worse throwing off a bum leg.
Rahne was asked point blank what the challenges were playing with an injured quarterback, and he danced around the question.
“In terms of Trace’s injury, I don’t know if we necessarily learned anything because of that,” Rahne said. “I think that he battled through it and proved that he’s one of the toughest players in the country, like we all knew that he was.
“I think the thing that we mainly learned is that we as an offense, myself included, we’ve got to make to take advantage of opportunities when they’re there.
“If it’s a play call that needs to be called, I’ve got to make it. If it’s a route that needs to be run the right way, we’ve got to do it. If it’s a throw that’s got to be had or a pass protection or something like that, we’ve got to do it and take advantage of the opportunities, because the teams we play against are talented enough to take away things for most of the game.”
While all that’s true, the bottom line is Penn State relies so heavily on the quarterback making good decisions and being able to run or throw on any play that it simply cannot afford to run the guy so much that it gets him banged up.
Rahne later was asked if he plans to keep running the quarterback as much next season, when Tommy Stevens — an exceptional runner who has yet to prove himself as a passer — takes over for McSorley.
“(Running the quarterback is) part of our offense, and as teams continue to play a bunch of man coverage, it’s an answer to man coverage because somebody general doesn’t have the quarterback,” Rahne said.
“That’s one thing we’re going to continue to look at. Obviously we don’t want to run him so much that it beats the guy up and doesn’t allow him to get the ball to our playmakers at wide receiver, tight end and running back, but you need to be able to play 11 on 11 in today’s football in order to be successful.”
Penn State’s national ranks in key categories this year versus the 2017 season:
2017: 19th (460.3 ypg)
2018: 46th (424.3 ypg)
2017: 7th (41.1 ppg)
2018: 30th (34.6 ppg)
2017: 23rd (290.2 ypg)
2018: 77th (215.8 ypg)
2017: 59th (170.2 ypg)
2018: 30th (208.6 ypg)
2017: 3,570 yards, 28 TDs, 10 INTs, 66.5 percent completion
2018: 2,284 yards, 16 TDs, 6 INTs, 53.4 percent completion