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What’s the Point(s) of Penn State’s Offense? Scoring vs. Yards & a Spot in the Playoffs

by on October 11, 2018 8:15 PM

What’s the point of Penn State’s offense?

Scoring points.

“It’s always about points for us,” James Franklin said on Wednesday. “And always has been.”

It’s that kind of mentality that makes Penn State the No. 4 scoring team in the nation in 2018, at 49.6 points per game.

And the No. 6 scoring team in the nation in 2017, at 41.1 points per game. And the No. 21 scoring team in 2016, at 37.6 points per game. (All according to the NCAA.)

Do you want points over yards? I asked Franklin on Wednesday.

“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah,” he replied. Emphatically.

Always. And in all ways.

“I think it’s always, always about points,” Franklin added, holding out his left hand, then ticking off the reasons why with his right index finger. “And those are points impacted by our offense, those points are impacted by our defense and they’re impacted by our special teams. All of it. It’s never about yards. It’s always about points.”

When it comes to the Football Playoff Committee, those points have a point:

According to Coaches By The Numbers, a statistical platform created by SportSource Analytics that is subscribed to by college football coaches and teams, Penn State ranks No. 1 in college football for Strength of Record (SoR). SoR is a team’s average scoring margin above how its opponents normally perform.

You can be sure the CFP folks are paying attention to this metric; the CFP committee releases its first of six weekly rankings on Oct. 30, with the final rankings coming out Dec. 2.

The Top 5 are (these teams will look familiar):

1. Penn State

2. Clemson

3. Alabama

4. Ohio State

5. Georgia


Not that the Nittany Lion offense doesn't gain chunks of yardage. Penn State ranks No. 13 nationally in total offense, averaging 510 yards per game. (Ohio State is No. 5, at 566.) And quarterback Trace McSorley set an all-time Penn State record with 461 yards of total offense — 286 passing, 175 running — against Ohio State, the highest single-game total in Penn State’s 1,312-game history.

But the Nittany Lions scored “only” 26 points against the Buckeyes after entering the game with a college football-leading 55 points-per-game average. It wasn’t enough, even though PSU scored 14 points in the final quarter to hold a 26-14 lead with seven minutes left in the game — only to lose by one point, 27-26.

“Offensively, it’s always about scoring one more point” than your opponent, Franklin said. “It’s not about scoring 50 points, it’s about scoring one more point than our defense gives up and vice versa for our defense.

“It’s always points driven,” he added, “because the reality is you’re getting turnovers or having big special teams plays, you could score 50 points and have very little offensive yardage based on your field position.”

NO. 1, BUT ALSO NO. 122

That explains these seemingly incongruent statistics five games into Penn State’s season and hundreds of major college football games thus far in 2018.

Penn State leads the nation in fourth-quarter scoring, at 19.4 points per game. (Only Alabama, at 20.4 points per first quarter, is scoring at a better clip for any quarter this season.)

But, the Nittany Lions rank 122nd out of 130 teams in percentage of possession for the fourth  quarter, at 39.2%.

They mostly score fast or, occasionally, fail too quickly. It can be a blessing — and a curse.

Take the fourth quarter of the Ohio State game…please. In the final 15 minutes against the Buckeyes in a game PSU fans are trying to Whiteout of their memories, Penn State scored touchdowns on drives that lasted only 142 seconds (6 plays, 73 yards) and 138 seconds (7 plays, 52 yards). Stunning, right?

But the Nittany Lions finished the game with drives that lasted just 127 seconds (4 plays, 28 yards, punt) and 47 seconds (5 plays, 30 yards, including that fateful Fourth-and-5).

Penn State’s RPO offense has led the Lions to a terrific 26-6 record since 2016. That’s a .788 winning percentage. Run out of the shot gun, it has been predicated on big plays, taking shots, busting things open — whether it’s a deep ball to Godwin, a burst and or swing pass to Barkley, an explosion by K.J. Hamler or by McSorley doing his McMagic.

But tempo can be a double-edged sword. That scoring mentality is not made for game or ball control. A large percentage of time, that doesn’t matter; it’s not needed. The Penn State Blitzkrieg has bombed opponents by a cumulative score of 1,308 to 675 over those past 32 games.

So…points over plays. Icing the game can be another story. 


Likely, none of this will be a problem on Saturday, when No. 8 Penn State (4-1) hosts Michigan State (3-2) for Homecoming at 3:30 p.m. in Beaver Stadium (broadcast on the Big Ten Network.) It would not be surprising to see a tight game at halftime, and maybe into the third quarter.

But the fourth quarter? That’s another story.

Penn State is No. 1 in the nation in second-half scoring average, at 31 points for the final 30 minutes. Michigan State is No. 61, at 13.8 second-half points.

The fourth quarter differential is even more astounding:

As mentioned previously, Penn State is No. 1 in fourth quarter scoring, at 19.4 ppg. Sparty could barely rank worse; he is ranked 120th in fourth-quarter scoring, at 3.6 points per game.

Worse, while Michigan State’s defense has only given up 117 points this season, 58 of their opponents’ points (49.6%) have come in the fourth quarter.

(For its part, 40% of the points Penn State’s defense has given up in 2018 — 41 of 105 — have come in the fourth quarter.)

The point?

Penn State will score a lot in the final 15 minutes on Saturday, especially if backup quarterback Sean Clifford — he of 5-for-5 passing, for 195 yards, 2 TDs and a passer rating of a HOF/GOAT-like 559.60 — comes out chucking late to bury Michigan State.

For CJF, that’s the point — as well as scoring points with the CFP.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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