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Penn State Football: Are The Nittany Lions Good? Maybe Not, But They Are Efficient

by on November 02, 2016 1:00 PM

When Penn State landed Tuesday night at No. 12 on the first College Football Playoff Top 25 of the season the most common reaction was perhaps the most expected; is Penn State really that good?

The answer is complicated.

In fairness to Penn State, the Nittany Lions' 6-2 record features three wins over previously undefeated conference foes including an upset of then No. 2 ranked Ohio State. It isn't as though the Nittany Lions have waltzed in against cupcakes, although Maryland and Minnesota's then undefeated records were themselves somewhat padded by scheduling. 

Regardless, as Phil Steele pointed out on Tuesday morning, Penn State has beaten teams that have won a total of 30 games this year, a mark fourth best in the nation. So cupcakes or not, tough opponents or not, by that metric the numbers speak for themselves. Penn State has beaten the teams in front of it, and those teams have generally won more often than not.

But is Penn State actually good?

And that's the hard thing to figure out. Penn State's win over Ohio State wasn't a mistake, it took a full game of solid play to win, but really the outcome of the game swung on a single play. Are the benefactors of a hail mary really better than the team they just beat? That's up for debate.

Unfortunately the stats aren't much more help.

For example Penn State is dead last in the nation on third down conversions, 128th in the country at a 25.26% success rate. Just 24 conversions on 95 attempts. Sure distance plays into that and Penn State's 2-for-9 rate against Purdue didn't seem to stop 62 points from being scored, but on a play that determines the difference between a new set of downs and a punt, a chance for a touchdown instead of a field goal, Penn State is the absolute worst in the game.

But then again Penn State's scoring offense is 39th in the nation at 33.6 points per game.

Total offense, Penn State is ranked 80th in the nation in yards per game. 113th in actual plays executed on offense with just 525 snaps so far this season. Against conference foes Penn State's 203 yards passing per game is 85th in the nation. In the categories of rushing offense, passing offense and total offense, Penn State is ranked in the Top 50 of just one, coming in at 49th against conference teams in rushing offense. 

Literally everything is just at or just above average.

So how exactly is Penn State winning?

It comes down to a few key stats, all largely based around the Nittany Lions being far more efficient than you might expect.

For example, a few of Penn State's conference rankings through five games.

  • Turnovers: Penn State has coughed up the ball just four times, best in the Big Ten.
  • Long passes: Penn State's defense has given up 11 passing plays of 20+ yards, best in the Big Ten.
  • TFL: Penn State has 40 tackles for a loss in conference play, best in the Big Ten.
  • Long gains: Penn State has 34 plays of 20+ yards, second best in the Big Ten
  • Redzone: Penn State scores in the redzone 90.48% of the time, third best in the Big Ten with 12 TDs the fourth best mark.
  • Sacks: Penn State has given up 11 sacks in conference play, but six against Michigan, the total is 8th best in the Big Ten.

Beyond that Penn State is 34th in the nation with just 5.3 penalties per game and 42 total penalties worse than just five Big Ten teams and behind Wisconsin's leading mark by just 11 flags. The overall redzone efficiency is 30th in the nation with Penn State scoring on 19 of 21 trips with 12 TDs and 7 field goals.

More mathematically the S&P+ rankings, a difficult to explain but highly regarded measure of a football team's efficiency rates Penn State as the 14th best team in the nation behind just three Big Ten teams.

The result is Penn State being a very odd team. Most fittingly described by the fact that the Nittany Lions are dead last in time of possession in Big Ten play but third in the conference in scoring. When it works, Penn State can and has, beat the best. When it doesn't work Penn State looks like a team that is lightyears from where it wants to be.

And it all comes down to a few keys things. The Nittany Lions almost always score when they get inside the redzone, they rarely turn the ball over, they play stout defense, they don't commit tons of penalties and opponents don't have too many big plays per game.

"We think it's sustainable," James Franklin said on Tuesday. "This is really the model of how we want to play. We want to protect the football. We want to play great defense. We want to be explosive. We want to eliminate explosive plays on defense. Then we want to be able to make sure that special teams are emphasized as well, that we're not just giving it lip service that all three phases of offense, defense and special teams have a chance to factor into our success week in and week out."

So is Penn State the 12th best team in the nation?

Probably not, but the Nittany Lions are increasingly becoming one of the most efficient, and maybe that's all that matters.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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