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Penn State Football: Closing In On 10 Wins, All Things Considered Maybe Give Rahne A Little More Credit

by on November 19, 2018 3:00 PM

Standing in the press box far too many hours after Penn State’s win over Rutgers I was talking to a colleague about the season we’ve been watching.

“You know,” I said. “This might be the first time Penn State could end up winning 10 games and literally everyone will go ‘Well thank God that’s over’ and it’s kind of weird. Who complains about 10-wins?”

“It really is weird,” was the response as we both looked out on the darkening field in front of us.

I’ve been thinking about this conversation a lot as I scroll through my Twitter mentions --that on a weekly basis-- are a bubbling stew of “fire Ricky Rahne." tweets.

But why exactly?

If we assume Penn State beats Maryland, which is more likely than not, then it’s a bowl win away from a third-straight 10-or-more-win season. That would be a first for the program since a similar streak began in 1980.

In fact, if you consider the seasons following some of Penn State’s most successful years, the Nittany Lions are doing what just about every team has done in the same situation.

The 2010 season following two Big Ten contention years finished 7-6.

The 1997 season was a 9-3 record after going 11-2 the year before.

The follow-up showing to Penn State’s last national title was 8-3.

The answer to an undefeated season in 1994 was 9-3.

In total since joining the Big Ten there are have been 16 seasons in which Penn State has won nine or more games. Those years have almost entirely been tucked into pockets of largely similar teams with minimal roster turnover.

This team, it’s on a path to 10-wins after losing one of its best-ever running backs, tight ends, receivers and offensive coordinators. Then it had to turn around and play a schedule through maybe the toughest division in football.

And in spite all of that, 27.3 points per game in conference play is better than six of the last nine seasons. The only years better than 2018 were 2017 (39.8 ppg), 2016 (37.1 ppg) and in 2012 at 32.6 ppg. [Of note in 2012 the Nittany Lions faced four Big Ten teams that totaled nine wins while avoiding Michigan and Michigan State back in the days of Legends and Leaders Divisions.]



Conference play scoring:

  • 2018: 27.3
  • 2017: 39.8
  • 2016: 37.1
  • 2015: 23.8
  • 2014: 14.0
  • 2013: 26.4
  • 2012: 32.6
  • 2011: 17.1
  • 2010: 25.3
  • 2009: 26.8

So in short, this offense is scoring more points than just about every season over the past 10 years. The only exceptions being the two years of a team that was among the Top 5 best ever fielded by Penn State.

“But the offense just looks bad,” you might say.

And yea, it doesn’t exactly look like 2016 or 2017. There are mistakes and drops and issues and things that make you want to put a pencil directly into your eye socket.

In spite of all of that, there are still eight wins and dozens of points each game. You can argue that it isn’t always pleasant to look at, and has put its defense in a tough spot at times, but it’s hard to argue with the results. It's also unfair to compare it to its predecessor.

“Well they should have beat Ohio State and Michigan State!”

And yea they should have, but they didn’t. Equally true, those losses were institutional, not singularly on Rahne’s shoulders. And hey, Moorhead didn't win those games either.

“Well they should just be better at everything.”

It’s hard to dispute that Penn State’s receivers haven't looked great. If nothing else their production is different. Four of them have over 20 receptions, in 2017 four of them had over 50. In 2016 there were five with over 20 receptions, and three over 30. Then again, imagine calling plays when half the time they work right up until the ball is dropped. Imagine winning anyway in spite of it.

Equally true, and more to the point, was this team supposed to be as good as it was the last two years? The defense was completely new, the offense was anchored by the comfort of Trace McSorley but nearly everyone else was new or effectively unproven in a larger role.

If this team gets to 10-wins, what does that say about a program's ability to squeeze the orange? If anything, is this team overachieving? 

Maybe, maybe not. This season is going to end the same way it was always going to unless you were drinking a very specific brand of kool-aid back in June.

There isn't much doubt that it seems Penn State has crossed a certain Rubicon with James Franklin in the eyes of fans. A Big Ten title has turned the feel-good emotions of broad success into the expectations of winning games against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State more often than not. There's nothing wrong with that expectation, but if the exception to that rule is a 10-win season against everyone else, there are worse problems to have.

Could Rahne have been better at times? Could Penn State's offense be more visually pleasing? Yep.

But less than a year since he took over the controls of Penn State's offense and two games from a completely new quarterback and an increasingly more experienced supporting cast, firing Rahne right now isn't part of the solution, it's an exacerbation of the problem. 

If nothing else, it sure doesn't sound like Franklin is eager to make another change.

“I think a lot of times when you have turnover, you know, when you really start to get a return on your investment is year two,” Franklin said a few weeks ago about his staff. “So yeah, I think for us, we've got to make sure that we're doing everything we possibly can in terms of creating a really good environment and that people want to come to work at every single day, and then also that financially we're paying the same salaries that everybody else is in terms of our peer groups. That's got to happen, because to sit here and say that that's not a factor, it is a factor. This is a special place, but that's a factor.”

“So yeah, I think retention is really, really important for us to keep growing.”

And at the very end of the day, if you fire a guy for going 7-6 and then fire a guy for going 10-3, who is there left to hire.

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