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Penn State Football: Five Offensive Stats The Nittany Lions Can Improve On In 2019

by on April 01, 2019 1:55 PM

As Penn State rounds into the final bend of spring practice, the 2019 season draws closer by the day and brings with it a chance to rebound from a fairly successful 9-4 season but a year that felt underwhelming relative to what it could have been.

In reality this won't be an easy ask. Penn State will be working in a new quarterback, new running backs, new faces on the offensive line, younger faces in the receiving corps. On the defensive side of the ball the line will have a new feel, the secondary familiar but not without some untested players stepping into bigger roles.

It's not that the Nittany Lions are in trouble, not by any stretch, but seeing it believing, and this group will have plenty of questions to answer by the time Week 1 gets here.

The game of football is complex in its schemes and tactics, but at the end of the day you can boil it down to a few simple ideas. Taking care of the ball, making the most of your chances, converting in key spots and getting your opponent off the field. 

So here are five less obvious stats Penn State's offense should focus on in 2019 and beyond.

1. Top receiver averaging more catches

KJ Hamler averaged 3.2 catches per game last season, which is the fewest for Penn State's leading receiver over the last 10 seasons. There are probably a few ways to look at this stat that aren't entirely bad. For one, Allen Robinson and Chris Godwin, who played their careers as a one-man receiving show, so simply having more targets on the field is going to bring everyone's averages down.

Even so, in an era not short on skill players, Penn State's top target has averaged over four catches per game under James Franklin up until last year.

Of course targets and catches are two different things, the quarterback and offensive coordinator can only do so much.

2. Third down conversions

This one isn't exactly rocket science, but Penn State converted on third-down 37.14% of the time, 10% worse than the season prior. The Nittany Lions have only covered more than 40% of their third-down opportunities four times in the past 10 years, but it's hard to argue with the value of staying on the field. For as much as you might want to point to Penn State's defense for late-game losses, don't forget all those late-game drives that hardly last a minute or two. 

Penn State has won 11 games while covering 32% of its attempts (2016) and won eight while converting 42%, so third-down conversions aren't an automatic path to victory, but it sure doesn't hurt.

3. Time of possession (trust me)

This observation is slightly more philosophical than anything else, because anyone who watches football will tell you that time of possession is a poor indicator of anything. You can score a lot of points in a short amount of time, and score no points and still have the ball forever.

That being said, Penn State averaged 27 minutes and 41 seconds of possession last season, the lowest number (by three seconds in 2016) in the past 10 seasons. In six of the past 10 seasons Penn State has averaged over 30 minutes of possession, with the most being nearly 33 minutes in 2009.

The argument here is in relation to the third down bullet above. If Penn State can extend drives in its more methodical offense (Penn State earned 133 first downs via running the ball last season, up from 99 first downs the same way a year earlier. That year it passed for 172 first downs) it will go a long way towards conversions, points and keeping the defense fresh.

So sure, time of possession doesn't really really matter, but hanging on to the ball does.

4. Road completion rates

Penn State completed 50.8% of its passes on the road last season, 15% worse than the year prior and 10% worse than in 2016. It goes without saying that playing on the road is hard, but winning on the road is a lot easier when you complete your passes. That 50.8% mark is the worst since 2011 when it hit 48.8%.

The Nittany Lions will head back to Columbus this season, where Trace McSorley managed a 58.6% rate, technically his second worst road completion performance of the year. Even so, Penn State nearly won.

So again, maybe not rocket science, but if Tommy Stevens or Sean Clifford can find their targets on the road, it'll go a long way.

5. Interception location

Five of Penn State's eight interceptions happened inside of its own 40-yard line and all of them happened before the Nittany Lions made it to their opponent's 39-yard line. The year prior, nine of Penn State's 10 interceptions happened beyond its own 40.

Penn State has largely been a team equipped to overcome its own mistakes, but if you're going to throw an interception as a new quarterback, it may as well give your opponent a long field. Even if every turnover doesn't result in points, it only puts you farther behind the eight-ball either in terms of overall defensive fatigue or field position. If an opponent doesn't score, its more likely than not that it will be able to pin you deep.

The best turnovers are the ones that don't happen, but if they have to happen somewhere, do it on the other end of the field.

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