June is not exactly the time of year to break down the nitty-gritty of Penn State's upcoming season and very often results in being wrong about more than you are right.
Last year there were retirements and injuries, moves and changes. Trying to tell someone what is going to happen on the football field with months of potential news between now and then is potentially a fruitless venture.
Even so, there are broad strokes that can be thrown around, things that everyone knows to be true regardless of what happens between now and the end of August.
So with that in mind, here are a few things that will have to go right for Penn State's season to end with fans and James Franklin happy and satisfied. That doesn't mean a national title will suddenly arrive at the Lasch Building if all of these boxes are checked, but certainly it'll be a helpful step toward that if they do.
Red zone conversions:
Penn State was actually pretty successful in the red zone last season despite having had issues in that area not long ago. 72% of all trips ended with a touchdown which was 16th best in the nation. Overall the Nittany Lions scored on 89% of their trips into their opponent's red zone, 17th best in the country.
Of course this is a stat can be inflated against bad teams and struggle against good ones. Penn State will be happy to see more red zone trips against Ohio State and Michigan end with touchdowns and is less interested in what happens on every trip against Idaho. There is always context to be applied to stats, but if the Nittany Lions are finishing drives, they're winning games. Not exactly rocket science.
Field goals: 16 of 24 (93rd); Wyoming 1st with 16 of 17
This is a stat that requires a bit of context, but still the overall point remains the same. Jake Pinegar was off and on in 2018, with six of his eight misses coming from 40-49 yards. That's not to say that a 16-for-24 clip is good kicking, but with just two misses inside of 39-yards on 13 attempts, it wasn't as though Pinegar was a liability from the more traditional areas of the field.
There isn't much doubt that if Penn State's offense hits a few speed bumps this year that the field goal unit will need to be more consistent and more accurate from all over the field. It's not asking all that much for a Division I kicker to make them from 40+ yards, it isn't easy, but it's not impossible. Weather and other factors always play into this equation, but 93rd in the nation speaks for itself.
If nothing else Penn State will need Pinegar to start the year off well and give everyone some confidence moving forward that he's the man for the job.
Tackles for a loss allowed:
Penn State actually did a pretty good job last season, giving up 69 tackles for a loss which was 38th best in the nation. That's not groundbreaking offensive line work, but it's also far better than the Saquon Barkley era where defenses were lining up nine guys to rush.
It goes without saying that Sean Clifford's season will go much smoother if he's not getting the Christian Hackenberg treatment in the backfield and has time to settle. Will a new-look offensive line be the answer? Only time will tell, but it's pretty much football 101 that you win games when your quarterback isn't running for his life.
Then again Rutgers finished 10th in the nation with 59 tackles for a loss allowed last year.
You could argue Penn State missing out on the playoffs is a more important defeat in the realm of tangible achievements. I would argue that there is a very good argument that Penn State should be on a three-game winning streak against Ohio State right now.
There are a lot of reasons the Buckeyes have come out on top of the last two meetings, reasons that have been beaten to death at this point, but needless to say, closing out games is pretty key to winning them.
Penn State's schedule lends itself to plenty of high profile games this year, more than a few of them on the road, the ability for the program to finally get over those end-game bumps in the road will be crucial to keeping forward moment as the year goes along.
It comes as something of a surprise, given the overall narrative of Trace McSorley's successful career that his 53.2% completion percentag in 2018 was the worst of any year put together by him, Christian Hackenberg, Matt McGloin, Daryll Clark, and Anthony Morelli. You could toss Rob Bolden's numbers in there for a worse 39% in 2011, but that quarterback situation was fairly unique compared to the rest of them.
Obviously if any season is indicative of how a completion percentage is a group effort it was 2018, but nevertheless, Clifford will want to get back into that high 50s area if he can. Nobody is really expecting him to roll out and toss McSorley's 2017 rate at 66% but something a few ticks higher than the lowest in the past decade will significantly help the cause.
Seasonal Completion Percentages:
- 53.2 (2018)
- 66.5 (2017)
- 57.9 (2016)
- 53.5 (2015)
- 55.8 (2014)
- 58.9 (2013)
- 60.5 (2012)
- 54.1 (2011)
- 54.9 (2010)
- 39 in 2011 *lost job, sometimes split series*
- 58 in 2010