Penn State coach James Franklin cited philosophy, among other things, as part of the reason why he moved on from offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca just a year following his hiring during a Monday afternoon press conference with reporters.
“Obviously a tough decision and a tough part of the business,” Franklin said. “It was a tough conversation to have. Kirk handled it extremely well like he does everything he’s a total class act. And I wish him nothing but the best. But it more just has to do with philosophically how we want to play.”
Ciarrocca replaced Franklin protege Ricky Rahne – who took the head coaching job at Old Dominion following Penn State’s 2019 season – a move that at the time appeared to be a strong and prudent hire for a Penn State program looking to regain some of its efficiency and potency that had made it among the nation’s best in 2016 and 2017.
For myriad reasons such as injuries, and limited in-person activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Penn State’s offense never really got off the ground in 2020 under Ciarrocca. Even as the Nittany Lions rattled off a four-game winning streak to finish the year, it was with an offensive equation that proved to be effective but not all that aesthetically pleasing.
Heading into 2020, if Franklin was hoping to see the high-efficiency game controlling offense that Ciarrocca had employed against the Nittany Lions during the Gophers 2019 victory over Penn State, that never fully came to fruition. The answer as to why this happened, a confluence of factors ranging from quarterback Sean Clifford’s poor play to the loss of multiple running back as well as turnovers and perhaps even an overarching disagreement relative to fixing the issues in the first place.
“I think that’s also part of when I talk about philosophically,” Franklin said when asked about getting more receivers involved following the return of standout Jahan Dotson. “You know I want to get more guys involved. I want to get more guys touches I want to get more guys hands on the ball. I think it makes you more difficult to defend.” [Penn State had just three pass-catchers with over 20 receptions, a relative low compared to previous seasons.]
“[We need an] emphasis on explosive plays an emphasis on [not having] turnovers, and an emphasis on scoring points. They’re the three most important things that you have to do on offense and specifically in in current college football. The way this thing is trending there’s going to be games where you’re going to have to score. 40 points. And those things are at a premium now probably more, more than ever. So making sure it aligns with how we want to play.”
Ciarrocca’s fault or not, Penn State never did any of those things particularly well in under his watch. The Nittany Lions turned the ball over, were hard pressed to extend defenses with chunk plays until later in the year and were ranked ninth in the nation in time of possession. Coupled with poor red zone execution [Penn State scored a touchdown on 51% of its red zone trips, 110th worst in the nation], Penn State was adept at staying in games but seemingly not very well equipped to find ways to win them until the season was all but over against a somewhat uninspiring run of opponents.
While there is something to be said about how the pre-pandemic world changed since Ciarrocca was initially hired and the obstacles those changes provide a new coordinator, Franklin’s comments relative to philosophy shouldn’t have surprised Penn State’s head man as much as they seem to have. Minnesota’s offense under Ciarrocca was very good but not exceptionally explosive as a matter of approach. In Penn State’s 2019 loss to Ciarrocca, the Gophers held on to the ball for over 35 minutes of game time – albeit managing 31 points in the process.
The variables relative to installation and general cohesiveness may have been hindered due to social distancing and the great lengths Penn State took to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak, but even removed from that situation it appears in hindsight that the marriage of Ciarrocca’s sensibilities and Franklin’s offensive vision did not dovetail as seamlessly as Franklin may have hoped. An issue only exacerbated by COVID-19, injuries and the general oddities of the season.
“A few years ago when we were running the spread we were mixing in tempo we were doing a bunch of those things and had a lot of success,” Franklin said. “And then obviously with the decision [to hire Ciarrocca] that was a little bit different than than his background. So that’s where we felt like the blend had to happen, so that we could balance those two things and making sure that we were still, you know, running a similar offense that we had run in the past. So, this, this [hiring of Mike Yurcich] hopefully is going to get us a little bit closer back to that to who we want to be and what our philosophy is on offense.”
Whatever the case, Ciarrocca guiding Penn State to a somewhat boring but efficient style of football amid a pandemic may have been the most pragmatic decision at the time. The unknown variable at this point being who was primarily responsible for the changes that turned Penn State’s season around and saw the emergence of explosive plays down the field in the Nittany Lions’ final few contests. Also unknown, how two seemingly different people addressed and manage those problems internally, especially as Franklin faced his worst head coaching season of his career head-on.
In the long run none of these things matter relative to where Penn State is trying to go, the hiring of former Oklahoma State, Ohio State and most recently Texas offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich a sign of faster and more explosive things to come – at least in theory.
This may very well be the last piece to the puzzle. Yurcich, who followed then Texas coach Tom Herman to the Longhorns was never going to be snatched up by Franklin from Ohio State post-Rahne, but he may very well have fallen higher on Franklin’s dream list than Ciarrocca. In turn, following Herman’s dismissal from Texas, the aforementioned issues above coupled with Yurcich’s availability may have given Franklin the opening for change.
“Yurcich is a guy that I’ve been in contact with and communicating with for a long time,” Franklin said. “I think at the end of the day, it was a very tough decision, obviously. I felt like it was the right thing for us to do to get where we want to go and and play a style of our offense that I think is going to be important for us to play […] and then obviously you know scoring points – and how that impacts our locker room how that impacts recruiting, all of it.”
Penn State and Franklin now await an uncertain future ahead in 2021, the program is currently planning for spring practice, but there is no indication if that will actually unfold. Months from now awaits a gauntlet of an opening slate with a road game at Wisconsin followed by a meeting with Auburn in Week 3.
And while three games does not a season make, four offensive coordinators in five years is its own kind of gauntlet, and Franklin will hope this “fix it” hire is the one that sticks.