Thursday, March 4, 2021
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Penn State Football: The Points of Kirk Ciarrocca’s Offense

Maybe Penn State offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca isn’t doing as poorly as you think.

Maybe this is more of what a James Franklin/Penn State offense actually looks like.

Whether it is missing a good bit of its firepower or its quarterbacks are frequently falling off a turnover cliff. Or not.

Not counting 2016-2017, when Joe Moorhead & Co. ran roughshod over the Big Ten, Franklin has been the head coach or offensive coordinator for 13 college football seasons since 2006 — at Kansas State (2), Maryland (3), Vanderbilt (3) and Penn State (5, counting 2020).

And over those 160 games in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and the SEC, with Franklin calling the shots, his teams have averaged 27.2 points per contest.

In that context, the 25 points per game the 1-5 Nittany Lions are racking up in 2020 — in increments of 19, 21, 23, 25, 27 and 35 points — under the most challenging of circumstances doesn’t look so bad. Especially when you consider the losses of Journey Brown and Noah Cain and Devyn Ford and Pat Freiermuth.

So, maybe, Kut Kirk a break. Give him time.

As Ciarrocca himself said on a conference call on Thursday, he hasn’t forgotten how to coach. Or call plays.

‘I’m very confident in my ability to build a successful, top-flight offense,” Ciarrocca said. “I’ve been able to do it at a number of places. I certainly have the resources to be able to do that here. I’m very excited about it.

‘I’ll say this one more time: Am I happy with the results? Absolutely not, but I do trust the process. I’ve been in a lot worse situations than this from a productivity standpoint, and we’ve always managed to come out the other side and be really, really good. I’m very confident.’

Ciarrocca’s credentials back that up. He was P.J. Fleck’s offensive coordinator/QB coach for seven seasons, beginning with 1-11 Western Michigan in 2013 and finishing with 11-2 Minnesota in 2019.

His teams could score. At Western Michigan, they averaged 17.2, 33.8, 36.0 and 41.6 points. At Minnesota, they averaged 22.1, 28.9 and 34.1 points.

Take away the first season at both schools, and his offenses averaged 34.97 points per game. Close to JoeMo territory.

• • •

In 2016, with Moorhead as O-coordinator and QB coach, the Nittany Lions averaged 37.6 points per game and 37.1 points per Big Ten game. In 2017, the numbers jumped to 41.1 and 39.8.

Let’s be up front: Having weapons like Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton and Chris Godwin and Trace McSorley as your Run Pass Options in those 27 games certainly helped, as Penn State’s 22-5 record attests.

It’s been 24 Big Ten Conference games since Moorhead and his RPO and that entourage left town. (Trace has been gone for 15 of ’em.)

Since then, Penn State has averaged 28.2 points per game in the Big Ten and gone 14-10. Throw out Friday night massacres of Illinois (63 points in 2018) and Maryland (59, 2019) and the average Big Ten output drops to 25.2 points. Sound familiar?

So, is that the essential baseline for a Franklin offense through thick (2018-19) and thin (2020)? As well as his offensive career?

In five seasons as an offensive coordinator at Kansas State and Maryland, Franklin’s offenses averaged 26.6 points per game.

In three seasons at Vanderbilt, his offenses averaged 28.9 ppg.

In his first two seasons at Penn State, his offense averaged 18.9 ppg.

Through those lenses, perhaps the Nittany Lion offense of 2020 isn’t all that bad, especially since they started true freshmen at wideout (Parker Washington), running back (Keyvone Lee) and tight end (Theo Johnson) at Michigan. And won.

In a sense, then, Ciarrocca might be doing a better job than his predecessor, Ricky Rahne did, given that he has had fewer tools and countless more hurdles and considerably less time than Rahne had. Remember, Rahne had nine seasons to absorb the Franklin Offensive Philosophy — four at Penn State, three at Vanderbilt, two at Kansas State — before becoming OC in 2018.

In 2016-17, averaging 39ish points per game, Penn State was 15-3 in the conference.

Pre-Moorhead & Co., Penn State was 6-10 in the Big Ten, while fighting off sanctions and an undermanned roster, especially at O-line. Post-Moorhead & Co., Penn State is 14-10 in the Big Ten. Overall, sans JoeMo & Saquon & Trace, that’s 20-20.

In all ways, it certainly looks like 2020 is a transition year. For Franklin. For Penn State. Its offense. And Ciarrocca.

• • •

The question remains: What does a Kirk Ciarrocca offense look like?

We really haven’t seen, and to be fair, this isn’t the year to find out.

We really won’t know for sure until the Nittany Lions go through what may be semi-regular summer practice and the opening three-game gauntlet that greets them in the fall of 2021 — at Wisconsin, then Ball State and Auburn at home.

On Thursday, I tried to get a sense of how much of Penn State’s offense this season is Ciarrocca’s and how much of it is a Rahne/Moorhead/Franklin warmed-over pandemic casserole, thrown together under dire circumstances? And what guardrails Franklin had given his newest offensive coordinator (the fourth in seven seasons) when he came aboard?

Ciarrocca, the good soldier and still-new employee, wouldn’t say.

‘Ultimately, I’m the offensive coordinator, so I own it all,’ he replied. ‘I don’t really think about it like that right now.

‘We’re trying…we’re doing what we think gives us the best chance to win the game on Saturday — period. You owe that to the players, to the program and to the fan base. That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do. So I don’t really have a real answer for you on that, other than what I just said: We’re doing what everyone thinks gives us the best chance to win the game on Saturday. And what our fits our players’ strengths.’

In other words, get out the duct tape and the bailing wire — and the fades — and try to hang in there. And don’t give away the ball and surrender easy points. Then roll out the real offense next season.

Franklin didn’t hire Ciarrocca to run the James Franklin Offense. That averages 27 points per game, which isn’t enough for a Big Ten championship or a berth in the CFP.

He brought in Ciarrocca to reprise what had he done at Western Michigan and, to a greater degree, what he did on November 9, 2019 in TCF Bank Stadium.

It was there and then that Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan — under Ciarrocca’s direction — disassembled Penn State’s secondary by throwing for 339 yards and three TDs on 18 of 20 passing to upset fourth-ranked Penn State, 31-26. It was a job interview you could never get via LinkedIn.

Ciarrocca may not be the second coming of Joe Moorhead – but, who is? (JoeMo’s Oregon Ducks offense is averaging 38.5 points and 492 yards a game this season.)

But the more the Nittany Lions run Ciarrocca’s offense, against Rutgers and into 2021, the better off…and better…they will be. And that’s the point.