Penn State Football: No offense, but it’s time for that review

Penn State Offensive Coordinator Mike Yurcich. Photo by Paul Burdick

In the tumultuous days leading up to Penn State’s appearance in the Outback Bowl, head football coach James Franklin was asked to evaluate Mike Yurcich’s first season as offensive coordinator.

Franklin dodged the question, even though the 2021 Penn State attack was already 339 minutes and 36 seconds on the field at the time. No doubt Franklin had an opinion—probably several—but he chose not to share it publicly.

The Nittany Lions were 7-5 at the time and were in the throes of a 2-5 series where they averaged just 22.5 points per game, including final standings of 17, 18 and 20 points.

For their part, many Penn State fans had seen enough… figuratively and literally.

Franklin’s answer that day (December 17) was a bit of a word salad, totaling 546 words without giving much of an evaluation. Here’s much of his answer:

“Yeah, I haven’t really gone back at this point and have literally broken it all down and studied it all the time.”

data,” Franklin said. “Of course we would have liked more points on the board, been more explosive and consistent. And that’s really what we’re going to spend a lot of time doing when the season is over is going back through everything – offense, defense, special teams – and really map out a little bit and where we were good, where we weren’t good , what were the reasons why we weren’t good in really all three phases.

“As you can imagine, I think it’s a very good question and a fair one. But as you can imagine, from the moment we played our last game, we’ve been on the road to recruiting people. I think we made 17 home visits in the past week. And at the same time, I’m trying to help Brent Pry in his situation at Virginia Tech.

“To answer your question… that’s something we’ll take a deep dive into. But offensively, defensively and special teams – of course we want to be No. 1 in the country, No. 1 in the Big Ten, whatever it is in every category. And we’re going to have to take a deep dive into all those things and say, ‘Okay, where were we not good enough, why were we not good enough in that area, what adjustments can we make and what needs to be fixed?’ (That is) either through the hiring process, through the transfer portal, or the old-fashioned development, which is also a big part of it. That is the development of the players and also of the staff.”

For his part, Yurcich made no mistake that day when he was asked essentially the same question.

“I take the blame,” Yurcich said. “It just falls on my shoulders and we will get better, I will get better. We’re going to work really hard to get a championship-level attack and we’re not there yet. We will continue to strive and drive and do all the things it takes to compete and get to that level – or I will die trying.”

Here’s how Penn State, Franklin and Yurcich got to that point (also recalling that the Nittany Lions fell 24-10 from Arkansas in the Outback Bowl and went scoreless in the final 35 minutes):

Franklin made a double move at the OC/QB coach on January 8, 2021, when he fired Kirk Ciarrocca, just 20 days after Penn State’s last game of the irregular 4-5 pandemic season – a 56-21 win over Illinois on December. 19, a week after beating Michigan State 39-24.

By contrast, it was 24 days after Penn State’s regular season ended with a 30-27 loss at Michigan State when Franklin was asked to review Yurcich’s work. And essentially scored.

• • •

It may be a while before we hear from Franklin again and thus get that evaluation.

The second National Letter of Intent Signing Day is Wednesday, February 2 (it’s also Franklin’s 50th birthday). And – usually – Franklin would meet the media that day. But if PSU stops signing high school players, Franklin may waive the presser. That could push his next media availability into spring practice, which usually starts the second week of March.

So let’s take a look for ourselves at Penn State’s 2021 offensive season.

We will use two criteria: 1.) What were Franklin’s expectations of Yurcich when he was hired last January, and 2.) Where does Penn State’s 2021 offense stand versus Franklin’s past offenses (2014-20), versus each other and at the national level.

But before we do that, any assessment of Yurcich after the first year should include his success on the hiring path. Mainly because of Yurcich, five-star quarterback recruit (and current Nittany Lion freshman) Drew Allar is now at Penn State — as is talented PA QB Beau Pribula. Ultimately, that outweighs any numbers below, both good and bad, when evaluating Yurcich’s impact on Penn State to date. In short, without Yurcich, Allar will not enroll at Penn State.

• • •

In his introductory press announcing the OC brand/rental, Franklin highlighted three key areas where Yurcich — who has an impressive resume with stops in Oklahoma State (2013-18), Ohio State (2019) and Texas (2020) — expected make an immediate impression:

More explosive games, more points and less turnover.

“Those are the three most important things you’re going to do on offense — and how that affects our locker room, how that affects recruiting, everything,” Franklin said. “So a combination of all those things. But a very difficult, difficult decision; but something I thought was the right thing for us to move forward in the long run.

“You better protect football and create explosive games,” Franklin added. “Those are two areas that we failed to do last season (2020).”

Franklin also said he wanted more players in the offensive mix.

“I want to get more guys involved, and I want to touch more guys,” Franklin said. “I want to get the hands of more guys on the ball. I think it makes it harder for you to defend when the ball can go to a number of different people and a lot of different people are involved in your program.”

(Plus, it keeps the transfer portal from getting clogged.)

Let’s take a look at how Penn State fared in 2021 versus 2020 in the key categories outlined by Franklin. At the same time, we must also recognize that there were problems with Penn State’s offensive line last season, and that quarterback Sean Clifford had significant injuries.

But the 2021 season was Franklin’s eighth at PSU, and as the $8.5 million dollar man, he is ultimately responsible for offensive line recruiting and development, as well as a backup plan should Clifford be injured — no matter who the O- coordinator is / was. After all, Yurcich was Franklin’s third offensive coordinator in three seasons.

In the words of former NFL coach Bill Parcells, Franklin ran the errands, but in 2021 it was Yurcich’s turn to cook dinner.

Under Yurcich, Penn State’s offense did not improve in three of the four categories. The Nittany Lions did better by not turning the ball around. The main areas, according to Franklin:

Points Scored — A drop of nearly 5 points per game in 2021; lowest since 2015.

Year Avg. Points per game
2014 20.6
2015 23.2
2016 37.6
2017 41.1
2018 33.8
2019 35.8
2020 29.9
2021 25.0

Explosive Play (20 yards or more) — Slight drop: from 4.7 to 4.5 per game, worst in last 6 years.

Year walk Passage Total Avg. By game
2014 12 33 45 3.5
2015 20 36 56 4.3
2016 26 65 91 6.5
2017 26 59 85 6.5
2018 23 49 62 4.8
2019 22 41 63 4.8
2020 13 29 42 4.7
2021 8 51 59 4.5

Balancing – Same in ’20 and ’21 for combined rushers with 30 carry bags and receivers with 10 catches (11).

Year Rush Recommendation Total
2014 4 9 12
2015 4 6 10
2016 2 6 8
2017 3 8 11
2018 3 6 9
2019 6 7 13
2020 5 6 11
2021 4 7 11

Revenue – A significant drop in lost revenue per game, from 1.88 to 1.15, the third best in the Franklin era.

Year Smoke. int. Total Avg. By game
2014 11 15 26 2.00
2015 12 6 18 1.38
2016 12 8 20 1.42
2017 3 10 13 1.00
2018 13 8 21 1.61
2019 5 9 14 1.07
2020 8 9 17 1.88
2021 5 10 15 1.15

• • •

Historically, Penn State’s 2021 offense was the worst of the past six seasons in many categories — total offense, rushing and points. It was the second worst of the Franklin era in the red zone, slightly ahead of what PSU performed in 2020.

Conversely, the 2021 Nittany Lions’ passing attack was ranked No. 26 nationally, the second-best ranking in Franklin’s tenure at Penn State. However, the average yards per pass — a good measure of passing efficiency — was PSU’s worst since 2015. So was the average per completion, at 12.0 yards. In comparison, the 2016 Nittany Lions averaged 16.15 yards per completion. Nationally, Penn State was ranked 118th out of 130 teams running the ball in 2021, and its offense was ranked 82nd, by far the worst ranking since 2015.

When it comes to hitting the four key metrics Franklin looks for in an offensive coordinator, Penn State’s 2017 season — under OC/QB coach/savant Joe Moorhead — comes closest to perfection.

That season, Penn State averaged 41.1 points per game (No. 7 nationally); ranked 13e total yards (460); only one turnover per game on average; and had 6.5 explosive plays over 20 yards per game. The only failure, by Franklin criteria, was a lack of proper ball distribution, at least in quantity. But those Nittany Lions did have four receivers with over 50 catches (future NFLers Mike Gesicki, Juwan Johnson, Saquon Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton) and a 1-2 furious punch from Barkley and Trace McSorley sharing 361 carries.

As a reminder, here are the five OCs Franklin has had in eight seasons: John Donovan (2014-15), Moorhead (2016-17), Ricky Rahne (2018-19), Ciarrocca (2020), and Yurcich (2021).

Here’s how Penn State’s offense has progressed in major categories since 2014 (national rankings in parentheses):

Year Yds./game Run: game/rush Pass: game / att. red zone
2014 335 (111) 101.9/2.94 (117) 233.4/6.1 (61) 82.5% (68)
2015 348 (105) 134/4.1 (105) 214.5/6.9 (74) 93.3% (6)
2016 433 (49) 171.9/4.46 (66) 260.7/9.34 (36) 86.6% (43)
2017 460 (13) 170.2/4.9 (59) 290.2/8.24 (23) 89.8% (21)
2018 423 (45) 204.9/5.11 (29) 218.1/7.48 (76) 89.7% (16)
2019 412 (57) 190.6/4.8 (36) 221.3/7.8 (76) 90.4% (21)
2020 430 (37) 174.3/3.9 (55) 256/7.5 (40) 75.7% (107)
2021 376 (82) 107.8/3.2 (118) 268.5/7.18 (26) 78.6% (97)

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