A fantastic recent edition to the SBN family is Football Study Hall, written by Bill Connelly. Today, he published his 2011 preview of Penn State on SBNation.com and a companion piece on FSH regarding the true value of Penn State's homefield advantage. Pocket protectors...go.
First, the preview. Head over there for the actual data, but here's the basic takeaway regarding the 2010 offense:
The quarterback situation created an easy narrative for the season, and it served as a distraction from the fact that Penn State's defense was quite mediocre. They 'allowed' between 26.9 and 32.8 Adj. Points in each conference game, oscillating between extremely average and less than average. With the shaky offense, the D needed to step forward, but it did not. That might be as big a worry heading into 2011 as the quarterback race.
Penn State's offensive ups and down resulted in an almost perfectly average offense in 2010. They were mediocre running and mediocre passing, solid on standard downs, below standard on passing downs. This is an offense that will run on you as long as you let them, but few defenses actually let them in 2010. Instead, they forced either Young Quarterback A or Limited Quarterback B to beat them through the air.
Honestly, neither Matt McGloin (1,548 yards, 7.2 per pass, 55% completion rate, 14 TD, 9 INT) nor Rob Bolden (1,360 yards, 7.0 per pass, 58% completion rate, 5 TD, 7 INT) were that bad in 2010. They got themselves into trouble with interceptions against good defenses -- Bolden with two against Alabama, McGloin with two against Ohio State and the aforementioned five against Florida -- but their passing lines weren't terrible.
Nothing shocking there, as Penn State was great offensively against bad defenses and poor against good defenses. Textbook Average. Connolly really likes Silas Redd's potential (that secret won't be safe much longer) and the returning Nittany Lion offensive line, which certainly has a decent amount of game experience working in its favor.
Iit's interesting to look at the Adjusted W-L, which states that PSU "beat" Michigan State and Florida but "lost" against Youngstown State, Minnesota, and Indiana -- wait, is that what that means? No?
Imagine if every team in the country played a perfectly average team every week -- that's basically what we are doing when we come up with single-game S&P+ scores. We're comparing the team's overall performance to the baseline average (200.0). If we use adjusted scores, that means every team has an adjusted scoring margin for each game, right?
Okay. So essentially, if Penn State played the most average team in this history of average 13 times last year, they would've finished 6-7. Again, no surprise. Fun to see Penn State's best and worst performances relative to the average, however. Brace yourself -- the Illinois game was PSU's worst effort of 2010. Best Big Ten games for the 2010 PSU offense, by this metric? Michigan State and Northwestern.
And as for that that frustrating 2010 defense, you ask?
Penn State's defense last year was far from terrible, and it was still better than the PSU offense, but it certainly took a step backwards overall. The Nittany Lions ranked 11th in Def. F/+ in 2009 but fell to 40th last year. The drop was fueled mostly by a tumble in efficiency measures -- they fell from 28th to 68th in Rushing Success Rate, from eighth to 30th in Passing Success Rate, and from 33rd to 84th in Standard Downs Success Rate. They were still strong on passing downs, but they were not able to force nearly as many passing downs as in previous seasons -- they ranked 83rd overall in Leverage Rate, the ratio of standard downs to passing downs.
The main problem in 2010? This unit was extremely passive. They didn't get to the quarterback, they didn't get after the ball -- few forced fumbles, interceptions, passes broken up -- and they were not at all proactive. They tried the bend-don't-break routine, and while, again, they still put together a Top 40 effort, we've come to expect more from the PSU defense than that.
If a rebound is to occur -- certainly a possibility with all 11 projected starters being either juniors or seniors -- then one way or another, the front seven needs to get pressure on the quarterback. Facing so few passing downs is going to limit your sack opportunities, obviously, but PSU didn't generate pressure on passing downs either -- they ranked 94th in Standard Downs Adj. Sack Rate, 85th on Passing Downs.
"They were not able to force nearly as many passing downs as in previous seasons" is the key takeaway from last year's defense. Too soft on first and second down. Combine that with the lack of a pass rush and getting bombed by marginal teams like Illinois and Northwestern can happen if they're feeling frisky on a particular day.
We've all said it a million times, but it bears repeating -- Penn State's defense fails when it doesn't get consistent pressure from the defensive ends. It causes the negative plays and the hurried decisions, which usually lead to turnovers or, at the very least, a few 3rd and 11's. But that's stupid, all defenses want to do that. Yes, yes they do. However, that very basic blueprint is especially true at Penn State.
Overall, Football Outsiders has Penn State as it's 30th best team for 2011 with a projected 8-4 record, but as Connolly notes:
... but the way the schedule shapes up, PSU should find itself in the race for the Big Ten
EastLeaders crown for quite a while. Why? Because their two most likely conference losses are the final two games on the schedule: they visit Ohio State on November 19 and Wisconsin on November 26. If those are two of their three projected conference losses, they they are very likely looking at a situation where they take an 8-2 (or so) record into mid-November and get a good amount of "Look who bounced back!" press.
Back over at Football Study Hall, Connolly examines the theories behind calculating home field advantage, and finds that Penn State is not just a tough team that just happens to be playing at home on a particular day. He rates PSU as having the 4th best homefield advantage among BCS teams. You'll never guess where Pitt is LOLLRRCOASTR (yet surprisingly better than Alabama, which, wow.)!