What do you make of this 2013 Penn State team? They're 4-2 halfway thru the season. We've been pleasantly surprised by Christian Hackenberg's performance (did you know he's just an 18-year old true freshman?). Allen Robinson continues breaking receiving records. And DaQuan Jones has been a monster in the middle.
It hasn't been perfect, either, of course. The lack of 3rd down conversions on offense has been mentioned once or twice before. Where have the TEs gone? And, of course, why can't we stop the WR screen?
But where would you stack this 2013 squad, against other Penn State squads from the recent past? Let's use some statistics before ranking (big thanks to cfbstats.com).
If we're grading an offense by points scored instead of 3rd down conversions, then the 2013 offense is the best we've seen since the 2008 Big Ten Champion, Rose Bowl-bound, one-Daniel-bleeping-Murray-FG-from-a-title-game squad. They're just 5.6 points per game, and 8.1 yards per game behind what is generally regarded as the pinnacle of Penn State offensive production in the last 10 - 15 years.
Incredible, right? How can this offense convert 3rd downs at HALF the rate of the 2008 squad, and still be lighting up the scoreboard?
It isn't because of explosive offensive plays. Through 6 games, the 2013 offense is keeping pace with the 'good' recent offenses - 2012, 2009, and 2007 - but that's it. They're in the rear view mirror of the 2008 squad in that regard. So what is it, then?
|Year||RedZone%||RedZoneTD%||RZ TDs||RZ FGs|
They're outpacing everyone in BOB's "red area". Specifically, the rate at which the 2013 offense scores TDs after entering the red zone is nearly 25% higher than the 2007 - 2012 average. When this 2013 squad gets to the opponent's 20-yard line, they're usually coming away with points - and, almost 3 out of 4 times, it's a touchdown. The 2013 squad is performing far better than any Penn State offense in recent memory* in this critical area.
*The asterisk? Penn State, between 2007 - 2012, was not very good at scoring TD's in the redzone. Right now, that 70.83% is good for just 6th place in the Big Ten, behind (in order): Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana. While 2013 Penn State's 70% is still excellent (tied for 24th nationally), Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan, and Wisconsin have had a grand total of 3 seasons - out of a combined 28 - in which they scored TDs at less than a 60% rate in the red zone. Penn State was above 60% just 1 out of 6 (that being 2008, of course).
Points. They win you games.
Hey, how about that? The 2013 defense is tied for worst of the last seven seasons in scoring average, at 23.7 points per game. But, they're 5th in yards allowed per game, and they're #1 with a bullet in 3rd down conversions allowed. These stats don't make sense, right? How can the 2013 defense get off the field on 3rd down better than Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman, Jared Odrick, and Devon Still - yet allow opposing teams to score 10 points more per game? Is it the opposite problem of the offense? That is, do they stink in the red zone?
Actually - that's a resounding nope. John Butler's 2013 defense allows TDs from the red zone at a lower rate than any squad that wasn't 2008 or 2009 (both BCS eligible squads, by the way). They're worlds better at keeping the ball out of the paint than the 2010 defense, though they share the same PPG Allowed figure. So what gives?
The 2013 defense is getting done no favors by the 2013 offense's propensity to turn the ball over. The current minus 4 turnover margin (thru 6 games) is on pace to double the worst Penn State turnover margin of the last seven years. There's shared responsibility in that figure, of course. The defense has forced just 9 turnovers, which would be 2nd worst (behind only the 2010 defense) in the last 7 seasons. But the offense has coughed it up 13 times, which will be dead last if that trend holds.
The ball. It's important in this game.
The 2013 squad, just like the 2010 squad, has also been susceptible to the explosive scoring play. They've allowed 8 explosive scoring touchdowns thru the first six games - tied with Ted Roof's 2012 defense's total for all 12 games, and on pace to take the loser's crown from the 2010 squad. Four of those have come via the pass (UCF 25yd pass, IU 36yd pass, and Mich passes of 59 and 37yds). Two have been rushes (UCF 58yd run, and IU 44yd run - man those hurt). But the last two have been from the offense (Hackenberg fumble vs EMU, and Zwinak fumble vs. Michigan).
The offense has also allowed a safety (vs. IU). And, they've put the Penn State defense in other tough spots (e.g., Syracuse had a 1-yard touchdown drive in the opener). Not to be left out - special teams set up the defense to allow Indiana a back breaking 9-yard touchdown drive.
The offense is prolific by Penn State standards. That's pretty awesome, considering there are just four seniors in the rotation (Howle, Urschel, Zerbe, and Felder). If you add in all the points they're giving up via returns for scores and bad field position for the defense after failed 4th down attempts, they're probably putting the ball in the paint and thru the uprights at a 1994 pace (//end sarcasm).
No one - not fans, players, or coaches - has been overjoyed by the performance of the 2013 defense. But they're actually performing better than the credit (or lack thereof) I've given them this season. If the offense can cut down on the turnovers, particularly those returned for scores (or nearly so), and the defense can improve a bit in big plays surrendered - they can be right back into the 17 points per game (plus or minus) allowed range - and that's with a safety playing linebacker, and a wide receiver playing corner. The 3rd down and red zone TD defense says they've already earned it.
Overall? The 2013 squad is probably my tied for my 2nd favorite team of the past seven seasons, with the 2008 squad (no team's knocking the 2012 boys off my pedestal anytime soon). They're clearly less talented than 08, and they're not playing for an officially licensed BCS Championship. But they're precocious, if not 100% smart with the ball. And they're certainly tough, no quit, blue collar guys.
This "crippling sanctions", "gonna be D-3", "no bowls", "61-scholarships" brand of football has actually been way, way more fun than I ever dreamed. Very, very enjoyable stuff overall. Especially against Michigan. If I'd have known it'd be this fun most every week, I'd have petitioned for sanctions back in 2000, before the Toledo game.
More from Black Shoe Diaries:
- Know Your Foe, Week Nine: #4 Ohio State Buckeyes
- Oh, Hello: NJ LB Jason Cabinda Commits to Penn State
- Recruiting Roundup (10.23.13)
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