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A Statistical Look At Penn State’s 2016 Potential, Part 2: Offense

In part two of this three-part series, we’ll take a look at what Penn State has to do offensively in order to eclipse the abysmal results of 2014 and 2015.

Penn State v Northwestern Photo by JonathanDaniel/Getty Images

In part one of this series, we established some hypothetical breakpoints Penn State would have to hit (or avoid) in order to maintain their current level of success. Today, we focus on the offensive side of the ball.

As a reminder, we established that the team would have to hit these marks on offense as a baseline for improvement:

  • Points per game: 26.12
  • Rushing yards per attempt: 5.71
  • Passing yards per attempt: 7.8
  • Yards per play: 6.5
  • 3rd down conversion rate: 40%
  • Punting yards average: 42.15

With that out of the way, what are the things Joe Moorhead can do to make these numbers happen? Before we get into that, I have more numbers for you:

Establishing the Problem

Drives Time of Possession per Game Time of Possession per Drive Yards per Drive Plays per Drive 3 and Outs (%)
Penn State 174 29:29 2:11 26 5 51 (29%)
Alabama 205 33:35 2:27 31 5.53 42 (20%)
Ohio State 173 29:16 2:12 32 5.31 34 (20%)

Above are a few numbers connected to Penn State’s success (or lack thereof) in establishing their offense. For comparison, I picked national champion Alabama, and “in my opinion best team in the Big Ten” Ohio State. I picked Ohio State over Michigan State, the actual Big Ten champions, because the Buckeyes had troubles of their own on offense for the better part of their 2015 season. I wanted to see what the difference was between offensive-struggling, 12-1 Ohio State and offensive-struggling, 7-6 Penn State.

When you look at overall time of possession (TOP/g), Penn State didn’t do too badly. They missed the golden time by a hair, so their offense kept the ball, on a game-by-game basis, for a good chunk of the time. Alabama, the national champions, of course went above the coveted 30 minutes per game. Yet Ohio State was worse than Penn State in that stat at 29:16. The problems begin when you start digging deeper. Once you look at time of possession per drive (TOP/d), Alabama blows Penn State out of the water, and even Ohio State slightly edges out Penn State with a TOP/d of 2:12 to Penn State’s 2:11.

When you look at yards per drive (YPD), the Nittany Lions are at a paltry 26, when both Ohio State and Alabama got above 30 in that category. Consequently, Penn State’s average plays per drive (PPD) are a half yard less than Alabama’s (5.53), and a third less than Ohio State’s (5.31)

The reason why Penn State’s numbers were so low in comparison to the better teams in the nation is their 3-and-out rate. Penn State hit a whopping 29% 3-and-out rate. That’s group of 5 levels of bad. In fact, the discrepancy between their TOP/g and their TOP/d stems from this. The Lions having had one of the slowest paces in FBS last season inflated their TOP/g numbers by eating up clock on many 3-and-out drives. In fact, if it weren’t because of Christian Hackenberg’s (more on that later) and Saquon Barkley’s ability to make big plays, those numbers would plummet.


I channeled Captain Obvious in some of these suggestions, and Joe Moorhead has probably already implemented ways to do these things, but here the go:

Improve 3rd down conversion rate

You can easily see from the numbers above that if the Lions could only improve upon their 3-and-out rate to moderate levels, their conversion rate would skyrocket. A moderate 4% increase in 3-and-outs per drive would translate to about 35-40% 3rd down conversion rate. Given last year’s conversion rate, that would lead to many drives not ending in our own 30-yard line. For example, against Michigan last year, we had three drives end inside their red zone. Improve that third down percentage, and the game has the potential to be 21-21 in the 4th quarter on the high end.

Get creative, but not predictable

May of Penn State’s drives stalled last season because the opposing defense knew what was coming. Nevermind Bscaff’s “predictable plays” Film Room last season. Think of just Brandon Polk. He’s a speedy receiver who can make plays for you anywhere on the field. Yet, every time he came on the field, except for one (his touchdown play, surprise surprise), the opposing defense knew what would happen. Moorhead can leverage that situation by putting him on the same spot, moving DaeSean Hamilton outside on that play with Godwin on the other end, and suddenly the defense truly doesn’t know what’s coming.

Let the running backs eat

Saquon Barkley. Miles Sanders. Andre Robinson. Mark Allen. These are all capable backs with the ability to make things happen. Allen, the seemingly odd man out in this group, has been impressing the staff in camp. This gives Moorhead the flexibility to truly package plays depending on what the defense gives him. And given the talent in the position, there will be little drop-off between backs.


One thing the offense lacked last season was that sense of “going for the kill.” At times, it seemed more Paterno-esque in the sense of “not making mistakes” over “taking advantage of the situation.” Moorhead will be best served by attacking early and often, but being careful to only use the “big plays” (downfield passes, play action, two-back sets), when the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.


There were a lot of things the 2015 offense did right. Hackenberg got the keys to the car starting with the Buffalo game, and that led to five straight wins. When the keys were taken away (against the tougher opponents), it led to a 1-4 record.

The Big Ten was very susceptible to Penn State’s big play ability. At any given point one of the team’s playmakers was able to do amazing things by simply being there.

Moorhead’s job this season is to make those players go from being there to being a consistent threat. With McSorley’s mind, and the talent surrounding him, Moorhead can match, and easily eclipse, the baseline set for him here if he improves upon the above.