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A Statistical Look At Penn State’s 2016 Potential, Part 1

In part one of this three-part series, we’ll take a look at how Penn State fared statistically in 2014 and 2015, and what we can take away from that change heading into 2016.

NCAA Football: Penn State Spring Game Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been said about Penn State's upcoming 2016 season. From fears of the bottom falling out to delusions of grandeur, the 2016 Penn State football season will have plenty to keep everyone entertained. For the first time in 16 years, The Nittany Lions will meet on the field with their natural rival Pitt Panthers. For the first time since 1943, Penn State will play the Temple Owls looking to avenge a loss. And, for the first time since 2011, Penn State's scholarship situation doesn't look like a reason for concern.

In looking at the many different topics we've talked about, I became interested in one particular aspect: how did Penn State manage to win 7 games in both 2014 and 2015? I started looking at some general numbers to see if there were any statistics we could use to try and project the 2016 season. I settled on looking at the change in some key numbers from 2014 to 2015 below:

Points Per Game Rushing Passing Yards Per Play 3rd Down Conversion % Punting
Offense 12.62% 39.46% 13.11% 18.91% 30.26% 7.32%
Defense 17.2% 30.51% 5.96% 11.94% 21.33% X

This is the first post in a three-part series that will look at what Penn State needs to do to maintain its current level of success (or failure, for the Penn State Pessimist™ in you) given the changes we saw from 2014 to 2015. Today we'll take a look at the overall numbers, giving a quick introduction on what Penn State would have to do to maintain its 7-win baseline. Part two will focus on what the offense needs to do to keep pace, while part three will focus on the defense. I will seek to establish this by using the percentage increase or decrease for each side of the ball to project what we should expect from each side this season.

Of course, with any analysis such as this comes with caveats, and here are mine:

  • This analysis is meant to give a sense of what the team would need to do on a basic level. It's not meant to be a prediction.
  • This is not a comprehensive list of data points that could be used.
  • Some of these numbers may or may not be relevant at all.
  • Etc.

For the sake of clarity, the above numbers are the change in each category from 2014 to 2015. Red is a decrease in production, green is an increase. With that out of the way, let's dive in.


It may have looked ugly at times (or most of the time), but Penn State's offense saw a stark improvement in 2015. The offense improved in all but one area; the only statistic in which they did not output better numbers than the previous season was third down conversion rate. A lot of that is due to Penn State's ability to make big plays, as well as Saquon Barkley being as good as he turned out to be. But there's also something to be said about a line that allowed ten sacks to open the season having the ability to bounce back and opening up lanes for the running backs to go through. Also, teams aren't at successful at creating big plays as Penn State was last season without something going right.

So what would Joe Moorhead's offense need to look like numbers wise in order to keep pace with the improvement we saw last season? First, we take last season's numbers and increase them by the percentages above (sans the drop in 3rd down %).* After those calculations, the numbers look like this:

  • 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

Scoring 26 points per game shouldn't be a monumental task for Joe Moorhead given his time at Fordham, Connecticut, or Akron. With all the weapons he inherits, and with Franklin stating that Penn State will run a very similar offense to what they had the past two seasons, the learning curve for this year's offense will be focused more on terminology and pace as opposed to having learn a brand new playbook. The Lions were at its best last season (and in 2014) when they were running plays at a faster pace. Having an offense that does this constantly instead of intermittently will help keep a rhythm while also preventing defenses from substituting.

Likewise, a more experience and deeper group of running backs and wide receivers will help mitigate the loss at quarterback, which in turn may increase the average numbers overall.

Part two will discuss in more detail how exactly Joe Moorhead can maximize the talent he has on offense to create a more effective offense.


You can tell right away that the defense dipped across the board. Even with a line as talented and productive as last year's the defense was unable to reproduce the output from 2014. Some of that was attributed to youth, but injuries also played a big part in the loss of production. The loss of Nyeem Wartman-White for the season, coupled with the spans without Brandon Bell, Marcus Allen, Jordan Lucas, and Carl Nassib made it much harder to keep consistency across the board. Another issue that plagued the Nittany Lions was its apparent weakness against option teams, which is something multiple teams on its schedule were able to exploit.

If Penn State were to continue its downward trend on defense, this is what we'd expect in 2016:

  • Points allowed per game: 25.54
  • Rushing yards allowed per attempt: 5.02
  • Passing yards allowed per attempt: 6.04
  • Yards allowed per play: 5.35
  • Opponent 3rd down conversion rate: 44.23%
  • Punting yards average: N/A

Astute observers would notice that if both sides of the ball continue their trends, we should expect a ton of shootouts in 2016. To put those numbers in perspective, the 2013 team allowed 26.2 points per game, and 5.30 yards per play. Such a drop in production would put a ton of pressure on the new offense.

In part 3 we'll take a look at what the new defense can do to mitigate the losses and limit the potential stark drop in production.

That's it for the primer. Next we'll take a look at how the offense can achieve and surpass their numbers.

*We'll discuss 3rd down conversion rate in more detail next time