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Will Penn State’s Offensive Line Be Good Again?

Why has the line been bad, and will it finally be good again?

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The last 5+ years, Penn State fans have had to watch the offense struggle behind sub-par offensive line play. Time and again, opposing defenses found their way into the backfield, stuffing running plays for negative yardage, sacking quarterbacks, and generally disrupting any offensive rhythm. In trying to do a root cause analysis, I delved into researching just how much effect the offensive line has had on the offense.

General wisdom will tell you that there are five big, mean guys on the offense, surrounded by six little, fast guys. It’s typically pretty tough to look at an offense’s performance and get a real sense of which group is responsible for any failures. In college football utopia, you’d love to have a line filled with future Pro Bowlers, and skill players that are tops in the nation (see: Penn State ca. 1994). But more often than not, a team may have a good OL but mediocre skill players (hello Wisconsin), or good skill players but not-so-good OL play. Generally, teams are able to get by on offense if their line outpaces their skill players. It may be tough to break offensive performance apart and look at just the line, so we’ll take a look at three distinct categories:

  1. The Players - The big uglies up front that are tasked with keeping the QB clean, and opening up holes for the RB. We’ll take a look at recruiting starzzz, years of collegiate experience, and how many players in the two-deep are actually offensive linemen, not converted tight ends or defensive linemen.
  2. The Scheme - This will analyze the coaching and the offensive system in place, with the hopes of elucidating why some systems just don’t work, and others can help the OL out.
  3. The Results - As we mentioned, it’s awfully tough to just pin blame on the line, so we’ll take a look at a few stats to try to break down the OL play by itself (sacks and tackles for loss (TFLs) allowed), the overall offense (points per game (PPG) and yards per game (YPG)), and the overall team (wins and end-of-season top 25 ranking).

So, let’s get down to it. What happened to the offensive line? Did Penn State stop picking up elite offensive linemen? Did the offensive scheme play a part? Why has the offensive line been so bad, and will it ever be a strength again?

The Paterno Years (2010 - 2011)

The Players

Let’s go back to the end of the Joe Paterno era at Penn State. As we pointed out last year, Paterno actually held his own on the recruiting trail late in his tenure. Penn State wasn’t perennially in the top 10 for recruiting, but was overall a solid top 25 program. It should come as no surprise, then, that the average linemen on the two-deep was a mid-range 3-star player. The average starter on the offensive line had 4.1 years of collegiate experience, while the backups had 3.4 years of experience. Most notably, all 10 players on the two-deep were bona fide offensive linemen - no one was playing a position new to them. While the line wasn’t chock full of blue chippers (4- and 5-star players), it had good skill, experience, and depth.

The Scheme

Under Galen Hall and Jay Paterno, the Nittany Lions ran a varied and complex rushing offense, comprised of many different aspects - inside zone, outside zone, man, iso, power, pulling linemen from across the entire front, unbalanced lines, shifts, and motions, just to name a few. Meanwhile, the passing protection was very basic (almost high school level) - simple zone blocking with a slide to the left or the right.

This highly complex rushing system took a lot of time to teach, leaving very little time left over to teach pass pro - hence the simplistic scheme on passing plays. However, for a long time, such an approach was effective. In the 80s and 90s, defenses were very basic: almost exclusively, defenses lined up in a 4-3 Cover 3, with little-to-no blitzing, swaps, stunts, disguised coverages, quarters, etc. Against such vanilla defenses, any team could be a good passing team with basic pass protection.

However, several problems cropped up with this approach. First, the left or right slide on passing plays was decided in the huddle by the QB, before breaking the huddle and actually looking at the defense. Second, starting in the early 2000s, defenses began to get much more creative, meaning vanilla protection schemes could be beaten fairly easily. Third, if the offensive line had five 4- and 5-star studs, the offense could run effectively, such as in 2008. However, when those players graduate, coupled with good-not-great recruiting, and an incredibly complex rushing scheme, the young players from 2009 to 2011 help birth the scarecrow, traffic cone, turnstile meme we all love to hate.

The Results

In the final two years under Paterno, the Nittany Lions fared pretty well on the offensive side of the ball. They ranked in the top 15 for sacks allowed and TFL allowed, averaging just 13 and 50, respectively. As a whole, however, the offensive output was not fantastic - the team averaged just 21.9 PPG, and 357.3 YPG, ranks that averaged in the bottom third of FBS. The overall lack of offensive prowess resulted in averaging 8 wins per season, and not finishing in the top 25 either year.

The O’Brien Years (2012 - 2013)

The Players

Under Bill O’Brien, the offensive line chiefly consisted of holdovers from the Paterno regime. The two-deep was still chock full of 3-star players, with the starters averaging 4.1 years at the D-1 level, and the backups averaging 3.5 years - in fact, according to just these stats, the offensive line under BOB was actually better than the late Paterno years. However, lack of depth began to rear its ugly head. During his 2 years in State College, O’Brien had only eight true offensive linemen in his two-deep, with one extra blocker playing out of position. For the first time, Penn State did not have 10 bodies in the two-deep offensive line rotation.

The Scheme

O’Brien joined Penn State known as an offensive guru, and recognizing some of the personnel limitations, switched up his offensive scheme. Gone was the incredibly complex run blocking, replaced by simple inside and outside zones. Pass protection, however, took on a slightly more complex note - man blocking was installed, but new to the offense was the manner in which slides or shifts were called. Now, the quarterback waited to call any shifts until after he got to the line, and identified the Mike linebacker. This information was relayed to the center, who then had to communicate it with the rest of the linemen; typically the Mike and the four defensive linemen are the line’s responsibility. Waiting to make personnel assignment calls until the final seconds before the ball is snapped takes more time to teach, and requires effective communication, but overall you don’t need 5-star linemen to run the offense effectively.

The Results

Despite lacking depth, and with a new scheme in town, the offensive line held its own under O’Brien. The number of sacks allowed did increase to nearly 22 each year, but the TFLs stayed low, earning Penn State a top five average ranking in this category. It should come as no surprise, then, that the offensive output saw a step up with the new system in place - the team averaged 28.9 PPG, and 425.4 YPG, bringing the Lions into the middle third of the pack. Still, the sanctions began to take their toll, and the team averaged just 7.5 wins while BOB was in town. The sanctions, of course, precluded Penn State from being ranked.

The Donovan Years (2014 - 2015)

The Players

When James Franklin arrived on Penn State’s campus, he brought with him his offensive coordinator from Vanderbilt, John Donovan. By this point, the sanctions had begun to have an effect on recruiting - O’Brien had been limited to just 15 scholarship players in each class, and so could only recruit so many offensive linemen. Couple that with the fact that many of the linemen recruited were busts, and you have chaos on the front. When Donovan took over the offense, the average starter had just 3.5 years of experience, and the average backup had just 2.9 years on campus. The two-deep was down to just seven (seven!) offensive linemen, with two more out-of-position players. While the players themselves were skilled - the starters averaged out as a low 4-star - they had neither the experience nor the depth to show it off.

The Scheme

So what did Donovan do? With very few actual linemen, and zero blocking tight ends on the roster, he of course installed a man-ball based offense, with incredibly difficult rushing concepts a la Paterno. The passing protection was very rudimentary, meanwhile defenses were becoming more and more complex to read. Without a two-deep full of blue-chip linemen to operate such an offense, opposing defenses lived in the backfield. Furthermore, Donovan did not implement any elements of the spread offense to his system, leaving fullbacks, running backs, and tight ends near the line. With only a couple wide receivers lined up off the line, defenses could place nine defenders in the box - generally speaking, nine defenders is greater than five blockers. The only thing that may have saved Donovan was a mobile quarterback, but Christian Hackenberg was not that.

The Results

As you all know by now, the offense was a tire fire with Donovan at the helm. They averaged 41.5 sacks allowed, and 96.5 TFLs allowed, both rankings in the bottom 10% of D-1 college football. The PPG slipped back down to 21.9, while the YPG dipped to 342.0, both rankings in the low 100s (note: there are only 128 teams in D-1 football). After back-to-back seven-win seasons, without even sniffing the top 25 despite the sanctions being lifted in 2015, Donovan was fired.

The Moorhead Years (2016 - 2017)

The Players

When Joe Moorhead arrived, the offensive line struck its nadir. The starters averaged just 3 years of experience, while the backups came closer to 3.5 years. The last of the out-of-position players moved on, but the two-deep was still only about nine players. The good news was that those nine players were improving - the starters averaged out to a 4-star, and the backups began to climb back into the mid-3-star range. They just didn’t have much experience to build on.

The Scheme

Moorhead, like O’Brien, was known to be an offensive mastermind. He quickly implemented a much more simplistic rushing scheme, and switched back to man blocking in pass pro. Unlike O’Brien, Moorhead also implemented a spread style offense, emptying the box and causing the defense to take players away from the line. Additionally, a mobile quarterback - one Trace McSorley - took the reins at quarterback, running option plays. This essentially meant the defense had to tackle two guys instead of just one, further aiding the offense.

Moorhead’s scheme was further benefited by the fact that it used coverage reads, rather than progression reads on pass plays. The play design sets up so that both the receiver and the quarterback react to what the defense is doing, and the ball goes to the open player, rather than the QB looking from one preset route to another to see if anyone will be open. This style of offense is faster to learn, faster to implement, and can be updated weekly based on the opponent. It also doesn’t rely on a veteran, rocket-arm quarterback, which are incredibly uncommon in college football. For every Hackenberg, there are 10 McSorleys.

The Results

It really cannot be understated just how dramatic an impact Moorhead had on the offense. The number of sacks decreased, moving Penn State into the middle third of the country, while the PPG shot up to 39.4 (good for top 15 in the nation), and the YPG increased to 446.5, a top third ranking. This coincided with the Lions putting up back-to-back 11-win seasons, and finishing ranked no worse than 8 either year. Perhaps the biggest knock against the JoeMo offense was the tackles for loss - despite the gaudy numbers, the Nittany Lions still gave up 90 TFL, ranking them in the bottom 10% of the country. Some of that had to do with the line play, and some of that had to do with entire defenses selling out to stop Saquon Barkley before he had the chance to get going - meanwhile McSorley continued to torch defenses through the air. After two wildly successful years, Moorhead was named the head coach at Mississippi State, and moved on to Stark Vegas.

The Rahne Years (2018 - ???)

The Players

So now, after spending years learning from many different coordinators, Ricky Rahne has taken over the play calling for the Lions. What will the offense look like under the new coordinator? Well, for starters, the line is finally starting to its resemble pre-sanctions self. If we (perhaps over-zealously) assume that neither Ryan Bates nor Connor McGovern leave for the NFL draft after this year, the average starter over the next 2 years will be a 4-star, with nearly 4 years of experience in college. The backups are high 3-stars with almost 3.5 years of experience. The two-deep will be completely devoid of out-of-position players, and will have 10 true linemen for the first time since 2011. Meanwhile Franklin continues to bring in two to three blue chip offensive linemen in each class. Things are looking up.

The Scheme

The improvement in skill, experience, and depth alone should be helpful, but the early indications are that Rahne is going to continue to run an offensive scheme very similar to Moorhead’s. Both the Fiesta Bowl against Washington and the Blue-White game indicate that the spread offense, with quarterback options and coverage reads will remain in place. Rahne will absolutely install some of his own tweaks (hello, shovel pass), but overall Penn State fans should expect much more Moorhead than Donovan.

The Results

So, what will the offensive output look like? I’ve long been a believer that some players have been absolutely vital to Penn State’s survival of the sanctions - without Christian Hackenberg sticking through the sanctions and taking beatings week after week, there’s no way that the other quarterbacks on the roster get the chance to develop. Without Trace McSorley - the rare 3-year starter at QB - there’s no way that the depth at quarterback could be built up the way it has. As it stands right now, after McSorley departs, Tommy Stevens will take over as a redshirt senior, followed (most likely) by Sean Clifford, who will be a redshirt junior in 2020. Having a starting quarterback with 4+ years of college experience is invaluable. The quarterbacks will be set.

And how about the running backs? As much as I’ve been privileged enough to watch and cover the generational Saquon Barkley, there can be no doubt that defenses absolutely sold out to stop him. Over the past 2 years, whenever a backup stepped on the field, defenses played straight up, rather than keying nine guys on the RB, and lo and behold someone like Miles Sanders could break off an eight yard gain with minimal effort. We’ll all miss Barkley, but I’m a strong believer that the rushing game will actually improve with #26 off to Big Blue in New York.

The skill, experience, and depth on the offensive line will return to normal beginning in 2018. In fact, this should be the best offensive line we’ve had since at least 2008. There’s ample experience at QB, and quality depth at RB, going up against defenses which should play much more traditionally without Barkley on the field. Will the offense be good in 2018, despite some key personnel losses? Only time will tell, but it would not surprise me in the least if the offense actually outperforms 2016 and 2017 under Rahne.

In fact, looking at the combination of offensive line and skill players, I can’t help but think that this could be the best offense Happy Valley has seen since 1994. Grab your popcorn everyone, we’re in for a show.