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Statistically Speaking: Kirk Ciarrocca’s Offense

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Taking a closer look at Penn State’s new offensive coordinator.

Penn State welcomed in a new offensive coordinator in Kirk Ciarrocca yesterday, and unlike the previous offensive coordinator hire, Ciarrocca should bring with him a new offensive philosophy to Happy Valley. Sure — like James Franklin said yesterday — there will be bits and pieces of the Moorhead offense that will stick around, but you don’t pay seven-figures for Ciarrocca to come in to run someone else’s offense.

With that being the case, let’s look at some key statistics from Ciarrocca over the past seven seasons, and compare them to what Penn State had under Joe Moorhead and Ricky Rahne.

1. Run vs. Pass

Let’s start basic: how often is Ciarrocca running the ball versus passing the ball?

  • 2013: Western Michigan - 53% pass vs. 47% rush
  • 2014: Western Michigan - 43% pass vs. 57% rush
  • 2015: Western Michigan - 43% pass vs. 57% rush
  • 2016: Western Michigan - 37% pass vs. 63% rush
  • 2017: Minnesota - 31% pass vs. 69% rush
  • 2018: Minnesota - 40% pass vs. 60% rush
  • 2019: Minnesota - 36% pass vs. 64% rush

So other than his first season at Western Michigan, Ciarrocca’s offenses have been very run heavy — and that’s even with an All-MAC caliber QB in Zach Terrell during the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

How does that compare with the Moorhead offense? Well, if you know the Moorhead offense, you know running the ball was key.

  • 2016: Penn State - 42% pass vs 58% rush
  • 2017: Penn State - 50% pass vs 50% rush
  • 2018: Penn State - 42% pass vs 58% rush
  • 2019: Penn State - 43% pass vs 57% rush

So yes, Ciarrocca is certainly more run heavy than Moorhead and Rahne were, but the idea of “running the gosh dang football” isn’t necessarily going to be a new concept in Happy Valley. Yes, the blocking schemes, type of runs, and the amount of zone reads vs. RPOs will see a dramatic shift (Ryan Smith from PFF points this out with ~data~), but philosophically speaking, both offenses placed a premium on establishing the run.

2. “Explosive” Plays

James Franklin has talked about it ad nauseam during his tenure, so we know that he places a big emphasis on “explosive” plays — i.e. plays that go for 30 yards or more. As the numbers from Moorhead and Rahne show below, creating those home run plays was a focal point of the offense.

  • 2016: Penn State - 1st in Big Ten (30+ yards)
  • 2017: Penn State - 2nd in Big Ten (30+ yards)
  • 2018: Penn State - 5th in Big Ten (30+ yards)
  • 2019: Penn State - 2nd in Big Ten (30+ yards)

This wasn’t just a Moorhead offense speciality though — even under John Donovan (*spooky music*) in 2015, Penn State led the Big Ten in plays of 30+ yardage or more. So this isn’t something that I expect to go with the Moorhead offense; it will stay as long as James Franklin is around.

So how has Ciarrocca fared with explosive plays?

  • 2013: Western Michigan - 11th in MAC (30+ yards)
  • 2014: Western Michigan - 3rd in MAC (30+ yards)
  • 2015: Western Michigan - 2nd in MAC (30+ yards)
  • 2016: Western Michigan - 2nd in MAC (30+ yards)
  • 2017: Minnesota - 14th in Big Ten (30+ yards)
  • 2018: Minnesota - 9th in Big Ten (30+ yards)
  • 2019: Minnesota - 5th in Big Ten (30+ yards)

Pretty well, all things considered. Basically, when he has the correct talent around him (i.e. a good quarterback), the explosive plays come — though, now under Franklin, I think stretching the field will be an even bigger emphasis.

3. Time of Possession

This is where we see the biggest difference in philosophies between Moorhead/Rahne and Ciarrocca. Basically, Moorhead/Rahne did not care about TOP at all, while Ciarrocca would whisper sweet nothings to TOP all day everyday.

  • 2013: Western Michigan - 28:42 (10th in the MAC)
  • 2014: Western Michigan - 32:46 (3rd in the MAC)
  • 2015: Western Michigan - 34:33 (1st in the MAC)
  • 2016: Western Michigan - 34:02 (1st in the MAC)
  • 2017: Minnesota - 30:57 (4th in Big Ten)
  • 2018: Minnesota - 32:09 (4th in Big Ten)
  • 2019: Minnesota - 33:25 (3rd in Big Ten)

And then Penn State under Moorhead and Rahne.

  • 2016: Penn State - 27:44 (12th in Big Ten)
  • 2017: Penn State - 30:20 (7th in Big Ten)
  • 2018: Penn State - 27:41 (14th in Big Ten)
  • 2019: Penn State - 28:27 (11th in Big Ten)

Stating the obvious, but these two offenses are at completely different ends of the spectrum when it comes to possessing the ball. Under Moorhead/Rahne, Penn State — even with a lead — was frequently snapping the ball with 10+ seconds left on the play clock. Meanwhile, Minnesota was out here draining the clock with like nine minutes left in the third quarter against PSU. They just couldn’t be more opposite.

So what will we see with Ciarrocca at Penn State? Most likely, a compromise in the middle. I don’t think you’ll see Penn State possess the ball the way Minnesota did — partly because I think Ciarrocca will throw the ball a bit more in Happy Valley — but I’d be shocked if Penn State is still in the 11th-14th range under Ciarrocca’s guidance. Controlling the clock is too much a part of his DNA to completely abandon it.

The TOP argument is an interesting one. You can absolutely find numbers out there that say having the highest TOP is meaningless for an offense — case in point, Moorhead’s 2016 offense. They didn’t possess the ball a ton, but boy oh boy, could they score. What isn’t meaningless, though? The effect TOP has on a defense. The less your offense is out there, the more your defense is. The more your defense is playing, the more tired it is going to be. So while leading the conference in TOP shouldn’t be something an offense should necessarily strive for, you also don’t want it in the lower-fourth either — so like we were saying, a happy medium compromise seems apt.

4. Tight End Use

We’ll keep this one short: Ciarrocca has a dreadful history of using the tight end in the passing game. During his time at Minnesota, his leading tight end has ended the year with 9 (2017), 3 (2018), and 4 (2019) receptions. With Pat Freiermuth — and all the talent that is behind him — that isn’t going to cut it in Happy Valley.

Of course, I am sure this was something that was discussed between Franklin and Ciarrocca. You don’t recruit tight ends the way Penn State has and then hire an offensive coordinator that plans on completing ignoring them. And from Ciarrocca’s vantage point, you don’t take the Penn State job with the intention of not using one of the most talent-rich positions on the roster.

Still, something to keep an eye on though, as incorporating the tight ends into the passing game will be something new for Ciarrocca.