If there’s one thing most people can agree on, it’s that Penn State’s defense will range from very good to great this year. The zeitgeist says the Lions will lean on their defense to win games, while a young and inexperienced offense finds its way. So just how good can the offense be? Let’s see if we can figure it out.
Let’s start with last year’s offense, and see what can - or will - be improved upon. In looking up the stats, here’s what I found:
- Passing - 205 completions on 379 attempts for 2,835 yards, 54.1% completion, 21 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and 218.1 yards per game, good for 77th in the country
- Rushing - 521 attempts for 2,664 yards, 34 touchdowns, and 204.9 yards per game, ranked 29th in the country
- Blocking - 31 sacks allowed, tied for 84th in the country
- Scoring - 33.8 points per game, 32nd in the country
So, to sum up: the passing game took a sharp regression from 2017 when it was the 23rd ranked aerial attack in the country, but took a big step up in rushing (was 59th in 2017). It allowed more or less the same amount of sacks (29 allowed, T-74th), but dropped off in scoring (7th in 2017).
How does this then look for 2019?
No starting quarterback has been named yet for the 2019 campaign, but let’s go out on a limb and say it will be Sean Clifford. Clifford, by all accounts, is an accurate pocket passer, who will pick up yards with his feet as plan B, not plan A, and is supposedly a fiery competitor. Compare that to Trace McSorley, another fierce competitor who had a knack for reading defenses, but was not always very accurate; he was very slippery in the pocket and could pick up yards with his feet, often as plan A. Had he not been hobbled midway through 2018, he may have been even more effective in both the passing and running games.
The receivers in 2018 left a lot to be desired, with myriad drops plaguing the unit. The leading receiver was KJ Hamler with just 42 catches. Leading touchdown-catcher tight end Pat Freiermuth also returns, but beyond those two proven commodities, the rest of the receivers are young and inexperienced. Jahan Dotson and Justin Shorter figure to be the new starters on the outside, with Shorter the deep threat while Dotson should be the intermediate man. If the drops can be cut even in half, the receiving and scoring will go up.
Indications for 2019: Passing and receiving will improve with a more prototypical pocket quarterback and a decrease in drops; rushing as part of the game plan for the quarterback will decrease, though not disappear entirely. Overall: significant improvement from 2018.
Miles Sanders is off to the NFL, after putting together a solid junior season. With him goes what should be the “workhorse” approach to running the ball, as there is far too talented a stable of backs to single out one feature back. Ricky Slade, Noah Cain, Journey Brown, and Devyn Ford each bring something different to the game, and rotating backs should be commonplace. Late in the game when defenses are getting tired, having a well-rested Slade come in to break off a long run could change the outcome of a game. Similar to how Coach Spencer likes to rotate defensive linemen to avoid them getting tired, we should see different running backs throughout each and every game. Still, the run game was very good in 2018, and giant improvements will be hard to come by.
Indications for 2019: Rushing will feature a mix of running backs, keeping everyone fresh. Healthy, rested running backs late in the game and the season will gash defenses late. Overall: slight improvement from 2018.
This is probably the toughest one to quantify, as sacks don’t tell the complete story of an offensive line. How many of those sacks came because of broken plays, or receivers not getting open, or a quarterback who had lost half a step due to injury? The run game improved in 2018 vs 2017, and the number of tackles for loss decreased. But still, Ryan Bates and Connor McGovern are both gone, and their replacements have yet to lock down the starting gigs: Rasheed Walker looks to be the starter outside, while C.J. Thorpe and Mike Miranda are battling on the interior. Those three have the pedigree, skill set, and nastiness that you want in linemen, but will it translate on the field?
Indications for 2019: Mixing in new faces on the line will cause a few hiccups early in the season. The rushing game took serious strides in 2018, but having a more stationary quarterback could cause the number of sacks to rise. Overall: steady, possible slight worsening from 2018.
So what does all of this tell us for the most important offensive statistic - scoring? Let’s put it all together.
The passing game should improve significantly, assuming Clifford is as accurate as advertised, and the receivers cut down on the drops.
The rushing game should improve slightly, due to no single back wearing down as games and the season wears on.
Blocking may struggle early as new starters settle into their roles, but overall the line should be more or less comparable to 2018.
Indications for 2019: Expect the improvements from the skill players to more than offset any step back from the offensive line. Better passing, reliable receiving, and fresh running backs mixed with steady blocking will see the points per game take an uptick of close to a touchdown per game. Overall: significant improvement from 2018.
What say you dear reader? Will the passing improve this year with a new quarterback? Will the receivers become more reliable, providing confidence to a new starter at QB? Will the running backs stay rested and healthy as the season wears on? Will the line actually be a strength, or will it be another case of “one year more”?