There has been a lot of gnashing of teeth over the offensive performance through 3 weeks, and for the most part, I’ve been in that same boat.
For some reason, I keep comparing this team to 2016. I think it mostly has to do with the fact that we have a new starting quarterback, whereas 2017 most everyone was established on the team, and 2018 was the twilight of said quarterback’s career. 2019, like 2016, feels like a fresh start to me.
Now, there are some obvious dissimilarities between the two teams. For one, Ricky Rahne is in his second year as offensive coordinator, while Joe Moorhead was just starting in 2016. For another, Brent Pry was just taking over at defensive coordinator for Bob Shoop in 2016, while in 2019 Pry is now in year 4 at DC. And of course, the 2016 team was much closer to the nadir of the sanctions, while the 2019 team has a roster that is far more talented with better depth.
But still, let’s take a look at how the two teams, and specifically the offenses, fared through their first three games, and see if our feelings are warranted, or if perhaps we should pump the brakes.
The 2016 team started the year with a 2-1 record, beating Kent State 33-13, losing at Pitt 42-39, and then beating Temple 34-27. The 2019 team, meanwhile, is 3-0, having beaten Idaho 79-7, Buffalo 45-13, and Pitt 17-10. Beyond wins and losses, how do some of the stats shake out? Let’s take a look, on an average-per-game basis:
Through three games, the 2019 offense is outpacing the 2016 offense by nearly 12 PPG. This is buoyed by the game against Idaho, but the 2019 offense so far has scored more points than 2016. Interestingly, the 2019 defense is leagues better than 2016, giving up over 17 PPG fewer. In games when the offense is struggling to score, having a defense that can bail your team out is a huge boon.
This is where the really interesting stats start to show up. 2019 is averaging one fewer completion per game, on just 0.3 fewer attempts per game. Both offenses are averaging completion percentages over 61%, and are within 5 yards per game of each other. Passing yards per attempt are nearly identical as well.
However, the biggest story here is that 2019 is averaging one extra touchdown per game, with no interceptions on the year. If you consider an interception as a TD negated for the other team, the 2016 offense was only averaging 0.6 TD per game, or 4.2 PPG, whereas the 2019 passing offense is currently contributing 16.1 PPG. That is stark.
Similar to the passing game, the rushing game is pretty close in the number of attempts per game. However, the biggest difference is in the yardage, as 2019 is outgaining 2016 by over 80 yards per game, and 2.5 yards per rush. The only downside for the 2019 rushing game is that they are only scoring 0.6 TD per game more than the 2016 team.
So what does it all mean? Well, it depends on how you look at it.
No one had any great expectations for 2016. We all hoped that the new offense would look better than the John Donovan era, and that the team could get above the 7-win threshold they’d been stuck at for a few seasons. Through three games, the offense looked solid, if not world-beating.
Of course, the 2016 team got demolished by Michigan 49-10 in week 4, and then needed a 26-23 overtime win over Minnesota to suddenly turn the corner and catch fire. It took time for Trace McSorley to feel comfortable in the RPO and gain confidence in himself, his receivers, and his line. But when it all clicked for him, he became one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, if not the country, and Penn State went on a 2-year tear that nearly saw them in the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
The 2019 offense has had its own struggles, and they have not been unlike the 2016 team. New starting quarterback Sean Clifford has struggled with decision-making in the RPO, the offensive line is still gelling, and the chemistry between the receivers and the QB is still growing.
The good news is that despite some struggles, the team is undefeated. The offense is currently outperforming its 2016 counterpart, and the defense has been lights out. Unlike in 2016, when the offense had to win the game as the defense gave up quite a few points, the 2019 offense has been granted a top flight defense to sort things out.
What remains to be seen is if the offense can finally get it all to click a la 2016. If they can, this team will be dangerous to everyone left on the schedule. If some of the struggles against Buffalo and Pitt continue, and Clifford never quite figures it out, then this team will be in low-scoring dogfights all year long.
My money is on the former, though perhaps not to the extent of 2016. But I’m much more confident that the team will figure it out, rather than be left grasping at straws the whole season.