We wanted to get to know more about Kirk Ciarrocca, who took over as Penn State’s offensive coordinator following Ricky Rahne’s departure to become head coach at Old Dominion. To accomplish this, we sat down with Tom Coyer and Ben Dawson of The Daily Gopher, SBN’s Minnesota Gophers site. Tom and Ben have spent the last three years watching Ciarrocca’s offense as it gradually improved and helped lift the Gophers to new heights in 2019.
What’s the summarized version of what Penn State is getting in Kirk Ciarrocca as its new offensive coordinator?
During his time as the OC at Western Michigan and Minnesota Ciarrocca has been known for sporting very balanced offenses. He does a great job of getting the right guys in space to make plays. Corey Davis at Western, Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman were put in position to make plays. But there was always a balance with the running game, utilizing the inside zone when he could.
Ciarrocca obviously did incredible things during his time in Minnesota. What’s the one takeaway that impressed you the most with him leading the offense?
Most impressive thing he did here is quarterback development. Far and away the best work we’ve had with the position in decades. For a program that has really lacked a good quarterback for a very long time, his development of Tanner Morgan into one of the best in the Big Ten was really fun for Gopher fans. He was always very involved in the quarterback recruitment (obviously) and with the recruiting resources and pull that Penn State has, it will be interesting to see what he does with this position for you guys.
What improvements/changes can Penn State fans expect on offense in 2020 with Ciarrocca at the helm?
Are you ready to pull your hair out in non-conference games because you don’t want to show anything to opponents? Because that’s something you’re going to get to see. Hopefully it doesn’t bite you in the ass against Virginia Tech. A nice defensive or special teams touchdown would go a long way. And then you’ll show up for most of your conference games, except one game you should probably win but won’t because (once again) he’ll get oddly conservative.
My apologies for bringing up bad memories (if it makes you feel better I still wake up in a cold sweat with what happened on Nov. 9), but why was the Gophers’ offense so limited in the regular season finale against Wisconsin? The Badgers have an outstanding defense, but it was surprising to see the offense have it’s least-productive game of the season at home with so much at stake.
Two reasons: First, our best look in the Penn State game was to go with 6 offensive linemen and then force he defense to stop Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson in one-on-one situations. Due to injuries down the stretch, we weren’t able to use that look and force teams to decide how they want to get roasted. Between that and playing not to lose against those overrated skunks to our east, we just looked like crap and should be very frustrated over that game for a long time (Seriously. How tough is it to go to a max protect and take shots deep? We hit Bateman early for a long touchdown and then...nothing? Come on, man.).
What was one of the most common criticisms of Ciarrocca during his time in Minnesota?
You’ve already seen me complain about it enough. If he’s not overly conservative against weaker opponents to start, he’s pulling the chute way too early against Purdue when up 21 and let them claw their way back to make it look like a game when it’s actually a blowout. Many non-conference games against inferior opponents were way too close because the playbook was so vanilla. You may recall leading up to the showdown against Penn State the common refrain that we barely beat a number of vastly inferior teams in the preseason? Want to know a very strong reason why we only beat South Dakota State by 7 or Georgia Southern by 3? Very vanilla offenses coupled with a few plays that went the opponent’s way and those games were far too close for comfort.
How will this move impact Minnesota next season? Do you feel the Gophers can reach similar heights under Mike Sanford Jr. and Matt Simon?
We are all very nervous about how this will impact quarterback development, but other than that I’m not too worried at all. Simon called one hell of a game in the Outback Bowl, and if Sanford isn’t up to snuff doing the job Fleck has shown before that he’s not afraid to fire somebody mid-season. Between all of that and the fact that we’re absolutely loaded on offense, if we’re not one of the best offenses in the country it’ll be a huge disappointment.
What can you tell us about Kirk Ciarrocca, the person?
We don’t know ton about him personally but by all accounts he is a good guy. In addition to not having any significant (or minor) arrests or lawsuits involving his players while he was here, he was also the most trusted assistant on staff for PJ Fleck. Having coached together since their days as assistants at Rutgers, they were tight and he was given a lot of trust from Fleck.