Better or worse? Previewing Penn State's offense in 2022
Where have you gone, Ricky Rahne? (Oh yeah, right, Old Dominion.)
Never thought any Penn State fans would be pining for the erstwhile offensive coordinator who succeeded Joe Moorhead in 2018, but here we are. With Moorhead now the head man at Akron and Rahne guiding the Monarchs, the Nittany Lions faithful must hope 2nd-year OC Mike Yurcich can turn around the program’s lurching offense.
How bad was PSU on that side of the ball in 2021? So bad that even with a top-10 scoring defense, the Lions went 7-6. Their 25.0 points per game ranked 9th in the Big Ten, 90th in the nation and worst for the program since 2015. They haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in the past 16 games. They gave up a league-worst 34 sacks.
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The damning stats crop up everywhere one looks. Consider this one:
In 2019, Rahne’s final season, Penn State scored 59 offensive touchdowns. Last year, also in 13 games, it scored 36. In 9 games in 2020, Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense scored 33 offensive TDs. The lack of production at running back pops out of those stats: 27 TDs by RBs in 2019, 9 in 2020 and 6 last year.
Is that rock bottom? Could the offense possibly be worse? Let’s discuss.
Key losses: Jahan Dotson, WR.
Key returnees: Sean Clifford, QB; Parker Washington, WR; Keyvone Lee, RB; Brenton Strange, TE; Theo Johnson, TE; Tyler Warren, TE; Juice Scruggs, OL; Caedan Wallace, OL.
Key additions: Mitchell Tinsley, transfer WR; Nicholas Singleton, 5-star RB.
Fans of brevity and brutal honesty should appreciate the above lists.
Outgoing veteran starting linemen Rasheed Walker and Mike Miranda can’t be counted as key losses, given how bad the line played as a unit. Even though they’re extremely green, potential new starters Olu Fashanu, Sal Wormley and Landon Tengwall aren’t likely to be any worse than the guys they replace. Dotson, a 1st-round NFL pick, will be missed, but Penn State will still have a dynamic duo — and solid depth — at the receiver positions. In fact, outside of the line, the Lions’ offensive depth chart looks really good going into 2022.
Passing game: Even
Dotson leaves a void of 1,182 yards and 12 receiving TDs, but if Tinsley proves as good as his stats at Western Kentucky (1,402 yards, 14 TDs), he and Parker might be every bit as dynamic of a duo as Parker was with Dotson. KeAndre Lambert-Smith and several others return to fill out the receiver corps, and any of the top 3 returning TEs could break out, given how talented each one is.
If nothing else, Clifford is a known commodity at QB entering his 4th year as the starter, and it should only help that he finally gets to play under the same coordinator in consecutive seasons.
Expect the Lions to be slightly more efficient in the passing game but throw the ball a bit less. So, even.
Running game: Better
Lee and Noah Cain shared the RB1 job last season, making it a good thing that Lee (4.9 yards per carry, 40.8 per game) is still around and Cain (3.3 ypc, 26.9 ypg) is now back in his hometown with LSU. If anyone is going to take carries from Lee this year, it’ll likely be true freshman Singleton, the Gatorade National Player of the Year.
Third-year line coach Phil Trautwein and Yurcich are under the gun to fix the running game, whatever it takes. Changes to scheme and play-calling are likely, as is a renewed commitment to getting the backs involved and in rhythm.
That will produce at least modest improvements as the program digs out from its worst rushing season in decades.
Special teams: Better
Penn State will sorely miss Jordan Stout on the “defensive” special teams units, where his kickoffs and punts gave the team significant advantages in field position. But he proved erratic as a place kicker, going 16-for-23 on FGs and missing 2 PATs.
Jake Pinegar, who handled all place-kicking duties other than long attempts in previous years, has made 21 of his last 27 FG attempts and should be solid as a 5th-year senior.
As for the return game, Penn State should be able to duplicate its 8th-place standing in both kickoff and punt return average despite the loss of Dotson. Washington or another veteran might take over the role, or perhaps highly touted recruits RB Kaytron Allen and WR Kaden Saunders will get into the mix.
Equal doses of inspiration and desperation should be fueling Trautwein and Yurcich over the summer. If the offense somehow gets worse, the Penn State football ATM might start rejecting their debit cards. James Franklin, the one controlling the finances, might have to bring Moorhead (71 offensive TDs in 2017) back to the trough with a crazy offer.
It shouldn’t come to that, though.
For one thing, the schedule is easier, with the Lions drawing Purdue, Northwestern and Minnesota as B1G West opponents rather than Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. Not having to face the Badgers and Hawkeyes on the road makes for a much more manageable schedule, especially for the offense. The non-league opponents are 2 MAC schools and Auburn, which ended its season with 5 straight setbacks, lost its QB to the portal and dealt with controversy surrounding its head coach this spring.
For another thing, the QB depth chart is in much better shape, so it’s no longer Clifford-or-bust. Christian Veilleux proved himself a capable relief pitcher in his one significant appearance last year, and true freshmen Drew Allar and Beau Pribula both likely would handle being thrust into the spotlight better than Ta’Quan Roberson did last season at Iowa.
With its coaches settling in, a 4th-year starter at QB and up-and-coming players at all the skill positions, this offense should make strides. How many strides depends on the line coming together.
It can’t get worse than last season. And it won’t. Peg the Lions for 30+ points per game. But, yeah, cross your fingers.