Kirk Ciarrocca's debut as OC at Penn State shows good, bad, ugly. It's hard to draw any conclusions.
The much-hyped Kirk Ciarrocca offense proved neither a revelation nor a disaster for Penn State on Saturday. It looked vastly different in some ways from Ricky Rahne’s units of the past 2 years — but no more efficient.
The Lions flawlessly marched down the field for a touchdown on the game’s opening series but bogged down for 2-plus quarters thereafter as turnovers, penalties and time-killing empty possessions mounted.
No, this isn’t some gross overreaction to Ciarrocca’s offense after just 4 quarters of football following the hasty implementation of his scheme in a disjointed offseason. After all, the Nittany Lions tallied 35 points in their OT loss to Indiana, ran 87 plays, possessed the ball for more than two-thirds of the 60 minutes in regulation and totaled almost 500 yards. Prior to Saturday, teams outgaining opponents by over 250 yards were 366-0 in the last three seasons, yet Penn State managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
For fans hoping that Ciarrocca produces more explosive plays and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers like he did at Minnesota, that’s just not going to happen. Minnesota ranked second in the Big Ten last year at producing plays of at least 20 yards. Sean Clifford is not nearly the accurate passer that Tanner Morgan is, and Jahan Dotson and Pat Freiermuth bring entirely different skillsets than Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson.
To say it frankly, Clifford threw 2 awful interceptions against the Hoosiers. His backup, Will Levis, put the ball on the ground for another turnover. That’s 3 giveaways from a normally ball-secure team — Penn State ranked 20th in the nation in 2019 with 14 turnovers.
That’s no way to ease in a new offense on the road. Neither is having to rely on third, fourth and fifth-string running backs following the news of Journey Brown likely missing most of the season with an undisclosed health issue and Noah Cain leaving the game with an injury on the first series.
What little time we did see the offense with Cain, it was Penn State’s most effective drive, a 13-play, 64-yard march that ate up over 7 minutes and ended with a Freiermuth 2-yard touchdown reception that made him the most accomplished scoring tight end in program history.
Cain was later seen on the sideline with crutches and a walking boot, emblematic of a handicapped Penn State offense that failed to find the end zone time and time again until the final play of the third quarter.
Receiving-wise, Dotson (4 catches, 94 yards, 1 TD) did enough to maintain his leading man role. Freshmen Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith both made a few plays to show that the foundation for future success may be there. Freiermuth played his normal, steadying role with 7 catches for 60 yards and a TD.
But Clifford showed a lack of interest in hitting the home run to any of his receivers.
Yes, Clifford found Dotson on a 60-yard throw for what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown with 1:47 remaining. But that was only the second real heave the Penn State QB made all day, the first not coming until over halfway through the fourth quarter, an incomplete pass intended for Washington that resulted in a defensive pass interference.
So with no real over-the-top threat through this point of the season, Ciarrocca hammered home another staple of his time along Lake Minnetonka: ball control — something Penn State fans are all too familiar with if they recall P.J. Fleck’s Gophers handing the Nittany Lions their first loss of 2019 by holding the ball for 11-plus minutes more than Penn State.
Ball control is great, but only if you translate it into points.
Look no further than Penn State’s opening drive of the second half. A 16-play, 54-yard drive that ran 7:34 off the clock ended with Jake Pinegar missing a field goal.
Nine of Penn State’s 13 drives in regulation ended without points. While Brent Pry’s defense keep PSU in the game, holding the opposition to 113 yards before Indiana’s final possession of regulation, the offense sputtered. Old-fashioned, ground-and-pound offense only works when there’s a payoff at the end. The Nittany Lions gave that approach a whirl, but too many turnovers, penalties and mistakes prevented the offense from cashing in.
In the end, for as much as the Penn State offense struggled, it still took a string of events unlike anything imaginable and an officiating decision that not even the sportsbooks are backing for the Hoosiers to beat a Top-10 team for the first time in 33 years.
There’s still plenty of reason for optimism about Ciarrocca’s offense. Let’s just hope Bloomington was simply a dress rehearsal for Ohio State’s visit to Beaver Stadium in 6 days.