Penn State's 900th victory conjures memories of simpler times, especially on offense
Finally this season, Penn State seems to have found an identity. There is a certain way this team must play, and the margin for error remains thin. That much became clear in a shaky third quarter Saturday afternoon in Piscataway, N.J.
What also became clear, though, it that this program has a path forward. A serious PSU fan can envision the Lions winning out this season and carrying real momentum into 2021.
Now, beating Rutgers — even new-and-improved, Greg Schiano-coached Rutgers — doesn’t buy a whole lot of Big Ten cred. But dominating the Scarlet Knights, despite a few glitches, does prove a few things about these Lions.
For one thing, the Lions have turned a corner in terms of toughness, mentally and physically. A team that often looked overmatched and demoralized during its season-opening 5-game losing streak has erased any doubts about its desire to play over the past 2 games. The offensive line and the entire defense won at the line of scrimmage most of the day. The first-half set the tone, as Penn State held the ball for 19:27 and outgained Rutgers 229-43.
Perhaps more comforting to old-school fans, Penn State’s offense has found a personality that fits its personnel. First-year coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca’s influence is starting to take hold. I doubt he’ll be bringing back the fullback position anytime soon, but the Lions’ attack, I suspect, will wind up looking quite a bit different going forward than it did under Joe Moorhead or Ricky Rahne.
And that’s a good thing.
Winning time of possession has rarely been a priority in James Franklin’s 7 seasons at Penn State, but it may have to be part of the winning formula until the next recruiting bonanza puts new versions of Barkley, McSorley, Hamilton, Godwin and Gesicki on the field together.
That team of 2016 essentially took fast-break basketball to the football field. But the Lions have been less and less that style of team with each passing year. Ciarrocca’s arrival from PJ Fleck’s Minnesota staff marks a crossroads.
Penn State ground out Saturday’s 23-7 victory with a 36:47-23:13 advantage in time of possession on an extremely windy day in New Jersey. The approach made sense given the weather and the opponent. It made sense given the makeup of the Lions’ roster.
Ciarrocca is playing to his unit’s strengths, namely Keyvone Lee, a couple of possession receivers and a QB who can manage a game if not asked to do too much. Nothing in that last sentence should be construed as an insult. As it proved the past 2 weeks, Penn State can win this way. And in its own way, this style will be fun to watch. When the 107K can return to Beaver Stadium, excitement will build with each hard-earned first down.
As Penn State bumbled and stumbled to 0-5 in Bad News Bears fashion — turning the ball over and failing in the red zone at near nation’s-worst rates — some positives were being obscured.
Entering the weekend, Penn State led the Big Ten in passing attempts and rushing attempts. The raw numbers blur the truth a bit, as Penn State is one of only 6 teams in the B1G to have played each week. But still …
The Lions were 3rd in the B1G in yards per game and 18th in the country in time of possession (33:02). The Lions have only been on the plus side of TOP once since 2014, when they were 60th in the country (30:20) in 2017. This year, the Lions are 2nd in the B1G, per game, in both first downs and first downs allowed.
Is this exactly how Ciarrocca wants to do it? Hard to say. But it’s a start. And it can work.
“I’m very confident in my ability to build a successful, top-flight offense,” Ciarrocca said a couple days prior to Saturday’s game. “I’ve been able to do it at a number of places. I certainly have the resources to be able to do that here. I’m very excited about it.”
Lee might be the key piece right now. That’s perhaps a lot to lay on a true freshman, but he looks the part of the classic Penn State back, a big guy with big thighs, power and good vision. Other than breakaway speed, he’s the full package. One week after racking up 134 yards against Michigan, he racked up another 95 on 17 carries against Rutgers.
What’s different since 0-5? Keyvone Lee. Why does the offensive line suddenly look a whole lot better? Lee. What allows Sean Clifford to play within his comfort zone, going a highly effective 10-of-14 for 96 yards and a touchdown in the first half? Lee.
Devyn Ford returned, started in front of Lee and finished with 11 carries for 65 yards and a TD. Will Levis ran 17 times for 65 yards. It was a lot of basic, straight-ahead football, and it worked well enough.
It wasn’t perfect. Ford lost a fumble and Clifford threw his 9th interception of the year. Breakout freshman receiver Parker Washington dropped 2 catchable balls in the red zone.
The offense petered out in the second half, playing it safe as the defense stymied Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights gained only 205 yards and needed a succession of improbable plays to avoid being shut out.
Lee ended the last bit of drama when — with Penn State backed up on its own 2-yard line — he carried 4 straight times to move the ball beyond midfield.
As long as he’s healthy, Lee should remain Penn State’s lead back going forward and the offense should revolve around him.
But just as important, Ciarrocca and Franklin need to continue adapting the scheme to the personnel.
“We’re doing what everyone thinks gives us the best chance to win the game on Saturday,” Ciarrocca said. “And what fits our players’ strengths.”
Right now, that means grinding out first downs and chewing up the clock. Building from the ground up, you might say. Imagine what a little dose of success can do for players at program that notched its 900th victory Saturday. These Lions may yet roar.
“I’ve been in a lot worse situations than this from a productivity standpoint, and we’ve always managed to come out the other side and be really, really good,” Ciarrocca said. “I’m very confident.”