Penn State’s Offense Is Offensive

At 0-2, and the offense not clicking, this is not the way Nittany Lions fans envisioned start of the season.

By Eric G. Stark

Hey Kirk Ciarrocca, your offense stinks.

The 2020 Penn State football team is off to a 0-2 start. The fact the Nittany Lions started off on the road at an up-and-coming Indiana squad and then drew the powerhouse Buckeyes of Ohio State, makes the 0-2 record less of a shock.

What is surprising is how bad Penn State has looked for large stretches of both of these games.

This is not how Penn State fans planned to start the season or what they expected to see the Lions roll out on offense.

Penn State offensive Kirk Ciarrocca talks with K.J. Hamler in January in Texas.

When Ciarrocca was hired from Minnesota, which ranked fourth in the Big Ten in offense last year, the idea was that he’d replace the stagnate offense of former coordinator Ricky Rahne.

The thougtht was Ciarrocca, with more talented players at PSU than he had with the Golden Gophers, would bring a spark to the offense that it was lacking since former offensive coordinator Joe Moorehead departed for the head coaching job at Mississippi State (he is now the O-Coordinator at Oregon).

At one point during the 38-25 shellacking by Ohio State – during one of the many runs straight up the middle by the Lions – I wished Moorehead was back at Happy Valley. Heck, truth be told, I even yearned for the play- calling of John Donovan (he was a disaster his last year calling the offense at PSU).

Granted there are injuries to a once very experienced and talented running back room. This past spring former 5-Star recruit Ricky Slade transferred out of the program. No problem. The running back room is loaded.
As a fan, I wanted to see to one-two punch of Journey Brown and Noah Cain in the backfield. By the sixth play in opener against Indiana, both were out. Brown was ruled out earlier in the week with a health/illness issue not related to COVID-19. Cain injured his foot and was on standing on the sideline after five Penn State plays.

Runing backs Ricky Slade, Noah Caine, Journey Brown, Devyn Ford and Nick Eury made up the “Lawn Boys” during the 2019 season.

Okay, so I get it that Ciarrocca game-planned for Cain in the backfield. So I get why some of the play calls for third-string RB Devyn Ford looked odd. But running the former 5-Star recruit up the middle didn’t make sense.

With an extra week to prepare for Ford as the top RB, I thought we’d see an improvement in the running game in Week 2 against Ohio State. Didn’t happen. Longest run in the first half was Ford for 23 yards in the first quarter. He was the team’s leading rusher with 36 yards.

Going back to Indiana, quarterback Sean Clifford had 238 yards passing and led the team 119 rushing. He was supposed to run less this season.

Penn State was only able to generate 75 yards of offense in the first half last Saturday against OSU.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford runs for yards during the 2019 season. This year, Clifford has been the team’s best running option.

They finished with a mere 181 yards of total offense, including only 44 rushing yards on 27 attempts. And again Clifford was a focal part of the run game. Is the game plan to have Clifford run the ball? Why? Is Clifford making the correct reads? A lot of the plays saw him running up the middle into … nothing. The second-year QB looked like he was seeing ghosts (defensive linemen who weren’t there) during the OSU game. He needs better protection.

The Penn State offense generated seven points int the first half against Indiana and only six points against Ohio State (three were a gift on a late field goal with 1 second left on the clock).

The Lions looked bad in the first half against the Buckeyes, and I looked forward to seeing the adjustments made at halftime. But nothing really changed. They kept running up the middle for little or no gain. Ciarrocca showed an inability to adjust. The play calling was not working.

The Buckeyes saw Penn State’s tendencies and stuffed most of the RPOs. Here are some notable numbers. The Nittany Lions averaged 1.6 rushing against the Buckeyes. Penn State picked up 4 first downs rushing. That’s it. FOUR. Ohio State had seven tackles for a loss.

Michael Menet, No. 62, Rasheed Walker, No. 53, and CJ Thorpe, No. 69, bring back a lot of experience on the Lions’ offensive line. So far during the 2020 season they have not pushed defenses around.

With the run game clearly not working (especially up the middle) Penn State oddly stayed out of the air, only throwing the ball twice in the second quarter. The passing game that worked for PSU was the quick game that came late, during a time it felt lie the game was out of reach and the Buckeyes’ defense went to a soft cushion.

When the finally started throwing, though, receiver Jahan Dotson had 124 yards on seven catches in the second half and scored three touchdowns. He finished with 144 yards on eight catches.

All-world tight end Pat Freiermuth was missing in action. Ciarrocca has not found a way to incorporate him into the game plan. Even Rahne found a way to get Freiermuth the ball. For two games now, the offense lacks continuity. At times, the offense looks too conservative and is not utilizing the Lions explosive play makers.

Ohio State ran players in motion most of the game. In fact, the Buckeyes started the game with a wide receiver in motion and threw a screen pass to said WR. Why doesn’t PSU run some misdirection plays, a jet sweep, a reverse, maybe even “Philly Special.” Run something, anything more creative tan the current edition.

Offensive line coach
Phil Trautwein is in his first year at PSU.

Hey Phil Trautwein, your offensive line isn’t opening any holes. Trautwein, the first-year O-line coach, had a great reputation and track record from his days coaching at Boston College.

He inherited a veteran line, but what seemed like a strength is not playing that way. Penn State had 488 total yards against Indiana, but it didn’t feel like the O-line opened up holes, or created a push when the Lions needed key yards or first downs. This veteran group could not create any holes for the running game.

When guys like Michal Menet declared that they were staying in school I thought the offensive line would mull people this season. Menet, a local product from Exeter High School, has a lot of experience and I thought he’d push guys around and Penn State would establish a strong run game. It hasn’t happened under Trautwein’s tutelage.

The O-line was unable to get a push and Indiana stuffed freshman Keyvone Lee on a key fourth-and-one from the 25-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Penn State was also unsuccessful in the first quarter on 4-and-2 on their own 45 yard line. Instead of moving bodies and pounding the ball for two yards, the Lions elected the pass.

The offense is not the only issue. The defense has given up 36 points to Indiana and 38 points to Ohio State. The defense has yielded 488 yards and five touchdowns that in last two games. Go back to January’s Cotton Bowl and the Lions gave up 39 points to Memphis.

According to Mike Poorman from, the last time a Penn State football team gave up 35 or more points in three consecutive games was in 1899 (not 1999, and was pre-Joe Paterono) in losses to Yale (42-0), Penn (47-0) and Duquesne Athletic Club (64-5).
Yes, COVID has made this an odd year. How odd? Northwestern, Purude and Indiana, who beat PSU on a controversial ending, are 2-0 in the Big Ten. That has never happened before. Penn State had a streak of 63-game weeks in the Associated Press Top 25 poll broken, a streak that started Oct. 22, 2016, after the Lions beat Ohio State.

Yetur Gross-Matos

I’m was excited for the season and when it was canceled because of COVID-19 I was disappointed. Then the season was back on, but players started dropping from the roster. Of course, K.J. Hamler, the dynamic receiver, and Yetur Gross-Matos, the dominate defensive end, left early for the NFL. Both were second round picks.

Micah Parsons.

Next Micah Parsons, the All-American linebacker, opted out of the season. Then news broke about Brown and Cain got hurt. Think how good Penn State would be if all these guys were still playing in Happy Valley.

Then again, with this offense, maybe not.

Notes: This week the Lions host Maryland at home at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Then PSU has a noon kickoff against Nebraska on Saturday, Nov. 14. (11 a.m. start time in Lincoln)
The Cornhuskers lead the all-time series 9-8 and are 3-1 against the Nittany Lions as a member of the Big Ten. Penn State won 56-44 in 2017.