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Penn State’s Offensive Line Woes

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Temple two-man rush sacks and players blocking each other: Why Ricky Rahne and Matt Limegrover need to figure it out or get used to rotating out injured quarterbacks.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

When I think of PSU’s offensive weaknesses, I think offensive line.

It’s a learned response…

Coming out of the sanctions, Bill O’Brien focused on skill players. We ended up with slim pickings on the offensive line.

The culmination of that lack of talent was the 2014 Northwestern game. Here’s what USA Today’s For the Win wrote about one particular series:

Down 23-6 to Northwestern Saturday in the fourth quarter with just over 11 minutes to play, Penn State decided to go for it on 4th-and-1. It probably didn’t help the Nittany Lions’ cause when two offensive lineman lost sight of the players in the white and purple jerseys and blocked each other instead.

Bill Belton lost two yards on the play, and Northwestern took over on downs.

You’ve all seen the gif, so I’ll spare you.

And while that game was the low ebb for PSU football, I always felt that it was our offensive line that was the weak point in PSU’s recovery.

Herb Hand, who came in with James Franklin, was the offensive line coach in 2014 and 2015. He left and Franklin brought in Matt Limegrover.

Limegrover has had three years with this team. We need to see him improving the performance. If he isn’t, he’s probably on the hot seat. But it’s hard to judge line play. If they are doing their job, it’s the running back or the quarterback doing great things. It’s only when they screw up and give up a sack or a stuffed run that we notice.

So, with a hat tip to Football Outsiders, I pulled some statistical data to see if my “eye test” agreed with actual numbers. What follows is my glimpse into PSU’s offensive line over the past five years.

I promise I’ll keep the data short.

I used national rank to chart the evolution of PSU’s offensive line. Because really, that’s what we care about, right?

I don’t care if you improved your average run by 0.98 yards per carry, if everyone else improved by 2.2 yards. So that’s how I charted these data. If you don’t like it, do your own damn graphing.

We’re going to start with the good/great news. Last year’s offensive line improved dramatically on “normal” downs.

This chart shows how the team ranked on getting the yards available. Called “opportunity rate”. It just means that, when four yards was available, the team got four yards rushing. The “power success” rate means when we needed 2 yards or less, they got it. As you can see, there were dramatic improvements in both from 2016 to 2018.

Last year they ranked 9th and 5th nationally in those two categories.

In terms of general, how are you at moving the ball, the line also improved.

These three data sets show rushing yards on rushing and passing downs. Line yards are a little more nuanced. Football Outsiders changed their formula for 2018...so the ranking actually works better than the raw data.

As we saw before, PSU’s ranking improved significantly from 2017 to 2018. They ranked in the top 20 in both Line Yards and Standard Down yards. They were just 51st in Passing Down yards.

Now we come to the more visible plays. This next chart is stuff rate. That’s the frequency that the running back get stopped for no gain:

This chart shows dramatic improvement.

It kills me to think that Saquon Barkley ran behind terrible lines...but the data shows that he did. Those lines were ranked 119th in 2016 and 95th in 2017. The team improved to 34th last year.

Not great, but respectable. In part, opposing defenses didn’t know exactly who to key on in 2018.

There is one key statistic that PSU hasn’t improved on. And it’s one that should be keeping our offensive coaches up at night.

The one area that the 2016 team excelled in was not giving up sacks. As you can see, they were 25th in the nation in Sack Rate. That’s the total number. The other two refer to running downs vs. obvious passing downs.

The scary thing about this chart is just how far the 2018 team regressed. They went from 25th in 2016 to 90th in 2018. And on passing downs, they went from 45th in the country in 2016 to an abysmal 116th in 2018.

That’s an ugly trend for a team about to start a quarterback with zero starts under his belt. Penn State can’t afford to let this trend continue.

Although there are only 130 teams...so really how much worse can they get?

Your Friend,
Townie

Poll

Where does PSU finish 2019 in Sack Rate?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Top 10 - Limegrover Wins Coach of the Year
    (16 votes)
  • 14%
    Top 25 - Damn Fine Job
    (37 votes)
  • 38%
    25 to 50 - A major improvement
    (100 votes)
  • 30%
    50 - 100 - Baby Steps and a Get Well Soon Card for the QB
    (79 votes)
  • 10%
    Under 100 - Now Hiring...
    (26 votes)
258 votes total Vote Now