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Penn State football: has the Mike Yurcich offense peaked?

Was the Nittany Lions’ 35-21 win over Utah the peak of Mike Yurcich’s offense?



Oct 29, 2022; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) signals from the line of scrimmage during the fourth quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Beaver Stadium. Ohio State defeated Penn State 44-31. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that the Mike Yurcich offense was under the microscope following the 2021 season. It’s also no question that Penn State took significant steps forward on that side of the ball in 2022. Given the stage and competition, Penn State’s Rose Bowl performance feels like the most significant the offense has seen under Yurcich. But is that reality? Was the Rose Bowl the peak of Mike Yurcich’s offense at Penn State?

The answer to that question is mixed. When you take a step back, Penn State’s offense was not firing on all cylinders during the Rose Bowl. However, it peaked in the right areas at the right times to put together one of its strongest performances of the season.

2022 by the numbers

By pretty much any standard, Penn State’s offense in 2021 did not pan out as expected when Mike Yurcich was hired in the offseason. The Nittany Lions were a bottom-half scoring offense nationally, averaging 25 points per game. In 11 games against Power 5 competition, Penn State only scored more than 21 points six times. The offense was in the upper tier nationally with 269 passing yards per game, but that was out of necessity. The running game was abysmal, barely cracking 100 yards per game.

Even before the Rose Bowl, the Nittany Lions’ 2022 offense significantly improved. Penn State averaged 10 more points per game and scored above 21 points in eight of ten matchups against Power 5 teams (the Rose Bowl was the 9th time in 11 games). In addition, the offense scored over 40 points five times, something it managed to do once the year before.

While the passing attack took a step back, it did so in favor of more balance. Passing yards dropped to roughly 250 per game. But rushing yards skyrocketed to 182 per game, an increase of almost 70% from the year prior.

The Rose Bowl – coming through when it counts

Mike Yurcich called a good game in the Rose Bowl. Many of the offense’s weaknesses, minor though they may be, will likely be lost to history, given the game’s outcome. That does not mean, however, that it was a flawless performance on the offensive side of the ball.

In many ways, the offensive line play took a significant leap forward in 2022. But in the Rose Bowl, this group was simply average. Sean Clifford was sacked three times in what PFF graded as the Lions’ worst pass-blocking performance of the season (score of 42). The line’s run-blocking grade of 61 was slightly above the season average of 59, but by no means was it the unit’s best showing of the year.

But that’s why having dynamic playmakers at the skill positions can make such a difference. Utah contained Penn State’s running game most of the night. Take away Nicholas Singleton’s 87-yard dash, and the Nittany Lions ran the ball 30 times for 82 yards.

However, taking that play away is not entirely fair – it’s part of the game. Utah had one of the best fronts Penn State had seen all year and one of the best running defenses in the nation. Seeing the Lions dominate on the ground for the entire game would have been surprising. But with one crack, the offensive stat line (2.7 vs. 5.5 YPC) – and the game – was changed. Yurcich’s offense desperately lacked that in 2021.

Clifford was the key to the Mike Yurcich scheme

The biggest game-changer of the night was Clifford. His 279 yards were above average, even compared to the pass-happy offense of 2021. Clifford’s PFF passing grade of 93 was the highest of his career and of any quarterback in bowl season.

In the Rose Bowl, we saw what Yurich’s offense can look like when a quarterback plays to his full potential. Clifford put the ball in tight windows and pushed it down the field. He placed throws where only his receivers could catch them. He put the offense in position to make plays when it counted most. Penn State was lethal on third down, tallying 288 yards and three touchdowns.

Simply put, Clifford helped to elevate the play of those around him. And that’s why Penn State overcame its deficiencies and had one of its best offensive games of the season.

A positive outlook?

Optimism for next season may have also shaded Penn State’s Rose Bowl performance with rose-colored glasses.

The Nittany Lions’ youth movement was on full display in Pasadena. Most of Penn State’s offensive production came from its young offensive weapons. In total, 419 of 448 yards and four of five touchdowns came from players with freshmen or sophomore eligibility. Three of those scores came from Penn State’s talented true freshmen running back duo – Singleton and Kaytron Allen.

Next year could be the deepest offensive line in James Franklin’s decade at Penn State. Four starters from 2022 are set to return for next season. Given the experience gained through injuries, seven linemen could compete for five starting roles in 2023. There is the caveat of the transfer portal, of course. But at present, this is the best the offensive line has projected going into an offseason in a very long time.

And, of course, there is that quarterback position. Drew Allar could have a Clifford-Esque Rose Bowl performance every game. While we’ve seen him flash at times in 2022, Allar must prove his potential with a much larger sample set. To quote Jim Harbaugh, “nobody knows what the future holds.” But Allar can take Penn State’s offense to new heights.

When looking at it from this perspective, it’s possible that Penn State’s offense didn’t peak in the Rose Bowl. Maybe, the performance was just a primer for what we can expect from Mike Yurcich in 2023.

Matt is a co-owner and Editor in Chief of Basic Blues Nation. Launched in 2022, Basic Blues Nation is one of the fastest-growing websites covering all Penn State athletics, with over 3.5 million readers in 2023. Matt is also a credentialed member of the Penn State football beat, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.


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