Penn State football: How to fix the Nittany Lions offense after Mike Yurcich

Nov 11, 2023; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Drew Allar (15) runs the ball into the end zone for a touchdown against the Michigan Wolverines during the second quarter at Beaver Stadium. Michigan won 24-15. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 11, 2023; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Drew Allar (15) runs the ball into the end zone for a touchdown against the Michigan Wolverines during the second quarter at Beaver Stadium. Michigan won 24-15. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports /

The easiest answer to this question “How do you fix Penn State’s offense for 2024” might be to play Michigan State every week. Penn State ended the season on a high note with a 42-0 win over the Spartans at Ford Field with running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider and tight ends coach Ty Howle serving as co-offensive coordinators for the final two games of the season after the firing of Mike Yurcich.

Yurcich has coordinated the offense for James Franklin since 2021, but his style didn’t mesh with five-star sophomore quarterback Drew Allar. Their offense only managed a measly 12 points against Ohio State and just 15 against Michigan; Penn State’s only two losses.

Allar had a reasonably successful season, but the offense ranked 69th overall, 73rd in yards per play, and 17th in points per game, averaging 34.8. The Allar-led passing game was 90th, and the ground game, led by sophomores Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen was 39th after finishing 40th last season. Not exactly the step forward that was expected.

Now, James Franklin is searching for his fifth offensive coordinator in his 11th season at Penn State. What problems will the new OC have to fix, and how can he fix them?

The most obvious issue with this Penn State offense is the passing game. Not that Drew Allar was bad this season, I actually like a lot about how he played, but the passing attack needs to improve.

That starts with the wide receiver position. The quarterback is in place, but he needs more talent to throw to. KeAndre Lambert-Smith led the team with 53 receptions for 673 yards, but Penn State’s next two leading receivers were tight ends, Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren.

Kent State transfer Dante Cephas finished fourth on the team with 22 grabs for 246 yards, then Nick Singleton was fifth. There just isn’t any talent on the outside and that’s one of the biggest reasons that Drew Allar ranked last in the country in deep passing rate, with only 9.4% of his passes traveling over 20 yards in the air. Allar completed just 10 of those passes all year.

The re-emergence of sophomore Omari Evans in the final two games of the year helped the passing game. Against Michigan State, Allar threw for 292 yards and two touchdowns on 17 completions, and Evans caught one pass for 60 yards.

Step 1: Add wide receiver talent in the transfer portal.

Franklin and his OC will need to attack the transfer portal and grab a talented wideout or two. That will not only help the downfield passing rate and success but will address another one of the problems with the passing game.

Allar threw for 2,336 yards this season and averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt. He is a low ADOT passer, but 6.7 yards per attempt with a 61.3% completion rate is very low. A big reason for that is the lack of YAC. Penn State’s leader in yards after the catch, KeAndre Lambert-Smith ranked 67th in the country in yards after the catch with 336 and 106th in YAC per reception, averaging 6.3.

Penn State lacked the talent at receiver to make plays for its quarterback and Yurcich was unable to create space for those receivers, backs, and tight ends to get easy yards for Allar.

That brings us to Step 2: Hire UNLV offensive coordinator Brennan Marion

Plenty of teams across the country are after the 36-year-old up-and-coming offensive coordinator after leading UNLV to the 29th-ranked offense in the country and a 9-3 record.

The reason he’d be the perfect fit for Penn State is because of how much he could help Drew Allar. Sure, UNLV’s run game has been effective this season, averaging 180.5 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry, but it’s his use of play-action that would unlock Penn State’s offense.

UNLV’s quarterback, Jayden Maiava, a freshman, isn’t as accurate a passer as Allar, with a 71.7% adjusted completion rate compared to Allar’s 74.0%, and Maiava only attempts 14.9% of his passes over 20 yards downfield, only about five percentage more than Allar. Yet, Maiava averages 9.1 yards per attempt with a 64% completion rate. Allar is at 6.7 YPA and completes 61.3% of his passes.

That’s because Marrion makes life easy for Maiava with his use of play-action. Penn State only utilizes play-action on 27.8% of Allar’s dropbacks despite his success; an average of 7.6 yards per attempt and seven touchdowns with zero interceptions. Maiava is 11th in the country in play-action usage at 45.1%.

On those dropbacks, Maiava is averaging 10.1 YPA with an 11.2 ADOT and nine touchdowns to two interceptions. Just watch some of the highlights from UNLV’s game against Nevada. This is a great example of how Marrion utilizes play-action to freeze linebackers and safeties and get his play-makers out in space.

Allar doesn’t have the rushing ability that Maiava does, but Allar will still benefit from the bootlegs and roll-outs that shift the pocket and buy more time. That will be especially useful against teams like Ohio State and Michigan, who often have the advantage in the trenches.

Changing the platform for Allar would also help the interior of the offensive line because center Hunter Nourzad, and guards Olaivavega Ioane and JB Nelson, allowed a combined 42 pressures on Allar, and all registered PFF pass-blocking grades of 62.9 or worse.

Nourzad is a redshirt senior, so he won’t be back, but Nelson and Ioane will likely return and hold onto their starting spots.

Step 3 is to figure out what went wrong with Nick Singleton this season. Kaytron Allen’s production was nearly identical to his freshman season, with 848 yards on 162 carries this year after 864 yards on 167 carries last year. Allen also registered 532 yards after contact with an average of 3.28 which was a slight uptick from 506 yards and an average of 3.03 yards after contact per carry.

Singleton on the other hand dropped off from 1,061 yards as a freshman to 702 yards as a sophomore with seven additional carries this year. As a freshman, he had 24 carries over 10 yards and this season only 14. The biggest disparity was his yards after contact which plummeted.

In 2022, he gained 715 yards after contact and averaged 4.58 yards after contact per carry which was third-best in the country. This season he only managed 456 yards after contact with an average of 2.80. Singleton was a home-run hitter as a freshman, but that ability went away this season. Maybe it got lost in the full-house backfield that Mike Yurcich insisted on trotting out seven times a game.

This season, Mike Yurcich built an offense that was built to methodically dismantle Northwestern and Maryland, but it was overcomplicated in the red zone and lacked explosiveness. In 2022, Penn State was 40th in the country with 68 plays of over 20 yards from scrimmage, but this year, the offense fell to 117th in the country with just 40.

So how do you fix Penn State’s offense? Fireworks. I think they sell some in the transfer portal. Drew Allar is good enough to light them, he just needs an offensive coordinator who’s willing to give him the match.