Offensive football really is a matter of efficiency more than it is flash and yards.
Take for example Christian Hackenberg's opening game against UCF in Ireland a few years ago. Hackenberg would throw for 454-yards in a single afternoon. Still the only Penn State quarterback to have ever broken the 400-yard mark in a game.
But he threw for a single touchdown.
So as Ricky Rahne continues his early tenure as Penn State's third offensive coordinator in five years, it will be a matter of what he does with the yards he gains, not how many of them there are.
A larger data set can be found during Penn State's 2015 season, the final under coordinator John Donovan. The Nittany Lions averaged 348.6 yards a game but just 23.2 points. For comparison the following year when the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten, Penn State only averaged 84 more yards but nearly 15 more points a game.
You might say that it was the big plays that made the difference. That the Joe Moorhead explosive outlook on the game generated more so-called "chunk plays" down the field. And while that was certainly the calling card, especially in 2016, the 2017 season wasn't that much different than 2015 when it came to the big moments.
In fact during 2017 Penn State generated 155 plays of 20 or more yards, 17% of the offensive snaps taken during the season. In 2015, Penn State ran 128 plays for 20 or more yards, 15% of the snaps that year. The peak, 2016 when the Nittany Lions' saw 21% of their plays go for 20+.
Of course it's very easy to point to 27 plays and find a different outcome to the season. But the general thrust remains the same, it's not how many yards to gain, but what you do with them. Efficiency over bulk.
Which brings the conversation up to 2018, where Rahne is tasked with running a scheme he inherited while also inheriting the assumed expectation (at least in the public square) that the aesthetics of the product itself wouldn't change. There would still be lots of yards and lots of points and lots of big plays. It would look familiar.
But so far Rahne seems to be the other side of that coin, that you can get points and yards in this offense without throwing haymakers. Two games (one in the rain) are hardly enough to draw strong conclusions, but the numbers tell at least a partial story. So far Penn State's offense has run 143 plays, 16 of those going for 20 or more yards, just 11% of the offense. On the other hand, 48 points a game.
If it feels confusing, or at least conflicting, that's not unfair. Penn State's offense has looked different, at least in its aggressive nature. There are elements of a more traditional running game with slightly fewer deep throws down the field (again, see: rain). But if this was Joe Moorhead's offense now run by Rahne, why does it look different?
"I think number one obviously when you stay in house for a number of reasons, you don't stay in house and expect it to look different. So we want it to look similar, but even from year one in this offense to year two it changed," James Franklin said on Tuesday."And then obviously although we're staying in the same system you've got a different personality calling the plays with different backgrounds and things like that. We're going to be constantly evolving, no different than our program."
"In this game if you're now growing and you're not adapting and you're not evolving, you're not going to last very long. So each we're going to learn, each year we're going to learn and then based on our personnel will also factor into it. When you've got a guy like Mike Gesicki there are going to be aspects of your offense that are magnified with Mike's skills set than (someone else's). So our system, we will tweak a little bit based on our personnel, based on our staff but our nucleus of who we are and how we operate and how we do things, will stay the same."
It's something Trace McSorley alluded to after the game on Saturday when asked a similar question. Penn State is running a similar offense, with similar goals, but there are new guys in the system with different skills. What makes Danny Dalton a good tight end is different than what made Gesicki good. In turn how he is used is different.
There's no doubt Penn State's offense will continue to evolve as the season goes along and the shots down the field will come with that. But right now what you're getting isn't a mistake, it's by design. And as long as Rahne makes the most of the yards his offense is generating, that's all that really matters in the first place.
"I think we look probably how I expected us to look based on all the conversations we had this offseason," Franklin said. "And I think that's one of the biggest mistakes that you can make as a head coach or as a coordinator, is you get into that role and then you try to be like the person that was there before you."