The Penn State offense has been plagued by mistakes and turnovers throughout a poor season, and while he explained Thursday how he’s trying to improve the unit, offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca often attempted to make his listeners aware of his thoughts on its performance.
“Listen, I’m not happy with the results, believe me,” Ciarrocca said less than 10 minutes into his Zoom call with reporters.
“I’ll say this one more time: Am I happy with the results? Absolutely not,” he said just before he finished.
It hasn’t been a great 2020 for Ciarrocca, a highly regarded offensive mind who joined the Nittany Lions last December after a successful stint at Minnesota. The offense has gained yardage (third in the Big Ten in total offense) but has not scored many points (ninth). The unit has committed 13 turnovers and is next-to-last in the conference in red zone efficiency.
That had helped contribute to the Lions’ 0-5 start, worst in program history, before a much better game last week, highlighted by zero turnovers, in a 27-17 win at Michigan. Ciarrocca said the details were better, and he hoped the improvement can continue Saturday at Rutgers.
“It’s definitely still a work in progress,” Ciarrocca said. “It’s not where I want it to be … but we’re doing everything we can within our control to continue to get better. That’s what I love about this group, love about this culture. It’s how hard these guys have come out to work every day with the energy they’ve brought to the practice field.
“We’ll get there. When? We’ll see. The expectation is that we’re going to continue to build on what we did last week.”
Ciarrocca said he loves the work ethic and potential of quarterback Sean Clifford, who has thrown eight interceptions and lost two fumbles but went error free last week. He said Clifford sometimes tries to be too perfect.
“I think that’s probably the biggest issue,” he said. “I thought last week he really didn’t try to be perfect. He trusted what he saw. What probably contributes to it is that he’s learning a new offense and a new way to think about things. It’s not effort, I can tell you that. It’s not work ethic. We just have to get him to be a little more comfortable and trust what he sees out there and know when not to force the ball.”
The Nittany Lions still need plenty of work on their red zone offense, which ranks next-to-last in the Big Ten in both overall efficiency (68.0%) and touchdown rate (44.0%). Ciarrocca said it’s finding a better way for the offense to play to its strengths.
“The field’s shrunk down there, you don’t have as much space to work with, and the defense has less area to defend,” he said. “It’s always going to be contested down there in the low red [zone]. But we’ve just got to continue to do a better job of looking at what our players do best and try to exploit that, accentuate our players’ strengths and limit their weaknesses.”
The Lions have attempted a number of fade patterns close to the goal line without success. Ciarrocca said the plays have worked well in practice but that he realizes the need to “continue to diversify down there and put our guys in better position to make plays.”
Ciarrocca said his focus is to keep improving the Lions’ offense in the final weeks of the season. He’d rather not look back on what went wrong the first five weeks, at least until after the season, or wonder what might have been had a pandemic not eliminated spring football and shortened the preseason.
A native of Lewisberry, Pa., near Harrisburg, Ciarrocca has been a graduate assistant at Temple, served on the staffs at Delaware Valley and Penn and worked four seasons as offensive coordinator at Delaware. He knows about the passionate Penn State fans but has not listened to any outside noise.
“This job is hard enough as it is, and you need to focus all your energy on doing your job to the best of your capabilities,” he said. “So I don’t worry about it. I’ve been at places before where the ride from the outhouse to the penthouse is very short in this profession, and vice versa. So I’ve been in both places, spent maybe a little bit more time in the penthouse than the outhouse, thank goodness, or I wouldn’t be here.
“But I’m very confident in my ability to build a successful, top-flight offense. I’ve been able to do it at a number of places and I certainly have the resources to be able to that here. And I’m very excited about it. I love the passion and how much the alumni and the fans care about this program. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here.”