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Penn State’s offense needs to find better consistency entering a tough Big Ten stretch

Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne calls plays for a unit that is fifth in the nation in scoring and 12th in total offense, but knows that everyone associated with the offense can do better.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford with offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne during a preseason practice. CRAIG HOUTZ
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford with offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne during a preseason practice. CRAIG HOUTZRead moreCRAIG HOUTZ / For the Inquirer

Eight days after playing a near-perfect game in a 59-0 thrashing of Maryland, the Penn State offense was rolling to another mega-scoring output, scoring on its first four possessions and holding a 28-0 lead over Purdue less than a minute into the second quarter.

Consistency, however, would then abandon the Nittany Lions. They managed just seven more points the rest of the way in a 35-7 win. They barely had more total yards in the final 44-plus minutes (250) than in that early stretch (210).

Spells of inconsistency can drive an offensive coordinator batty. And so it goes with Ricky Rahne, a former record-setting Cornell quarterback who is in his second year of calling the plays for James Franklin, and still learning.

“It was probably one play each drive,” Rahne said Thursday of last week’s lengthy lull. “Whether it was a play where maybe I got too greedy in a play call or other plays where we just didn’t execute, it was a variety of things. I have to get better. As a coaching staff we have to get better. There are things the kids needed to improve.

“It wasn’t necessarily one individual thing. It was a combination of things. We have to continue to put together drives. We came out with great energy at the beginning of that game and executed almost as well we can. We have to make sure we keep our foot on the gas.”

Keeping a foot on the gas is something the 10th-ranked Lions must do the rest of October with a difficult three-game stretch that begins Saturday night at No. 17 Iowa. That is followed by the “White Out” game against Michigan and then a trip to Michigan State, which is 5-1 in its last six games against Penn State.

Rahne’s job is to put his team in position to be productive, and the Lions have done just that – 47 points per game (fifth in FBS), 305.6 passing yards (19th), and 499.6 yards of total offense (12th) per game.

“You have to stick to calling plays that the kids do well, what they execute and feel comfortable about,” he said. “It’s a delicate balance all the time. I feel like I’m getting better at it. As a staff, we’ve done a nice job. We’re still growing as a staff. Each week when we game-plan it gets better and better.”

In his first year as the starting quarterback, redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford is having a better year than could have been expected. He is ranked in the top 10 nationally in passing efficiency (eighth), total offense (328.6 yards per game, 10th), yards per completion (16.03, sixth), and yards per attempt (10.7, sixth).

Both of his deep receivers, K.J. Hamler (20.74) and Jahan Dotson (20.17), are averaging more than 20 yards per catch. While Clifford hasn’t hit the deep ball as much as he would like, he’s throwing some short and mid-range passes and his receivers are making plays.

That fits with the identity Rahne sees, “a team that’s going to continue to be explosive and generate explosive plays." He also likes how the receivers help each other downfield, such as when Dotson threw a key block on Hamler’s 58-yard touchdown reception at Maryland, and Hamler returned the favor against Purdue with the final block on Dotson’s 72-yard TD catch.

“They don’t really care who has the ball,” Rahne said. “They play for each other.”

The Lions’ four running backs have combined for 674 rushing yards in five games, led by Journey Brown with 218. Rahne likes the way the backs are supporting one another.

The Nittany Lions will be challenged the next three weeks against three of the toughest defenses in the Big Ten, but better consistency will give them a better chance of being successful.

“As a coach, we’re always inclined to look at what we can do better,” Rahne said. “I think we can be a little bit more consistent. We’ve had times of being very explosive, which has been great, but we’ve had a few lulls. We need to continue to strive for being more consistent throughout the game, throughout drives.”