Penn State heads to Wisconsin for its 2021 season opener Sept. 4 expecting to divest itself of last year's glaring residual issues: turnovers, tackling and quarterback play chief among them.
The stats of the Lions' 4-5 season are well known:
- Opponents averaged 27.7 points per game vs. Penn State, the highest total under head coach James Franklin.
- Opponents scored 31 touchdowns vs. Penn State in nine games, more than in three other 13-game seasons during Franklin's tenure.
- Penn State finished minus-8 in turnover margin, 12th in the Big Ten.
- The Lions allowed 3.11 sacks per game, 13th in the conference.
- The team's passing completion percentage (60.3) ranked eighth.
But there's more. Sports Info Solutions, the Pennsylvania-based analytics firm, compiles a host of advanced stats that teams use to understand what's working and what needs to improve.
What worked last year, and what needs to improve this year, at Penn State in 2021? Here's a look at five important numbers from the SIS database.
That's the combined number of missed and broken tackles for which Penn State's defense was credited in 2020. According to SIS, 27 were missed tackles, counted when a defender is in position to make a tackle, but the ballcarrier manages to avoid contact.
Tackling was a visible issue for Penn State last season, and those numbers reinforce the issue. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry studied the problem during the offseason, seeking ways to improve tackling within the NCAA's contact limitations. Ultimately, Pry said, his defense needs to be more accountable.
"We've got to continue to build our identity as a defense," Pry said this spring. "Part of that right now is accountability. We weren't very accountable last fall. Guys too often [were] not playing in the framework of the defense. That's on me, that's on the guys. We're all taking ownership and we're committed to being more accountable."
That's the combination of sacks (22) and turnovers (12) for which quarterback Sean Clifford was involved last season. The sack number was a Big Ten high against one quarterback.
Clifford began his second season as Penn State's starter with a sharp series under then-coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. He led a 64-yard touchdown drive against Indiana, capping it with a fourth-down touchdown pass to Pat Freiermuth.
Clifford was inconsistent thereafter. He had a hand in 12 of Penn State's 17 turnovers, which included nine interceptions (tied for the most in the Big Ten). Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich's first job this offseason was to break Clifford of his bad habits. In a positive sign, Clifford said he feels "like a new player" this season.
This represents the percentage of "on-target" throws Clifford made last season. SIS categorizes on-target throws as those that hit a receiver in stride, whether or not they are caught.
SIS credited Clifford with 160 on-target throws in 252 attempts. That needs to improve.
Receiver Jahan Dotson generated a Big Ten-best 390 yards after catch, which accounted for 44 percent of his conference-leading 884 yards receiving.
That Dotson led the Big Ten in those numbers is a bit misleading, since Penn State was one of two teams to play a full nine-game schedule. Still, Dotson averaged 7.5 YAC per reception, which makes him a constant threat (he also led the Big Ten in first downs).
This statistic represents a major reason Penn State missed running back Noah Cain last year. During the 2019 season, SIS found that opposing defenses hit Cain at the line of scrimmage 22 times. Yet those defenses stuffed Cain for no gain or a loss only five times.
As a freshman, Cain averaged 5.3 yards per carry and lost just 5 total yards on 84 carries. His highly anticipated return gives Penn State's offense a needed measure of consistency.