Rahne must show more this season
Now that Penn State finally has named Sean Clifford the starting quarterback — a no-brainer for months, really, since Tommy Stevens transferred — the big question entering the season is if coordinator Ricky Rahne can get the most out of the new QB and overall offense.
Make no mistake, there will be pressure on Rahne to perform his job at a higher level this fall, and scrutiny if he doesn’t.
No, he’s not on the hot seat. Nor should he be, entering just his second season as a college offensive coordinator. He deserves time to grow into the position, to figure things out with more experience and to keep progressing, particularly as a play caller.
But Rahne needs to show significant improvement this fall with regard to consistency to show that he truly is the right person for the job. If he doesn’t, he very much could be on the hot seat entering next season.
“Ricky learned a lot over the last 12 months,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “As you know, I got tremendous amount of belief and faith in Ricky. We’ve been together for, I think, 11 years, and I’ve watched him develop, and I know how talented he is.”
Franklin has said similar things about Rahne at every turn. He has so much faith in Rahne that, when Joe Moorhead left last year to become head coach at Mississippi State, Franklin felt he didn’t even have to search for a replacement.
Franklin had, in his mind, the right guy already on the staff.
Rahne certainly held up his end of the bargain early last season. The Nittany Lions scored 45 and 51 points in the first two games against Appalachian State and Pitt, respectively, before exploding for 63 points against both Kent State and Illinois.
Penn State led the country in scoring after four weeks at 55.5 points per game heading into a showdown against Ohio State at Beaver Stadium.
Obviously the Buckeyes would be a different challenge for Penn State’s offense. But thanks to the heroics of Trace McSorley, the Lions had a chance as the quarterback ran for a career-high 175 yards while throwing for 286 and two touchdowns, completing 16-of-32 passes.
The problems for Rahne really started at the end of that contest when he made, frankly, a horrendous fourth-down playcall with the game on the line.
The Lions faced fourth-and-5 from the Ohio State 39 in the closing minutes, trailing by one. The teams called three timeouts — Penn State two sandwiched around one by the Buckeyes — giving Rahne roughly 10 minutes to come up with the right call in the biggest game of the year.
The call he came up with failed badly. Instead of giving McSorley some kind of opportunity to get the job done while he was having a huge night, Rahne instead called for a handoff to running back Miles Sanders, who had largely been contained as he finished with 43 yards on 16 carries.
The Buckeyes sniffed out the run and buried Sanders for a 3-yard loss.
Heavy criticism followed for Rahne, all across the country, with many football analysts befuddled by such a bad play call.
“There’s obviously plays that you’re going to look at that are, that you wish you would have called something else, and sometimes they are ones that you guys may notice and sometimes they are not,” Rahne said earlier this month.
OK, OK. That Ohio State call was just one decision. Rahne had done a nice job in the season up to then, and every coach makes a bad call at some point.
If Rahne had rebounded after that game with a strong second half of the season, there would be plenty of reason to have great faith in him heading into this year.
That didn’t happen.
The Lions scored only 17 points two weeks later in a bad home loss to Michigan State. They had 397 yards, and Sanders ran for 162, but putting up only 17 points in that game was a huge disappointment.
Three weeks later, Penn State scored just seven points in a 42-7 blowout at Michigan. McSorley had banged up his knee the week before in a win over Iowa and was largely a stationary quarterback against the Wolverines.
The offense continued to struggle late in the season, scoring 22 points at home against Wisconsin and only 20 at lowly Rutgers before closing with a 38-point showing at Maryland in the regular-season finale.
Penn State scored 24 points in a Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky.
The 24-point total in the bowl game was interesting because it matched the Lions’ average over the final nine games. That, again, after averaging 55.5 points in the first four games.
What in the world happened?
Penn State had an NFL quarterback in McSorley and an NFL running back in Sanders, yet averaged just 24 points over the final nine games.
Franklin can say he has all the confidence in the world in Rahne, but that kind of dropoff is alarming. Sure, the receivers dropped a ton of passes and McSorley was limited for several games, but the numbers are the numbers.
Plain and simply, Rahne’s unit needs to better this year. Which, if you think about it, will be a very tall task with McSorley and Sanders gone, a new starting quarterback at the helm and lingering questions on the line.
Rahne needs to find a level of consistency with the offense, and it needs to improve week after week as the season goes on.
Rahne doesn’t need to be Moorhead, who has many years of experience calling plays. But Rahne needs to be able to take the offense that Moorhead installed and find a way to advance it year over year.
He’s going to have to do that without Saquon Barkley, McSorley, Sanders, Chris Godwin and Mike Gesicki.
Fans may want to assume everything is going to be great, because fans always have the best-case scenario in mind. But the bottom line is, Rahne has enormous shoes to fill following Moorhead, he left a lot to be desired last season, and he doesn’t have proven talent in some key spots this year.
Rahne’s strategy for this season is to try and work smarter and be more efficient with how he goes about things.
“As a general rule, a lot of us, we (tend to think) more and more is better and better, right,” Rahne said. “So if you’re struggling with anything, the answer immediately is I’m going to work harder, I’m going to work more, I’m going to stay later, I’m going to do that. I’ve realized that that’s not the better answer.
“It’s working more efficiently. It’s making sure that you’re making decisions quickly and accurately and those sort of things, and I think that’s something that’s really going to help me in the future.
“My natural instinct is just to work harder, and that can’t always be the way, right. There’s only so much blood in the stone. You have to make sure that you get your sleep and those sort of things, and quite frankly, I’ve made goals for myself on that this year.”
We’ll see if Rahne and the offense can live up to those goals as the season goes.
Cory Giger covers Penn State football from the Altoona Mirror.