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COLLINS: York County native may help Penn State earn elusive College Football Playoff spot

DONNIE COLLINS
(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Kirk Ciarrocca
  • Kirk Ciarrocca is Penn State's new offensive coordinator.
  • The Lewisberry native is a Red Land High School graduate.
  • Ciarrocca was Minnesota's offensive coordinator last season.
  • Ciarrocca helped Minnesota to a 31-26 win over Penn State last season.

He was 8. Maybe 9. And boy, was he excited.

This was the weekend he and his Pop Warner League football team were taking the trip of a lifetime, a voyage from York County to Beaver Stadium to see Penn State play a football game. He had never seen a stadium that large. He had never seen football players that big in person. He had never experienced the game he loved quite like this.

And, he wasn’t going to on that day either, he feared.

“We get to the gate, and I’m trying to find my ticket,” Red Land High School graduate Kirk Ciarrocca recalls of his first trip to the massive stadium he sat in Wednesday. “I lost my ticket.”

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His coach, a gentlemen named Mr. Poettiger, happened to be standing in front of him in line and felt the youngster’s tug on his arm. He noticed the worry in his eyes.

“I’m thinking I’m not going to be able to get in. I wanted to go to Beaver Stadium to watch the Nittany Lions play, and I wanted to hear that (Lions roar sound playing on the public address system) in person,” Ciarrocca said, showing off his dead-on impersonation of the roar. “I still remember, he’s like ‘Just get in real tight behind me.’ He gave the guy his ticket and I squeezed right in by with him.”

The missing piece? Of course, Ciarrocca isn’t going to have to sneak into Beaver Stadium anymore. The Lewisberry native who dreamed of being a Nittany Lion finally is one, and fair or not, the expectations are that he’s a missing-piece type of addition to the Penn State football team.

He’s the experienced offensive coordinator for a team that needed one. He’s the fresh eyes on a potent scheme that started to look somewhat stale in year four of its existence last season. He’s the guy replacing Ricky Rahne who, also fair or not, was seen as an offensive coordinator who couldn’t have gotten these Nittany Lions where they ultimately want to go.

Ciarrocca will be viewed as the guy who can.

Getting the job done: There isn’t much evidence he’ll be better than Rahne. Not yet, anyway.

But there’s not much difference between that little kid who would do anything to get into Beaver Stadium all those years ago and the 54-year-old who has gotten job after job in college football for nearly three decades. Ciarrocca has always done what it takes to get the job done.

“We’ve been fairly successful over the last number of years, and with different coordinators,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “So I don’t feel like we needed to go hire someone to blow it up and start all over. Question is, do we have someone that’s experienced enough and has enough humility that will come in and say, ‘OK, I’m secure enough and comfortable enough that this is how I do things.’ ”

Comfort level a big selling point: Comfort level was the big selling point for Ciarrocca, as well.

After all, he didn’t have to leave Minnesota, where he put together the offense that led the Golden Gophers to its best season in a century in 2019.

Franklin raved about the brilliant simplicity of Ciarrocca’s offense at Minnesota not Wednesday, but Nov. 5, four days before the Gophers passing game made Penn State’s defense look helpless in a 31-26 loss at TCF Bank Stadium.

Offense won't be blown up: When Franklin says he doesn’t want to “blow up” the offense Joe Moorhead and Rahne developed over the last few seasons, he means it.

Statistically, it is among the best in the nation with some measure of consistency. He clearly expects Ciarrocca will tweak what the Nittany Lions were doing, not make the Nittany Lions do what the Golden Gophers were doing successfully, and that’s the path to getting the offense to become even better.

He used a fullback when he was offensive coordinator at Western Michigan, but not at Minnesota.

Tanner Morgan lined up under center a lot more for the Gophers last year than Sean Clifford will for Penn State this year.

He had two all-conference receivers last season, but he might not this year.

Adjusting to his players: Either way, Ciarrocca will adjust to what his players can do best. That’s what he has been able to do consistently. That’s why he has been a successful offensive coordinator.

“We’ve always been able to build around the strengths of our players,” Ciarrocca said. “One of the things that really excited me is taking some of the things they’ve already done to take advantage of the strengths of their quarterback and incorporate that into the system to make it harder to defend.

“I’ve been in the penthouse and the outhouse. Luckily, I’ve been in the penthouse a lot more than the outhouse. Every time I’ve been in the penthouse I’ve had really good players around me. It’s a system that we developed that fits and has answers. We know what the answers are. We know how to move our pieces as the defensive people move their pieces to put ourselves in the best possible situation. The core philosophy of what I believe in that makes you a successful offense have been with me for a long time.”

Returning home: He’s finally home, where he always wanted to be, and for Penn State, maybe that will turn out to be the move that turns hoping for a championship into playing for one.

There’s a lot of dreams riding on the man that little kid who lost his ticket to the Penn State game back in the 1970s grew into being.

The next big ticket, the one to the elusive College Football Playoff, he just might help them punch.