Canceled Blue-White Game deprives York County native his first shot running PSU's offense

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Coach James Franklin announced Kirk Ciarrocca, a 1983 Red Land High School from Lewsiberry, has joined the staff as the team's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

It’s his own spin on an old saying, but when it comes to his team’s new offensive coordinator, it sure did seem to fit for Terry Smith.

“If you can’t beat him,” Penn State’s longtime cornerbacks coach said, “we had to bring him to join us.”

Saturday would have been Kirk Ciarrocca’s introduction to Penn State fans, their first look at the foundation of his ideals and beliefs, the first steps in a new era. The York County native has called coaching at Penn State his dream job, and had the spread of the novel coronavirus not canceled college sports this spring, the Nittany Lions would have capped spring practice Saturday afternoon with the Blue-White Game. The Red Land High School graduate who grew up in Lewisberry would have called his first plays and gotten his initial taste of what that dream is like in reality.

Questions abound: But the fact there was no game at Beaver Stadium Saturday brings about its own set of questions about how effective a new scheme will be in the fall — coaches and players hope — when there has been limited time to actually practice its finer points months ahead of time.

They are also questions that don’t seem to concern Ciarrocca’s new colleagues, who insist his early contributions to the program have gone beyond some new plays and a fresh look at Xs and Os.

He got best of PSU last season: When it mattered most last year for the Nittany Lions, when winning meant everything, when it probably meant a strong argument for if not an outright berth in the College Football Playoff, they had no answers for Ciarrocca and the Minnesota offense he commanded brilliantly.

Last Nov. 9 at TCF Bank Stadium, Penn State marched onto the sunsplashed field unbeaten, ranked No. 5 in the nation, and with the swagger to match the accolades.

But a defense that allowed 21 points just once all season permitted 24 by halftime. A defense that had largely contained a handful of the Big Ten’s better quarterbacks — Iowa’s Nate Stanley, Michigan’s Shea Patterson and Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke — in the three games leading up to that Saturday afternoon watched upstart Tanner Morgan play the game of his life, completing 18 of 20 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns.

An offense on pace to break century-old program records scoring records in 2019 was largely unproven when that day began, but it ended it firmly on the national map with a 31-26 win, overwhelming the Nittany Lions with run-pass options, running around them and through them, impressively attacking with simplicity and preparation.

Pry recommended Ciarrocca: When up-and-coming Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne left the program in December to become head coach at Old Dominion, the story goes, Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin sought advice on his replacement from defensive coordinator Brent Pry. His response: Call the guy at Minnesota.

“Preparing for Minnesota, preparing for Kirk’s offense, you know he has a strong RPO game, and with the RPO game, it limits your underneath help for the secondary,” Smith said. “So, your box players, your linebackers and your defensive line, they’re connected to the line of scrimmage because they’ve got to play run first. ... When you’re in zone coverage and you have zone eyes to the quarterback and receivers are snapping their routes in front of you, and if you don’t have a presence of a linebacker underneath you, it’s stress.”

No spring, no problem? Learning to assert that kind of stress began before the shutdown, and it’s why Penn State’s offense doesn’t see the lack of a spring practice as an impediment toward instituting Ciarrocca’s plans.

Even better, they say: It’s not just a compilation of the new guy’s ideas.

“He was willing to put a playbook together that made sense for all of us,” running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said. “We all had an opinion. We all had pieces in it, and that’s a lot of credit to Kirk for not being an ego guy. I feel like, what we installed early in the carryover, we could have went out there and practiced right now (even) with our kids being off campus, because of how detailed we left things coming out of those meetings.

“He’s a humble dude, not one of the ego guys or a mad scientist, and if he is, he’s hiding that.”

Coaching career: His coaching career began as a graduate assistant on head coach Jerry Berndt’s staff at Temple in 1990. Since, he has coached receivers in the Ivy League at Princeton and Penn. He led the quarterbacks at Delaware and Western Michigan. He coached running backs at Delaware. For 25 years, he has been running offense at schools like Western Connecticut State and Rutgers.

“He’s one of the few coordinators I’ve been around who really knows every position in great detail,” tight ends coach Tyler Bowen said. “A lot of coordinators can piece together a concept or know one position in detail. He can go up and coach an offensive lineman on his first two steps and then go talk about the receiver split and which release he should take against inside leverage press coverage. He has that wealth of knowledge.”

It would have been on display Saturday, to some degree, had there been a game at Beaver Stadium. Those who would have been there with him insist Ciarrocca’s impact has been felt already, even if fans can’t see it.