Mike Yurcich takes responsibility for Penn State's lackluster offense in 2021

JOE JULIANO
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Penn State head coach James Franklin, right, and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, second from right, watch the action against Illinois during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa. on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

It took less than one week for Mike Yurcich to find an offensive coordinator's job after his previous stay had ended with the firing of Tom Herman as head coach at Texas, and James Franklin couldn't have been happier to hire him at Penn State to add an explosive element to the offense.

However, the explosive element resembled more of a pop gun in several games. The Nittany Lions had five games with fewer than five plays of 20 yards or longer, only two against both Iowa and Illinois. Their scoring average, third-down conversion rate, and red zone touchdown percentage all lagged behind their marks from the previous season.

In addition, the average total offense this season, 380.8 yards, was almost 50 yards less than in 2020. The Lions scored more than three offensive touchdowns only once in nine Big Ten games.

To his credit, Yurcich owned up to the struggles. When asked at last week's Outback Bowl media day how he would assess the job he did with the offense, he replied, "Not good."

"A lot of room to improve," he said. "We didn't execute at the level that we need to execute at. So I take the blame. It solely falls on my shoulders and we'll get better. I'll get better. We're going to work really hard to get us to a championship-level offense, and we're not there yet.

"We're going to continue to strive and drive and do all the things necessary to compete and get to that level. Or I'm going to die trying."

Penn State will get a chance to end its season on a positive note offensively when it takes on Arkansas next Saturday at the Outback Bowl in Tampa.

When asked last week how he would evaluate Yurcich, Franklin said he will do a deep dive on the offense and "where we weren't good enough" after the bowl game.

"Obviously, we would have loved to put more points on the board and have been more explosive and been more consistent," he said. "That's really what we'll spend a lot of time doing once the season has ended."

Yurcich has skeptics: Yurcich came to Penn State with an impressive resume, including six years as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State and one year at Texas. He also served as Ohio State's pass game coordinator in 2019. In his previous five seasons as an offensive coordinator, his teams averaged more than 40 points.

But some skeptics argued that Yurcich's offenses benefited from playing in the wide-open Big 12 where defenses are often of the "bend but often break" variety. The Texas defense gave up 32.4 points per game to its eight conference opponents in 2020, while the offense averaged 39.1 points against the same teams.

To contrast, four of Penn State's Big Ten opponents finished in the top 25 of FBS in scoring defense. Yurcich insists, however, that his offense can work in the Big Ten "and in any conference that we play."

"When we go back and we look at different things, I think one thing that stands out for us is short-yardage execution," he said. "That's one of the things that we're currently looking at in both prep and in trying to evaluate. Why the lack of execution there? So you look at the reasons and sometimes it's the execution. It's a mistake here. It's a mistake there.

"Was it the call? Was it a personnel issue? Was it a mental mistake, a physical mistake? We chart all those things and what you find out is, it's a little bit of everything. We've got to find our identity. We have to continue to play to our personal strengths."

Struggling run game: An area where the Lions struggled the entire season was in the run game. The team did not post a single 100-yard rushing game by any running back. The team's five running backs combined for 1,078 yards, a 3.9-yard average, and six touchdowns.

"As a unit, especially for myself, none of us are satisfied with how things went," junior running back Noah Cain said. "We want to get better from it. We can't change the past but we have to grow and get better and I think we're going to do that. We're all competitors and we're trying to be the best at our craft so we all have to have a gut check and find out who we really want to be."

The pass offense was better. After somewhat of a down season last year, redshirt senior Sean Clifford bounced back, completing 62.4% of his passes for 2,912 yards, 20 touchdowns, and six interceptions. Twelve of his TDs went to All-America Jahan Dotson, who caught 91 passes for 1,182 yards.