STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State's offense continued exploding to new heights this past season and in the process secured back-to-back 11-win seasons and consecutive New Year's Six bowl games.
Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne took over for the Fiesta Bowl and the showing yielded positive results that give Penn State plenty to build off of this offseason despite losing Saquon Barkley and DaeSean Hamilton. The running back and receiver combined for 40 of Penn State's 100 receptions of 15-plus yards last season.
That production will not be easy to replace, but after taking a deep dive into Penn State's chunk plays on both sides of the ball -- a key statistic that James Franklin points to after every game -- Penn State's explosive plays were yet again a large reason for the team's success.
Receptions of 15-plus yards during 2017-18 season (13 games, 100)
• DaeSean Hamilton (28)
• Juwan Johnson (18)
• Mike Gesicki (15)
• Saquon Barkley (12)
• DeAndre Thompkins (11)
• Saeed Blacknall (10)
• Brandon Polk (5)
• Nick Bowers (1)
Receptions of 16-plus yards the year before (14 games): 88
Receptions of 16-plus yards this season (13 games): 92
Rushes of 12-plus yards during 2017-18 season (13 games, 50)
• Saquon Barkley (21)
• Trace McSorley (15)
• Tommy Stevens (7)
• Miles Sanders (6)
• Andre Robinson (1)
Rushes of 12-plus yards the year before (14 games): 67
PRODUCTION NOT RETURNING NEXT SEASON
Hamilton, Gesicki and Blacknall are out of eligibility. Barkley is NFL bound and Robinson, a reserve running back, had his release granted after the conclusion of the regular season. Those departures accounted for 87 of the team's 150 explosive gains (58 percent) this past season.
Honestly, I thought the number would be higher than 58 percent given how much Hamilton and Barkley especially led this offense. Blacknall had a quiet 10 catches of 15-plus yards, this coming after key receptions of 21, 35, 42, 19, 43, 16, 40 and 70 yards as a junior.
Barkley accounted for 33 of the Lions' explosive plays, a dip in production after posting 49 chunk plays during his sophomore season.
While Barkley's departure garners all the attention and rightfully so as he's a projected top-5 pick in the NFL Draft, replacing the production of Hamilton, Gesicki and even Blacknall for that matter will be difficult. Of Hamilton's 53 catches this season -- for a team best 857 yards -- 28 of them were receptions of 15-plus yards.
Hamilton had 11 catches of 25-plus yards. Of his explosive receptions, those catches averaged 23.8 yards (667 yards of explosive receptions/28 catches). Hamilton's numbers were very similar to Chris Godwin's monster junior season. That seemed to fly largely under the radar this season. How similar?
Receptions of 16-plus for Hamilton this year: 25
Receptions of 16-plus for Godwin the year before: 24
Hamilton this year (13 games): 53/857/9 TDs (16.2 YPC)
Godwin the year before (14 games): 59/982/11 (16.6)
So, perhaps the question this offseason that maybe isn't being asked enough is who replaces Hamilton?
How did this season's explosive offense compare to last year's Rose Bowl team? Well, for starters Penn State changed their explosive play benchmarks trying to make them more in line with other measurements. They also did this because they wanted to keep it uniform across the board, meaning the Penn State defense was judged by the same explosive play benchmarks as the offense. I've outlined the defense's explosive plays surrendered at the bottom of this piece.
Also, there was a 14th game last season because of the Big Ten title game, compared to 13 this past season. Still, the second year of the Moorhead tenure with an important one-game showing from Rahne produced similar results as Year 1.
Keep in mind explosive receptions were of 16-plus yards last season for the offense, not 15. So, even with that difference the numbers are still very similar.
This season (13 games): 150 explosive gains on 909 total plays (16.5 percent).
2016-17 (14 games): 155 explosive gains on 931 total plays (16.6 percent).
The total number of plays run is a key indicator here and the Lions averaged 69 plays per game this season, an uptick compared to 66.5 last year. That's another sign of an efficient offense.
All last offseason the question was who would make up for Godwin's production? Well, turns out Godwin's team-best 24 receptions of 16-plus yards last year were topped by Hamilton during his fifth year. Hamilton had 25 catches of 16-plus after posting 13 the year before.
Hamilton's rebound after a collegiate career that got off to a hot start as a redshirt freshman will be among the Nittany Lions' most intriguing NFL Draft story lines. Hamilton was added to the Senior Bowl roster on Sunday, a move that comes after he impressed at the East-West Shrine game practices last week. So, people are catching on to the numbers that are kind of surprising given how quietly Hamilton went about his business but produced at a level similar to Godwin, who was selected in the third round of the NFL Draft last year by the Buccaneers.
Another noteworthy rise in the receiving game came from Juwan Johnson. The darling of spring ball carried it into the season with 18 receptions of 15-plus yards, totals that certainly were a welcome boost to the offense as well. Johnson had just two explosive catches, gains of 27 and 43 yards, during his redshirt freshman season.
Look for Johnson to be on the verge of even more production next season and for a player who looks like he could be a big-time playmaker who already has NFL size, his junior season will be an important one.
[caption id="attachment_481057" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Juwan Johnson with Penn State students before a game. - WAISS ARAMESH / FOR DKPS[/caption]
Returning wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins also had more explosive gains this past season with 11 compared to seven the year before.
This shouldn't come as a surprise given all the grumbling about the up and down production of the offensive line this season. Barkley had 36 rushes of 12-plus yards his sophomore and 21 rushes of 12-plus yards as a junior. As a whole, the offense had 50 explosive rushes this season compared to 67 the year before.
But, Trace McSorley's number of explosive rushes increased from 11 to 15 this season. Tommy Stevens had seven explosive rushes in back-to-back seasons, but certainly he was used in a more prominent role this season. Keep in mind four of those seven explosive gains for Stevens came in the blowout win against Maryland.
WHAT ABOUT THE DEFENSE?
Penn State only lost the explosive play battle once this season and that came during the collapse against Ohio State. The Buckeyes posted 12 explosive gains in the win, eight of which came through the air.
Using the same benchmarks for the defense as the offense -- something the Lions hadn't done in the past -- the Lions' defense surrendered 92 chunk plays this season. So, by my count, Penn State won the explosive play battle 150-92 this season. That's pretty dominant.
Receptions of 15-plus yards surrendered: 58
Receptions of 25-plus surrendered: 21
Longest reception surrendered: Akrum Wadley, 70 yards, Iowa
Rushes of 12-plus yards surrendered: 34
Rushes of 25-plus surrendered: 6
Longest rush surrendered: Myles Gaskin, 69 yards, Fiesta Bowl
How'd the explosive plays stack up per game?
•Penn State offense: 15, Akron offense: 1
•Penn State 8, Pitt 7
•Penn State 12, Georgia State 7
•Penn State 14, Iowa 6
•Penn State 10, Indiana 7
•Penn State 10, Northwestern 6
•Penn State 12, Michigan 8
•Ohio State 12, Penn State 7
•Penn State 14, Michigan State 12
•Penn State 11, Rutgers 4
•Penn State 12, Nebraska 12 (10 came in the second half while trailing 42-10)
•Penn State 13, Maryland 5
•Penn State 12, Washington 5
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