Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne has taken a lot of heat the past few weeks, after some questionable play-calling and game-planning against Ohio State and Michigan State.
He joined reporters Thursday for his first comments to the beat since the season started. We’ve published the Q&A in its entirety below.
Through six games, how would you grade the performance of the offense and then your play-calling and preparation?
Ricky Rahne: You know, I’m a little off on A-B-C-D in terms of grading at that level. I think obviously we’ve had some highs, and we’ve had some lows. We need to be more consistent as a unit. I need to be more consistent in the rhythm I get the players in, and that’s been the thing I need to concentrate on the most. And, like most things in this world, you’re always going to be judged on results, right? So when the play-call goes and it goes for 70, it’s a great play-call regardless of how everybody sees it, and when the play-call goes for 2, then it’s not a great play-call.
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And, quite frankly, I’m the same way. I’m a person who grades himself on results and how we’re doing. And we need to make sure that our results are more consistent across the board.
Both Trace and James Franklin have said the passing game isn’t where it needs to be. Why is that, and how do you get it up to speed?
RR: Yeah, I think it’s just — the passing game, I think the running game is a little bit the same way. Football in general offense is about ... getting comfortable with each other. And our offensive line is very comfortable with each other, and Miles has done some good things. So we got a pretty good rhythm there. In the passing game, we don’t.
It’s a number of different things. It’s details and fundamentals and releases. It can be footwork by the quarterback and timing there and all the way to the protection up front and things like that. So I think when you go back and watch the tape, it’s usually one guy here and one guy there, and that one guy in offensive football can make a world of difference. So we really had a day yesterday where I thought we got better at times in terms of details and fundamentals, and this week we have — and that’s what we’ve been focusing on and that’s what I need to continue to focus on.
How would you describe the trust level between Trace and the receivers, especially the veteran ones?
RR: Yeah, I think obviously he’s played a lot of football with guys like Brandon Polk and DeAndre Thompkins and Juwan (Johnson). I think his trust level in the play-making ability in a guy like KJ (Hamler) is growing, and I think his trust level with a guy like Pat Freiermuth and Nick Bowers is growing. I think those guys have both made plays when given the opportunity and as a quarterback that’s what builds trust — making a play when you give a guy an opportunity.
So I think the trust level is growing every day; I think I’m happy with the way Brandon Polk has really progressed this year on a number of different levels. And I think he’s earned the quarterback’s trust a lot there, and we just need to continue to spread the ball around and get the ball down the field a little bit more and go from there.
When you guys go back and examine the four-minute offense, what have you found there that maybe you can stress to the players as far as improvements?
RR: The area we’re stressing with the players is obviously there are smaller windows in those areas. They’re a little bit less concerned about giving up a big pass play because that probably doesn’t hurt them as much, but they’re concerned about trying to get the ball back to their offense and conserve time and things like that. So that means you really got to focus on your fundamentals and all your steps have got to be perfect. You can’t take a false step, and you can’t do those sort of things.
And on my side, I need to maintain being aggressive and maintain our identity throughout and go from there. So the four-minute drill, when that really starts is extremely up for debate. As you look at all the data, you need to make sure you stay aggressive — me in particular, stay aggressive — with what we’re doing.
Can you build on that, regarding staying aggressive? Do you think you’ve done that the last couple weeks in crunch time when you’ve needed a first down on what may have been the last series of the game?
RR: Yeah, I think in general we have. I think it’s sometimes hard for other people who don’t exactly know what’s going on to look at the play and say we haven’t. But we’ve still led people, we’ve still done this sort of stuff, and it just happened to be that the reads got the play to where it was. I think obviously there are times when I look back and there are play-calls that I wish could have back, whether that was in the last drive of the game or whether that was in the first drive of the game.
I think as a play-caller, to ever go into a game or a season and think that you’re going to call every play exactly how you want it to go and do it like that, I think you’re going to be sorely mistaken. But, yeah, I think there are plays I want back in the first drive just the same as I want back in the last drive. And I need to continue, like I said, to get my guys in the best opportunity and best position to succeed.
Penn State fans are obviously passionate. Did you hear some of the frustrations following the last two games, and what would you say to fans concerned over the outlook?
RR: I told somebody this the other day: I have the greatest job in the world, and the reason I have the greatest job in the world is because of the passionate fans. We’re able to recruit great players and those sorts of things because people want to play in front of 107,000 people. So I respect the fan frustration; obviously, want to play better on offense. We want to score every time we touch the football, so I would say we’re going to continue to work at it and continue to get better. And the only thing we can do is hard work, and our preparation, effort and execution has got to improve all the way around.
What did you do the last two Saturday nights? And by that I mean are you a sleep-at-the-office-during-the-week kind of coach?
RR: I never sleep at the office because I only live five minutes away, so I never sleep at the office. I think it’s important that my two boys know that their mother is the most important thing in my life, so I don’t sleep at the office.
That being said, I’m in here (laughs), probably one of the last ones in here and so I’m not a sleep-at-the-office type of guy. But I can’t tell you I slept really well when I was at home, either. I hold myself to a high standard; I’m as hard on myself as anybody, any fan or any critic. I assure you I’m even harder on myself and, obviously, when things don’t go exactly how you want it to go, you look and you evaluate and you try to see how you get better.
Brandon Polk and DeAndre Thompkins sharing that position on top of the depth chart — through three Big Ten games, they have five combined catches and less than 60 receiving yards. Is that something that needs to be addressed?
RR: No. I think it’s how the defenses have played us and how it’s gone, that that particular position hasn’t gotten as many catches this year. So, no, I don’t think it has anything to do with personnel that occupies that position. In fact, I’ve been pleased with how Brandon has progressed this year and, obviously, DeAndre has made a ton of plays for us in his career and extremely happy with how DeAndre has practiced this week.
So I’d say it’s not a personnel issue; it’s just how people have chosen to defend us this year. And that’s how — we’ve had some games where we’ve put up quite a bit of points and numbers and things like that. And if they don’t get their touches, I understand that’s how people are going to see it.
What’s the biggest change in the offense the past two years, and how have you put your own spin on an offense that Joe Moorhead spearheaded the last two seasons?
RR: I think the biggest change over the past three years that we’ve had is that we’ve been able to create a bunch of explosive plays through a variety of areas, whether it was running the ball on the perimeter, whether it was reading people and running it up the middle like we did last week, whether it was throwing the ball down the field and taking shots, whether it was getting guys loose in space and having them run and being able to create explosive plays. I think that’s been the key factor in our success is those explosive plays, so I think that’s the thing we need to continue to focus on — generating those and converting on those opportunities when they’re there.
In terms of my spin on it, it’s an ‘our’ spin. It’s our whole offensive staff and all of our players, they’re going to combine to make the offense what it is and what the defense presents to us, that’s what we’re going to take. And we’ll go from there.
You mentioned getting the ball downfield more. Has the defense been taking that away, or is it just not a focus there? Can you walk us through why it may be a struggle at times?
RR: I don’t necessarily think it’s been a struggle at times this year. There was a point there where we were very high up in yards per completion; I think it’s just been what teams have been presenting. And, again, there’s been times when we’ve had shot plays called and they’ve given us a defense that would take that away or there are times that maybe something’s happened, a breakdown in protection or whatever where we had to get the ball out a little bit quicker, and that’s what happens. When you take those types of shots, you know that’s what’s going to happen at times and you’re going to have to check the ball down.
I think it’s been a combination of issues that have led to us maybe not taking as many downfield shots and we just need to continue to focus and see when you can take advantage of the defense, when they’re going to give us those opportunities.
From the week-to-week game-planning, how much collaboration is done with Trace and James and other players and coaches?
RR: We do all of our game-planning together. The NCAA doesn’t really allow Trace because he can only have 20 hours. So obviously his input, he gets the gameplan and what I can do with him is obviously I’m going to take his input because not only is he very experienced, but he works very hard at what he does so he has a lot of knowledge. So I respect his opinion.
As a coaching staff, we game-plan all together. So it’s always been a collaborative effort, and it’s going to stay that way because I feel like that’s the best way to get the best gameplan.
Miles has just nine catches through six games. Saquon had 54 all of last year. How much has that hurt the passing game that you haven’t been able to throw to the backs for whatever reason?
RR: Yeah, we need to continue to get Miles involved in the passing game. Obviously, Saquon — that was one of Saquon’s dynamic skill-sets, that he was such a dominant receiver out of the backfield. So we need to continue to get Miles involved and get him on the perimeter because he can make plays in space. It’s my job to make sure we can get him on those spots.
You guys are 6-of-31 on third downs in the last two games combined. How would you explain that number and where you guys are at as a whole on third downs this year?
RR: We have not been up to the standard on third down, particularly on third-and-7 to (third-and-)10. That’s been the area where we need to make the biggest strides, on third-and-7 to (third-and-)10. And part of that is people obviously point to first and second down and the need to make sure we stay efficient. The games where we’ve been very good on third down, we’ve been really, really efficient on first and second down.
All that being said, on third down, the defense has a little bit better clue of where you’re going to be throwing the ball and those sorts of things, you got to be able to get your guys open, whether that’s by scheme or by technique. You need to make sure you do a great job there and, from the quarterback position, we have to make sure that we throw the ball accurately where they can catch it and run. When you go back and look at the third downs over the last two games, man, it’s been a different issue kind of every play and you just need to work on making sure we’re all performing at our level all the time.
How much of a growing experience has this been for you? Tough times the last couple weeks; just wondering how you’re growing from it.
RR: We ask our kids to do it all the time, right? I still remember a few years ago you don’t come out on top against Pitt and we asked DaeSean Hamilton and all those guys to grow from that experience and as a coach a lot of times it’s easy to ask others to do something like that but then when your feet are to the fire, it can be a challenge to do it yourself. So that’s what I’ve tried to do — maintain a confidence, make sure that we all know that I am growing as we’re going through this, and every single guy on our team was.
Even Trace McSorley with his past experience is going to grow from game to game and get better. And when you stop getting better, that’s when you need to look at yourself in the mirror. So I need to make sure I continue to grow in a number of different areas, and I hope to do that until the end of my career.
We’re at the midway point now. For better or worse, do you think the season has gone the way you expected back in August?
RR: No, I don’t (laughs) — I know people probably think I’m crazy when I say this, but I don’t look at the season as a whole and say, OK, this is where I expect to be at this point. This is where we expect to be at that point, you know? I really do take the mantra of ‘one game at a time’ and ‘one play at a time’ to heart. I think that’s the only way you can truly succeed.
When you start looking ahead and there’s too many crazy things that can happen, it can totally change your perception. Obviously, I’m looking forward to Indiana and the challenge they present. They got a great defensive coordinator who does some good things on defense and we need to just make sure we’re ready for this game. And we’ll go from there.
You said a couple times there are a few plays you’d like to have back. What are they and, by contrast, what are the ones where you say that worked just the way it was supposed to?
RR: I mean, to take away specifics, I don’t know if I’m ready to tell you exactly what plays I wish I could have back. But I’ll tell you this: They’re not always the most critical plays in the game. A lot of times, they’re the plays that happen on first down at the minus-40, where I say to myself, that play-call and that rhythm, that wasn’t good for our team, I shouldn’t have done that. And those are the things — I got to continue to grow, and I got to continue to get better. And you try to make 1-2 less of those play-calls every game.
It’s never going to happen where you call a quote-unquote ‘perfect game,’ because those don’t exist. But you’ve got to strive for that perfection all the time, and that’s got to be the goal. So I’m going to continue to do that in gameplans and in my own personal preparation and go from there.
You’ve got three players in the passing game who’ve only been in six games in their college career in Hamler, Freiermuth and Mac Hippenhammer. They had pretty big roles against Michigan State — what’s the balancing act that’s there? Are there some chemistry issues downfield, and why are those guys showing they need to be on the football field?
RR: I think all three are very talented. All three are extremely competitive. And all three are showing they can make plays as well. So I don’t think there’s a chemistry issue. I think obviously the more reps you have with the quarterback, you’re going to continue to develop more and more chemistry. I don’t think right now it’s an issue.
It’s late in the Ohio State game, and Trace is throwing the ball to Pat and not thinking twice about it. Know what I mean? I don’t think it’s a thing where there’s trust issues. I think those guys have worked hard and Trace and myself and the coaching staff respects the way those guys have been working.
James spent a lot of the offseason hyping up Tommy Stevens for being a unique and critical weapon to this offense, and Tommy said he was available Illinois week. So why have we seen so little of him if he’s this versatile weapon, and how do you expect maybe his role to change moving forward?
RR: There’s going to be some weeks where what the defense does gives you opportunities to get him on the field. There’s going to be other weeks where maybe it’s not as good a look. And we’ve got to make sure we get him in in those chances and get the ball in his hands and let him go.
Obviously, some of the missed time and camp and those sort of things took away time just with him having the ball in his hands and his feet on the field. So as he’s worked fully back into that and he’s ready to go — look forward to seeing what he’s going to do for us in the next six weeks.