ORLANDO, Fla. — There have been times where he absorbed the fans’ adoration. There have been other instances where, he admits, he became all to accustomed to their frustration.
Maybe, for a guy like Ricky Rahne, this job is about balancing the inevitable times when he’s going to have to deal with both.
Maybe, that’s all part of the “dream job,” too.
As his first season as Penn State’s offensive coordinator winds down in the Citrus Bowl on Tuesday against No. 14 Kentucky’s top-10-rated scoring defense, Rahne knows there is no sense sugar-coating the Nittany Lions’ 2018 performance on offense.
“We started well, and we ended pretty well,” he said. “I think, in the middle there, we just needed to be more consistent as an entire unit. Myself included.”
Certainly, there were times Penn State built off the foundation set by Rahne’s predecessor, Joe Moorhead, before he left the program late last year to become head coach at Mississippi State. The Nittany Lions opened the season with a 434-yard, 45-point performance in an overtime win over Appalachian State that bailed out the then-inexperienced defense, then followed that with a 51-point outburst against Pittsburgh, and back-to-back 63-point tallies against Kent State and Illinois in which Rahne’s playcalling helped the offense pile up a combined 1,234 yards.
Dents in the armor started to appear from there, however. They moved the ball to the tune of 492 yards against Ohio State, but the Nittany Lions couldn’t find the end zone late in the game, couldn’t grind down the clock with a late lead in hand, and wound up suffering a 27-26 loss. They would knock on the 400-yard door again two weeks later against Michigan State, but managed only 17 points in a loss to the Spartans that essentially broke the Lions’ backs.
Over Penn State’s first seven games, it never managed to gain less than 390 yards in a game. Over the last five, it surpassed that total just once — in a season-closing domination of Maryland on Nov. 24 — and didn’t even approach it in the other four games.
The common denominator was the knee injury suffered by quarterback Trace McSorley in the first half of the win over Iowa on Oct. 27, pain he played through the remainder of the season but pain that clearly hampered him over the next month.
Rahne said he learned very little about the offense with an injured McSorley running the show that wouldn’t ultimately be superceded by some of the mistakes the group made even when it was firing early on.
“I think the thing that we mainly learned is that we, as an offense, have got to make sure that we take advantage of opportunities when they’re there,” Rahne said, clear references to the collapses against Ohio State and Michigan State. “If it’s a play call that needs to be called, I’ve got to make it. If it’s a route that needs to be run the right way, we’ve got to do it. If it’s a throw that’s got to be had or a pass protection, something like that, we’ve got to do it and take advantage of the opportunities; because the teams we play against are talented enough that they can take away things for most of the games.”
With a generational quarterback returning, but most of his big weapons from back-to-back major-bowl appearances gone, perhaps Penn State wasn’t talented enough or experienced enough to take those things back. Nittany Lions receivers were among the least consistent in the nation when it came to catching the ball, and while running back Miles Sanders flashed enough ability to help ease the loss of Saquon Barkley, he also struggled to secure the ball, leading to consistent fumbling issues late in the year.
When he looks back on Rahne’s rookie season as coordinator, head coach James Franklin said he sees plenty of positives.
Sanders’ fumbling issues aside, Franklin said the Nittany Lions were clearly a better rushing team even without Barkley, averaging better than 200 yards per game on the ground with far fewer negative plays than in recent years. He didn’t deny, though, that the coaching staff “owns” some of the protection issues along the offensive line that have hurt at times this season, as well as the dropped passes and the fumbles.
“The things that I watch as a head coach, in terms of when the ball is snapped, are did we call a play that had a chance to be successful? That’s the first thing,” Franklin said. “Then after that, it’s about execution, teaching fundamentals and techniques and things like that, then putting our kids in the best position to be successful from the scheme. Are we challenging people? Are we putting people in conflict?
“I’ve been pleased (with Rahne), but obviously, there are areas where we have got to get better.”