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Mark Wogenrich | The Morning Call | September 14, 2018

Penn State football: Nittany Lions have goal for number of 'explosive plays,' and it's driven by analytics

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Penn State monitors the heart rates and sleeping patterns of its football players, so of course, the program knows how many "explosive plays" it wants to produce per game.

Coach James Franklin wants 16 percent of his offensive snaps to produce explosive plays. That number comes, in part, from Franklin's affection for analytics.

The Penn State coach adheres to a data-driven development model, which he has made an undercurrent of the program. From studying fourth-down conversion rates to knowing which players run the farthest at practice, Franklin keys on numbers to generate edges.

Take "explosive plays," for instance. Penn State defines them as runs of 12-plus yards and pass completions of 15-plus yards. They were a core component of former coordinator Joe Moorhead's offense and continue to be central to Ricky Rahne's approach.

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This season, Penn State wants those explosive plays to compose 16 percent of all offensive snaps. The team used to benchmark explosive plays by number per game, but that measurement was inconsistent since the total number of plays can vary significantly between games.

Under Moorhead, Penn State averaged just over 150 explosive plays per season — a little over 16 percent per game. Through two games this year, that pace has fallen slightly, to 13.3 percent. As a result, meeting the team's explosive-play goal, both in games and in practice, has become a point of emphasis.

"It's the standard," quarterback Trace McSorley said. "It's the same from Coach Moorhead to Coach Rahne. It hasn't changed at all."

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Franklin has been a proponent of analytics since becoming Penn State's coach, giving their use a prominent place in the program. In 2015, the coach spoke on a football analytics panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference in Boston.

Penn State contracts an outside company to study game data, and Franklin has hired analytics professionals on his staff. The program employs an assistant athletic director for applied health and performance science along with an analytics coordinator.

They study rates of fourth-down conversions, correlate field position to scoring chances and devise game strategy based on down and distance. On his weekly radio show, Franklin said that the staff analyzed 15 years of Penn State game data. Among the findings: The Lions won 91 percent of games in which they had fewer turnovers.

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To generate physical data, Penn State's players have used a variety of body-monitoring devices that measure heart rates, log distances run in practice and even track their sleep habits. Many high-performance athletes, in college and professional sports, do the same.

One such system, devised by Whoop, measures the quality of a person's sleep, which Franklin called the most "underutilized" data point in college sports. If Franklin notices players on social media at late hours, he can check their sleep data from the monitors they wear.

"You can actually see that [the player] went to bed at 11 o'clock, or he went to bed at 1 o'clock, or he went to bed at 11 o'clock but tossed and turned all night long," Franklin said. "Why does he toss and turn? Does he have sleep apnea? What is it? Now we can study that to help him."

This article is written by Mark Wogenrich from The Morning Call and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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