BLOOMINGTON – The game within the game of Saturday’s matchup between Indiana and No. 8 Penn State could come down to a pair of new offensive coordinators.
At Penn State, Kirk Ciarrocca is in his first year as offensive coordinator after spending three seasons as offensive coordinator at Minnesota (2017-19) under P.J. Fleck. At Indiana, Nick Sheridan was elevated to offensive coordinator from tight ends coach during the offseason and at 32 will be calling plays for the first time in his college coaching career.
For Ciarrocca — a Lewisberry, Pennsylvania, native — it was a homecoming after leading Minnesota to the second-most passing yards in a season and third-highest scoring offense in school history.
Penn State junior preseason All-American tight end Pat Freiermuth said there was an adjustment period for him at first in dealing with Ciarrocca’s intensity.
“When he gives compliments, he’ll, like, yell at you,” Freiermuth said. “We’ll just be doing a really good rep or having a good play or score a touchdown or something, and then he’ll start yelling. At first we were all confused, like, ‘What’s going on? Why are you yelling at us?’ He intends that to be fiery. He’s pumped and that kind of thing. At first, it catches you off guard. It still catches me off guard sometimes if I make a play in practice and he starts yelling at me. I look at (tight ends coach Tyler Bowen) and am like, ‘Did he just yell at me?’
“His approach is so fiery, but I’m excited and he’s an awesome coach. I just can’t wait to see what he does for game plans and what he does for this Saturday and during games and all the in-game adjustments.”
Sheridan, meanwhile, brings familiarity with IU’s players and schemes, having worked under head coach Tom Allen as quarterbacks coach and tight ends coach since 2017. He also received a strong endorsement from his predecessor, Kalen DeBoer, who led the Hoosiers to the second-ranked pass offense and third-ranked total offense in the Big Ten last season before leaving to take the head coaching job at Fresno State.
Working closely under DeBoer and former IU offensive coordinator Mike DeBord the past three seasons has Sheridan feeling confident and prepared heading into his first play calling opportunity.
“I don’t have anxiety or nerves right now,” Sheridan said. “I think everybody to some degree when you get close to kickoff there’s a level of whatever you want to call it because you care. You enjoy the competition. You want to do well.”
Sheridan said game-planning this week has been a collaborative effort with receivers coach Grant Heard, running backs coach Mike Hart, offensive line coach Darren Hiller and tight ends coach Kevin Wright.
“Ultimately, there has to be a decision maker to kind of put the final touches and make a decision on any differences of opinion,” Sheridan said. “But I lean heavily on our staff. and that’s what gives me confidence in the game planning process.”
Sheridan said he plans to call games from the press box, where he feels the vantage point is cleaner. He’s excited about the players he has to work with, led by sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr., senior wide receiver Whop Philyor and junior running back Stevie Scott III.
“Me and Coach Sheridan have been building a bond together ever since he became the offensive coordinator,” Scott said. “It’s just been getting stronger and stronger every day in practice, and every day we just build up, really. I’m loving it. I can’t wait for him to showcase his ability of being an offensive coordinator for us and showing the world he’s a great coach.”
Defensively, IU faces the challenge of preparing for Ciarrocca. When IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack was asked how much Penn State offensive film he watched compared to Minnesota film to prepare for Saturday, he joked, “I’ve glanced at both once or twice and then went back to Netflix.”
Wommack said he expects Ciarrocca to run a system similar to what he did at Minnesota, based on his success with the Golden Gophers.
“He has a little bit different dynamic in certain position rooms, but there’s a lot of similarities as well that I think will tie in as well with what they did at Minnesota,” Wommack said. “Probably a really smart hire from a standpoint of what they were looking for and what they need to do moving forward, and so I think it’s a combination of seeing what their personnel is and what he’s done in the past and trying to blend the two.”
Penn State’s offense suffered a blow when it was announced this week running back Journey Brown is out indefinitely due to a medical issue. But the Nittany Lions still bring back plenty of firepower, led by returning quarterback Sean Clifford and Freiermuth, who had 43 catches for 507 yards and seven TDs last season. IU did a solid job on Freiermuth last season, limiting him to two catches for 32 yards. But Ciarrocca could find some new wrinkles to try to spring Freiermuth open more frequently against the Hoosiers on Saturday.
“There were things we did a year ago to take him away,” Wommack said. “We’ll have to find new ways to do that within the confines of their scheme now, but that needs to be a point of emphasis for us, and sometimes you may have to adjust on the fly based on how they use him.”