How a Fordham coach suddenly made Penn State's bland offense creative, explosive
Joe Moorhead is not a household name yet, but he's a major reason for the Nittany Lions' success
Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead likes to keep his players guessing during team meetings.
"I think he would agree he has pretty bad ADHD, and we'll be in the team meeting and he'll say, 'Oh, damn, my beard looks nice,'" Penn State offensive lineman Brian Gaia said. "He's growing a nice little beard. We're like, 'What?' He throws out random things like that all the time to catch us off guard."
When even Penn State players are confused by their coordinator, imagine defenses trying to figure him out. Penn State coach James Franklin's hiring of Moorhead, a former head coach at Fordham, was one of the most significant moves made in college football last offseason.
This isn't your father's bland Penn State offense.
The Nittany Lions' remarkable run to the Big Ten Championship Game has been fueled in part by a creative offense that utilizes run-pass play options (RPOs). It's led by an aggressive play-caller who's willing to take chances and, in an era of explosive scoring, throw caution to the wind in the name of scoring points.
Penn State is averaging 36.6 points per game (25th in the country), up from 23.2 points in 2015 (100th nationally) and 20.6 points in 2014 (113th) during Franklin's first two seasons. The Nittany Lions haven't had an offense like this since scoring 38.9 points in 2008, when they shared the Big Ten title with Ohio State.
"I think the biggest thing is [Moorhead] is never afraid to take that long ball shot regardless of the score or how the game is going," Gaia said. "He wants to score as many points as he can, and that's just a different mentality around here."
Franklin faced a crucial 2015 offseason after two respected assistants left for what were perceived as lateral moves (defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to Tennessee and offensive line coach Herb Hand to Auburn). Despite some speculation, Franklin was never in real jeopardy of losing his job this season. But he needed to hit with his coaching hires after the shakeup to have a shot for long-term success.
While a lot of the public focused on Shoop and Hand leaving -- Brent Pry slid over capably as the first-year defensive coordinator -- Franklin also fired offensive coordinator John Donovan. That opened the door to hire Moorhead, whom Franklin had been following since hearing him speak several years ago at a Nike clinic in Pittsburgh.
Moorhead was living a comfortable life as the coach at Fordham, his alma mater. His contract ran through 2022. Before Penn State, Moorhead spent 16 years as a college coach.
He was offensive coordinator at Georgetown, Akron and Connecticut, where he called plays at the Fiesta Bowl. Moorhead was demoted to quarterbacks coach when UConn coach Randy Edsall left after the 2010 season for Maryland. One year later, Moorhead became the coach at Fordham but still maintained interest to coach on the big stage.
"I was given advice a long time ago in this profession," Moorhead said in an interview with CBS Sports last spring. "When a job opportunity presents itself, you utilize three criteria to determine if it's right to take or not: personal, professional and monetary. Penn State checked all three boxes."
Moorhead was influential in hiring new offensive line coach Matt Limegrover, a former offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Minnesota. Limegrover and Moorhead grew up in the same neighborhood in the Pittsburgh area, where Moorhead's dad was Limegrover's first coach in organized football.
Franklin believed Moorhead was the right coordinator at the right time given Penn State's personnel. The offensive line is still young and developing. Quarterback Trace McSorley, whose mobility is a tool Franklin used to win while at Vanderbilt, is the opposite of former drop-back passer Christian Hackenberg. Running back Saquon Barkley is a future pro. And Penn State's receivers have the ability to go up and win jump balls.
"Joe was going to bring a lot of creativity and excitement to our offense, and leadership was probably the biggest thing," Franklin said.
The aftermath of NCAA penalties from the Jerry Sandusky child-molestation scandal limited Penn State's scholarships in Franklin's first two years. No unit has been impacted more than the offensive line, which was heavily criticized while allowing 44 sacks in 2014 (113th nationally) and 39 in 2015 (113th).
Moorhead met individually with Penn State linemen last winter and stressed he wasn't concerned with the public perception. What the linemen did in the past wouldn't impact their status moving forward.
"It gets annoying week after week hearing we're the weak link," Gaia said. "But you kind of take it as fuel to the fire to work harder. The coaches instilled a sense of trust in us regardless of what happened the past few years. They believed in us."
Moorhead has guided transformations before. He turned a 1-10 Fordham team into a 12-win team within two years by relying on a run game that heavily utilized RPOs, a concept that has exploded throughout football in recent years. As defenses add extra defenders into the run game, RPOs are a way to create pass tags and provide difficult decisions for defenders. Is the quarterback going to run or throw based on pre- and post-snap reads?
Indecision by the defense can particularly help an offensive line. Moorhead's formations are so spread out with three- and four-receiver sets that there are only a couple defensive fronts Penn State will likely see. That limits the type of pressure a defense might send.
Also, variations of tempo by Penn State can keep defenses off balance. Moorhead entered the season planning to use three or four versions of tempo. The idea isn't necessarily to run the wrong play quickly, but to run the correct one as fast as possible given the defensive look presented.
"I believe our offense allows offensive linemen to play fast, to play with physicality and to play with confidence because it limits the looks you see," Moorhead said. "The tempo and run/pass options are designed to put defenders in conflict and don't let them play downfield as past. Freeze them for a second."
Penn State has allowed 22 sacks this year (51st nationally), a huge improvement from the past two years. The extra time helps McSorley, who leads all FBS passers in yards per completion (16.2). Penn State has 20 pass plays of 40 yards or more (third nationally).
"I think the big key is our offensive line," McSorley said. "They've done a great job all year giving us quarterbacks time to look downfield and take those shots."
The details about RPOs are often very secretive among college football offensive coaches. Franklin would only say this week Penn State is using them "a lot more" in 2016 and avoided specifics given the upcoming Big Ten Championship Game. Moorhead wasn't made available to comment.
During an interview in the spring, Moorhead said a variety of RPOs are in 80 percent of his run plays. Some involve McSorley reading the backside defensive end and pulling the ball if the end crashes on the running back. Another is an option read based on how the outside defender reacts.
"Really what you're trying to do is create opportunities to put your running back 1-on-1 with unblocked defenders as far away from the line of scrimmage as you can," Moorhead said. "If you're taking care of the six defenders in the box with your five linemen and the tight end, and you have a pre-snap answer for No. 7 and a post-snap answer for No. 8, that allows your running back when you hand the ball off to have the luxury of not having to make someone miss within five yards of the line of scrimmage."
Barkley is a huge key to the offense (1,219 rushing yards, second in the Big Ten and 23rd nationally). Since defenses often focus on Barkley, McSorley (2,976 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, five interceptions) can use play-action to throw deep. On RPOs, McSorley (376 rushing yards) can decide whether to give the ball to his running back, keep it and run toward the corner, or stay in the pocket and use the defense's indecision to wait for a Penn State receiver to get open.
"When you think the defense has an answer, you're trying to change the question," Moorhead said.
Early this season, Penn State fans had a whole lot of questions for Moorhead, whose offense initially struggled to find answers. A week after getting routed 49-10 by Michigan, Penn State was staring at a possible 2-3 record while trailing Minnesota 13-3 early in the third quarter.
On a third-and-11, McSorley stepped up in the pocket and almost crossed the line of scrimmage while throwing a dart to Irvin Charles on a skinny post. Charles shed a tackler near midfield and sprinted away for an 80-yard touchdown.
"Irvin Charles kind of turned that game around -- really turned our season around," Franklin said. "It got that stadium back involved and the fans back involved, and really we kind of made plays from that game on. We're one of the more explosive teams in the country."
Penn State also thrives by winning one-on-one matchups with receivers Chris Godwin, DeAndre Thompkins and Charles. Even though the Nittany Lions lack a 1,000-yard receiver, nine different players have a reception of 40 yards or more.
It's safe to say the days of Penn State trying to win conservatively are over. Even Hackenberg, whose past quarterback-coach relationship with Franklin was fuel for considerable speculation, approves of what he's seeing.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Pay this man -----> <a href="https://twitter.com/BallCoachJoeMo">@BallCoachJoeMo</a></p>-- Christian Hackenberg (@chackenberg1) <a href="https://twitter.com/chackenberg1/status/802652934215520256">November 26, 2016</a></blockquote> <script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
"It's kind of a change from what we've had in the past," Gaia said. [Moorhead] is always attacking. He's just a very energetic guy and always into the game. He's also an offensive genius, which also helps, too."
Wisconsin, which ranks third in scoring defense and has a nation-high 21 interceptions, will be a major test for Penn State. Against Ohio State and Michigan, Penn State's offense averaged only 13.5 points and 233.5 yards while going 4 of 25 on third downs.
Still, the fact that Penn State is in Indianapolis -- and not No. 2 Ohio State, not No. 5 Michigan, not 2015 national semifinalist Michigan State -- represents one of the more remarkable stories of the season. The division with Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio was won by Franklin and his two new coordinators, including the guy who keeps pestering his players and defenses with new questions.
"It's almost like you have the opportunity to help elevate Penn State back to the level it was before," Moorhead said in the spring. "I feel like I'm coming in at a time when Penn State is on the cusp of achieving big things again."
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