Punt. Punt. Punt. Interception. Punt. Punt. Downs. End of Game. That was the drive sequence for the Penn State offense in their second half against Temple, a game the Nittany Lions embarrassingly lost 27-10. Some in the fan base had been clamoring for a change at offensive coordinator from John Donovan during the 2014 season, and some would still have some patience left after the Temple debacle, but looking back now, that was the day that truly signaled Penn State needed an offensive overhaul, or else James Franklin’s dream coaching position at Penn State would not last very long. Donovan was mercifully let go November 29, 2015, the day after a shellacking at the hands of the Michigan State Spartans. Who James Franklin decided to replace Donovan with would be the defining decision of his football life, and man did he hit it out of the park.
Franklin decided to move completely away from his coaching tree and hire Fordham head Coach Joe Moorhead, who had turned the Bronx-based program around quickly with an up-tempo spread offense spearheaded by FCS All-American running back Chase Edmonds. Though at the time of his hiring in mid-December the draft status of Christian Hackenberg was not publicly known, those inside the program at the least had a strong inclination that he would not be returning, making Trace McSorley the heir apparent. The fit seemed good on paper, with an offense led by the dynamic Saquon Barkley and dual-threat McSorley, but questions remained about an offensive line that returned many of the same pieces as the porous 2014 and 2015 versions, and about McSorley as a quarterback. Also, amid rumors that Coach Franklin was very involved in the offense in those two seasons, it was not clear how much autonomy Moorhead would have.
Thankfully, it appears like he was given full control, and it boy did it show.
While the rest of this column might read like a love letter, it’s pertinent to note that this offense in its first year under Moorhead was far from perfect, as it struggled on third downs, especially in short yardage situations, and still gave up too many negative plays in the run game and pressure in the passing game. That being said, if the Penn State offense had a theme song this year, it surely would be “A Whole New World” from Aladdin.
One of the most recurring complaints of the Donovan era was that it seemed like there was no purpose game-to-game, if you will. There wasn’t anything you could point to and say “this is what the Penn State offense is going to try to do, and they’re good at it.” Moorhead established an identity quickly of continuity of personnel, making sure Barkley, the best playmaker on the team, and maybe in all of college football would be used in a variety of ways, including in ways in which he never got the ball at all, and taking shots down the field to a plethora of dependable downfield targets. He showed trust in Mike Gesicki, who was coming off a terrible year in 2015, and it led to Gesicki becoming the most dangerous tight end in the Big Ten Conference. He showed trust in a young and developing offensive line by throwing the ball down the field, while also making sure they were not left in bad situations by moving the pocket, leaving in extra pass protectors, and, until injuries started to pile up, more or less sticking with the same unit. Most Importantly, he trusted Trace McSorley from the first game on. He continued to let McSorley take shots down the field after his costly interception against Pitt, something that is hard to envision the reactionary offensive staff of the first two years of the Franklin tenure doing.
Still, the offensive game-plans were not absent of criticism against them the entire season. Up until the second half of Penn State’s comeback win in week five against Minnesota, something was missing from the offensive puzzle. Whether out of conscious plan, or necessity to save a season, Moorhead unleashed McSorley as a threat in the run game, keeping the defense more honest against Saquon Barkley and setting the tone for the success the Penn State offense had for the rest of the season. It’s the type of season-changing adjustment that makes Moorhead the MVP (Most Valuable Person) of the Penn State football team this year. From that point on, the Penn State offense could hurt you in a multitude of ways, even with a number of offensive line injuries that saw the top three offensive tackles go down with injuries. Remarkably, it seemed as if the offense really hit its stride when the offensive line was the most diminished. The second half performances of the games against Michigan State, Wisconsin, and the third quarter against USC will live in Penn State lore forever, and it seemed like every single play Moorhead called worked to perfection.
Penn State improved from a paltry 348 yards per game in 2015, 104th in the country, to a much healthier 435 yards per game in 2016, good for 49th in the country. The real statistical difference came in scoring offense where Moorhead led Penn State to a jump from the 98th ranked scoring offense at 23.2 points per game to the 18th ranked scoring offense at 37.6 points per game. Only being ranked 49th in the country in total offense might be surprising to some who saw the Penn State offense be nearly unstoppable at the end of the year, but compared to the previous two years, it was evident to everyone paying attention the impact Joe Moorhead had on the 2016 Penn State Nittany Lions
It is unclear how much longer Coach Moorhead will still be on staff here before he gets hired away, as he received a plenty of interest this offseason. Penn State fans should enjoy him while he is still here, as he just might be the most important person in the program.