Moorhead brought unexpected offensive power to Penn State in first year

UNIVERSITY PARK — Joe Moorhead’s impact on Penn State’s offense has been enormous in his first season as coordinator, with the Nittany Lions putting up substantially better numbers across the board than last year.

Penn State’s scoring average is up more than 10 points per game, from 23.2 to 33.6, and the number is higher than even Moorhead expected in year one.

“I didn’t give them a goal on points per game, but did a little bit of research and saw that Penn State offenses who averaged at least 30 points a game have had a pretty successful record,” Moorhead said. “So we kind of talked about that as a general number that we wanted to approach.”

From explosive plays, to balancing the run and pass, to avoiding turnovers, the Lions have become more efficient as the season has progressed. There are still lulls, though, particularly in the first half, which makes halftime adjustments all the more important.

Moorhead described the process that takes place at halftime as the coaches discuss changes with James Franklin.

“We go in as an entire coaching staff, and Coach Franklin sits in with us,” he said. “We go over each formation and diagnose the information, see what coverages they’re playing, the fronts, the pressures, and we match that up with what our game plan is, and kind of see what we have that was working, what we have that fits, what we have in the game plan that maybe we haven’t called and would work better in the second half.

“Then we keep a menu of kind of our entire system in there and say, alright, we didn’t have this during the week, we’re seeing this look, this may work, and we break off and the coaches get with their players individually and then I kind of bring everybody up at the end and talk to them one last time before we head out.”

There are some obvious areas where Penn State’s offense can improve, most glaring being third-down efficiency. The Lions have converted only 25 percent this season (24-of-95). Moorhead called that “not good at all.”

One thing that hasn’t being talked about much is the recent decline in quarterback Trace McSorley’s accuracy numbers. The Lions take a lot of deep shots down the field — low-percentage throws that can impact completion percentage — but the numbers show McSorley hasn’t been as effective as Moorhead had hoped.

For the season, McSorley is completing just 55.2 percent, and in his last four games he’s at only 46 percent (49-for-106).

Moorhead said his goal is for the quarterback to complete 65 percent of his passes.

“Certainly 50-55 percent is not where we’d like him to be at,” Moorhead said. “He’d like to be at 65 percent or higher, but I think he is trending in the right direction. I know not the past four games in terms of what the percentage is, but overall throughout the season, I think he’s getting toward what we want him to be.”

As with any statistic, there’s often another one that someone can mention as a counterpoint. Despite McSorley’s low completion percentage in the last four games, Penn State’s scoring is up nine points per game and total offense has increased more than 100 yards.

Chalk it all up to the players getting more and more comfortable with the new offensive system.

“I think it’s the kids settling in and understanding what we’re doing and why it pertains to doing it in a game,” Moorhead said. “Toward game four we made a little bit more of a conscious decision, where Coach Franklin and I had this discussion of getting Trace more involved in the run game.”

He went on to add, “There are things within our offensive system that we didn’t quit doing, but we emphasized other things. Once we made Trace more of a threat in the run game, I think that opened things up for Saquon (Barkley).”

In his last three games, Barkley has topped 200 yards twice and had 99 in the other. He now leads the Big Ten in rushing with 888 yards, and after Saturday’s game at Purdue, there were some fans chanting, “Barkley for Heisman.”

“You look at some of the things he does on the field, either running the ball or catching it, he does things that are special,” Moorhead said. “Obviously the past few game his production has ramped up, and hopefully he continues on that trend.

“Saquon is a unique talent, a special football player who has those kind of tools. His ceiling is extremely high. The best thing about that is his work ethic and his character match his playing ability, so when you combine all of those things, tremendous athlete, great football player, great person, great work ethic, I think the sky’s the limit for him.”