Decades before the 2017 Rose Bowl proved that he had made the right choice, Joe Moorhead had a career decision to make: The former Fordham quarterback could keep chasing auditions for football leagues in Europe as a player, or he could start work on his coaching career — or he could become a sportswriter.
For a very brief moment, the architect of Penn State’s Rose Bowl offense experimented with life as a newspaperman, working for weekly newspapers in Monroeville, Pa., and Lisbon, Ohio, while trying to play arena football.
“And then I was very, very lucky to get on at Pitt,” Moorhead says. The Pittsburgh native caught on as a graduate assistant with Walt Harris’ Panthers staff, and suddenly he didn’t need to chase a byline.
Now, he’s being asked by reporters to describe a Penn State offense that in just one season under his tutelage was transformed from one of the most anemic in the country (2015: 62nd in Offensive S&P+, 23.2 points per game) to one of the most lethal (2016: 18th in Offensive S&P+, 37.6 points per game).
“The best way to describe it if you’re looking for a singular phase is a ‘multi-tempo spread,’ ” he says. “Up-tempo at times, certainly we can play at that speed, but multi-tempo would be the most accurate way to describe it.
“It seems the cliché thing to say among coordinators these days is to describe your system as ‘multiple,’ ” he says, laughing.
Moorhead’s overhaul of the Nittany Lions’ offense was near total in terms of scheme and personnel, but his paramount focus during the rebuild was plain old enthusiasm. After years of listless play largely rooted in depth and talent issues from Penn State’s sanctions in the wake of the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky scandal, fun wasn’t really a prevailing vibe.
“We were going through camps, and I didn’t see that spark or that energy at first. It took some time. I borrowed my philosophy from [Texas defensive coordinator] Todd Orlando: ‘We don’t work. We play ball,’” Moorhead says.
“I can remember finishing a series early in spring practice last season — we scored on the drive and I went back to the huddle. We’re slapping hands, nothing really noticeable, and Coach stops us about that, not about the play,” quarterback Trace McSorley says. “He said ‘You might not believe it right now, but we’re going to do a lot of scoring, and you have to enjoy it. You have to celebrate the hard work.’”
“There’s a difference between confidence and cockiness,” Moorhead says. “We want our kids to celebrate success, but also expect it. We spend a lot of time preparing. When we’re fortunate enough to call the right play and the kids execute, we’re going to celebrate that.”
Moorhead’s hire didn’t inspire celebration among Penn State fans, but he was very well known inside the industry for his work as head coach at Fordham. Moorhead’s offenses put up video game numbers (the Rams averaged 14 yards per reception for the entire 2015 season), but there was caution among Nittany Lions diehards — weaned on tight ends and a smash-mouth ground philosophy — about an FCS system that often utilized just one running back and three or four wide receivers.
Running back Saquon Barkley didn’t seem to mind — he averaged 5.5 yards and scored 18 touchdowns in a “spread” that favored Penn State’s talented backfield (540 rushing attempts to 391 passes) as much as any smashmouth attack, dispelling whatever antiquated stigma might remain regarding a “spread.”
“There are a lot of different branches to the spread offense and manifestations to it, but that’s what makes the game interesting to me,” Moorhead says. “I think a lot of people were wondering how our offense was going to translate to the Big Ten, and the Big Ten East in particular. It certainly worked well against Holy Cross, Lehigh and Bucknell, but there were questions how it would apply to defenses at Ohio State and Michigan State and so on. But some of the most creative and effective defenses I’ve ever seen in coaching came at the FCS level.”
There are plenty of successful examples of Moorhead’s philosophy in action, but the game-ending interception in an early-season loss at Pittsburgh might define the new psyche of the Nittany Lions offense. Head coach James Franklin sought fearlessness in play calling, and that’s what Moorhead provides: Down by three with just over two minutes remaining, McSorley went deep for a potential game-winning touchdown pass while in field goal range. The pass was picked off in the end zone — and the Lions suffered an agonizing defeat. Like most of the system’s pass calls, there was the option for a lesser gain on a shorter route, but McSorley was never chided for taking the big swing.
“I can remember from watching the cut-ups … the play that we called had the opportunity to move the ball deep down the field on a double move if we had a certain coverage,” Moorhead says. “There’s a safer check-down call, but Trace went for the home run, and it didn’t pan out. I look back now and hindsight’s 20-20. … There’s a million calls I could make in that situation, but I think the mindset and the mentality at the outset of the season was that we were going to err on the side of aggressiveness rather than caution.”
Aggression helped bring a Big Ten title to Happy Valley. If there’s a bookend to McSorley’s game-ending INT vs. Pitt, it’s a comeback win over Minnesota. At 2–2, PSU was still an unknown quantity when McSorley took another home run cut, down 13–3, and hit receiver Irvin Charles for an 80-yard catch-and-run to catalyze the Lions’ first win in conference play. Two weeks later, PSU won a fistfight against Ohio State at home and didn’t look back, closing the regular season on an eight-game dash.
“We really started to feel it and found that rhythm as we went along. I think the offensive line stepping up was huge, especially because of the attention they’d received, and it really was just a case of senior leaders, of guys stepping up and saying ‘enough,’ everything else is over. This is something new,” McSorley says.
And that same aggression almost beat a surging USC team in the Rose Bowl. Critics can point to McSorley interceptions that likely cost PSU that shootout, but Franklin’s philosophy is that fearless play got Penn State out of the last throes of sanction-ball and back into the national conversation.
Now there’s an inflated level of expectation to offset Moorhead’s quiet optimism. McSorley is one of the best returning QBs in the league, if not the nation. Running back Miles Sanders is poised for a breakout season as a complement to Barkley, and an offensive line once beleaguered by a lack of depth cut its sacks allowed from 39 in 2015 to 24 in ’16, the same total as elite units at Alabama and Wisconsin.
Even with the enhanced expectations, there aren’t any dramatic overhauls in formation or personnel on tap.
“I think that might be part of the thing that makes our offense interesting. We don’t look to reinvent ourselves every year,” Moorhead says. “The base and foundation of our offense are what they are.”
But familiarity allows for a chance at mastery. According to McSorley, Penn State is working to better utilize skill players in space, be it at a no-huddle tempo or as slow as any Big Ten I-formation loyalist would appreciate.
“There’s a lot of exciting stuff. Through social media I’ve been in contact with and made friends with some ex-Fordham players. They’ve been telling me, ‘You think Year 1 in that offense is fun, just wait until Year 2,’ ” McSorley says.
That’s no longer a promise — if anything it’s a threat to the other national powers. And Moorhead has gone from an FCS sideshow to a bona fide head coaching candidate, having already turned down overtures from UConn and Minnesota after just one year in Happy Valley. (“My family is really, really happy here. Honestly that’s very important,” he says.) Not that he wants to talk about his newfound fame.
“I kind of approach it with the philosophy I was raised with, just blue collar. Shut your mouth, work hard and let the results speak for themselves. The only thing that’s really changed from the past four years at Fordham to now is the logo on my shirt. The approach is the same, the system is the same. We’re just lucky to have had the results we did.”
Written by Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey) of SBNation.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 Big Ten Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.