Trace McSorley and Mike Nebrich chatted recently, comparing notes on playing quarterback for Joe Moorhead.
“If you thought year one was fun,” he said, “year two is going to explode.”
Penn State’s offense transformed itself last year under Moorhead, the coordinator whose system generated 37.6 points per game and nationwide acclaim. If his track record holds, Moorhead could test the limits of Penn State’s offensive history this season. Which his players expect.
Penn State has averaged 40 points per game twice in its history, led by the 1994 team that a scored Big Ten-record scored 47 per game. Running back Saquon Barkley has looked at photos of that team, studied its roster of NFL talent and come to a conclusion.
“The weapons they had, the numbers they put up, it was amazing,” Barkley said. “We have those guys on our team, in my opinion. Why not try to be the best offense Penn State has ever had?”
Fresh of its best offensive season in nearly a decade, Penn State enters 2017 with even bigger expectations. Moorhead returns, as does nearly everyone who touched the ball offensively last season, save for receiver Chris Godwin and center Brian Gaia.
Fifth-year senior DaeSean Hamilton needs 19 catches to set the school’s career record, Saeed Blacknall emerged as a big-play threat in the Big Ten championship game and Juwan Johnson was named the offensive MVP of spring drills.
Further, tight end Mike Gesicki is an all-America candidate who could catch 50 passes, speedy receiver Brandon Polk is back after a redshirt season because of an injury and Irvin Charles joins Johnson in giving the Lions a pair of 6-4 receivers. And Penn State’s offensive line returns six players with starting experience and is deeper than at any time since the sanctions.
Then, of course, Barkley and McSorley bring with them more than 5,000 yards of combined offense and 50 touchdowns.
“I would hate to call a game against us,” Hamilton said.
The centerpiece is Moorhead, who brought his run-pass option offense from Fordham to Penn State and tailored it to the team’s components. The Lions were expectedly uneven in rolling out the offense, particularly in the first halves of games last season. Coach James Franklin attributed that to a young roster still feeling its way.
But following its second-half comeback against Minnesota last October, Penn State reveled in the offense, averaging 42.9 points over its last eight games. There’s evidence that the Lions could extend that run into this season.
At Fordham, Moorhead’s offense made dramatic strides from its first to second year. The Rams increased total yards by 18 percent, scoring by 20 percent and first downs by 50 percent. They also improved from 6-5 to 12-2 and made the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
In their quarterback discussion, Nebrich, a two-year starter at Fordham, explained to McSorley how the offense naturally expanded in its second season. Players were more comfortable, reacted more quickly and internalized the playbook more thoroughly. That allowed them to make the offense their second nature.
“Obviously once you get into year two, you know more, you understand the intricacies,” McSorley said. “You can work with coach Moorhead here and there. There’s a give and take.”
Hamilton, a fifth-year senior who played in three different offenses, said players now view the basics as instinctive, which wasn’t quite the case early last season. Many of the errors were mental, a byproduct of the learning curve.
Insisting that those jitters have dissolved, Hamilton said that Penn State expects to score 40 points per game this season.
“Try to stop the run, and we have weapons on the outside,” Hamilton said. “Try to take away the pass, we’ve got Trace, who’s good with his feet, and Saquon, the best running back in college football. That’s tough for anybody. We’re going to find a way to get our weapons the ball in space. It’s going to be hard to stop.”
Last year, Moorhead presented a study to his players, correlating Penn State’s most successful seasons with its best offensive performances. Prior to 2016, the teams with the four highest scoring averages went a combined 46-3 with two Big Ten titles and two undefeated seasons.
Penn State’s 2016 offense became just the third in school history to score 500 points in a season (albeit in 14 games). Barkley studied those numbers and sees promise in his group.
“The 1994 team was so dynamic and had so many weapons,” he said. “I feel like we can be similar to that.”
PENN STATE’S BEST OFFENSES
The Lions’ top offensive performances have produced some of their best seasons.
YEAR TOTAL POINTS PPG RECORD
1994 564 47.0 12-0
1971 484 40.3 11-1
2008 506 38.9 11-2
2016 526 37.6 11-3
1973 447 37.3 12-0