STATE COLLEGE — Before becoming a football coach, and while still aching to pursue a career as a pro quarterback, Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead was a sports writer.
He covered high schools sports for a weekly newspaper in western Pennsylvania before signing with (and quickly getting cut by) an arena football team.
On Saturday, Moorhead the writer would have loved Moorhead the coach.
The coordinator who made Penn State’s offense the talk of the Big Ten talked back to those who view his scheme, and quarterback, as fluky benefactors of the long ball. Specifically, Moorhead rejected the idea that last season Trace McSorley merely picked the deepest receiver, chucked the ball downfield and hoped for the best.
Moorhead called that a “gross mischaracterization” of Penn State and McSorley. Then, he went further.
“That's, in a lot of ways, ridiculous at best and, quite frankly, asinine at worst,” the coach said.
With nine returning starters, including All-America candidates McSorley, Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki, Penn State might have the Big Ten’s most enviable offense this season. The Lions field a variety of unique threats with a coordinator who loves plotting ways to position them.
But at Penn State’s football media day, Moorhead took a moment from his strategic planning to respond to what he considered ill-informed criticism, particularly of McSorley.
Penn State’s offense certainly dismantled opponents downfield in 2016. Nearly 30 percent of McSorley’s completions covered 20 or more yards, including 20 touchdown passes.
Many were spectacular, like the 33-yard touchdown pass to Mike Gesicki in the Big Ten title game or the 72-yarder to Chris Godwin against USC in the Rose Bowl.
Other deep shots didn’t fare as well, such as the late throw in the end zone against Pitt or the final offensive play against USC. Both passes were intercepted, ending potential victory rallies. As a result, Moorhead believes they formed the perception that McSorley threw deep and prayed.
“It’s just patently false,” Moorhead said. “It diminishes what Trace does for us offensively.”
Franklin says there may be fewer big plays this season: Head coach James Franklin has said he suspects Penn State’s offense might not generate such big-play breathlessness this season. Godwin, now turning heads with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was McSorley’s primary deep target. Godwin caught 17 passes of 20 yards or longer, including touchdowns of 72 yards (USC) and 59 (Michigan State).
This season, Franklin wants to rely more on first- and second-down efficiency, short-yardage conversions and a higher completion percentage (McSorley’s was 58 percent). He still expects big plays, but perhaps not so often.
“I don’t think you can say, year in and year out, you’re going to hang your hat on being as explosive as we were last year,” Franklin said. “You look at the 50-50 balls; that was kind of Chris Godwin’s deal. He was as good as anybody I’ve been around, him and Jordan Matthews, in terms of winning those 50-50 balls.”
Moorhead doesn't accept term "jump ball:" Moorhead, who played quarterback at Fordham and also coaches Penn State’s quarterbacks, doesn’t accept the terms “50-50 ball” or “jump ball.” They don’t accurately convey the role throwing into single coverage plays in his offense.
“A jump ball to me is a Hail Mary at the end of the half or the end of the game,” he said.
What Moorhead looks for is the spot-thrown ball in a favorable situation. McSorley’s touchdown pass to Gesicki in the Big Ten title game, for instance, was ladled onto the tight end’s back shoulder, where only he could catch it.
“The overwhelming majority of the things Trace did were in the construct of our offense, to the right person, and on footwork,” Moorhead said.
Philosophy won't change: In between helping to coach his son’s baseball team Moorhead this summer drew up new ways to devise mismatches. They all live within the same base philosophy that he will not change.
“We want stretch the defense horizontally and vertically and we’re going to create mismatches by number or personnel,” Moorhead said.
Penn State’s players think their offense brings 40-point potential to the season, and Barkley has said it has the talent to challenge 1994’s as the program’s highest-scoring. Asked whether he’s facing pressure for an encore, Moorhead smiled.
“There’s no pressure in my mind,” he said.