COLLINS: Penn State can find an offensive coordinator, but replacing Joe Moorhead not easy

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
  • Joe Moorhead has accepted the head coaching position at Mississippi State.
  • Penn State now faces the tough task of replacing Moorhead as the team's offensive coordinator.
  • Moorhead's offense at Penn State this season is seventh in the nation in points per game.

In May 2016, Joe Moorhead visited Northeast Pennsylvania for the first and, it turns out, only time as Penn State’s offensive coordinator, giving a speech at the Greater Scranton Chapter of the Alumni Association’s Penn State Night at Fiorelli’s in Peckville.

Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, front left, and coach James Franklin check notes during NCAA college football practice Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, in State College, Pa. Moorhead was hired this week as Mississippi State's head coach.

He was barely Penn State’s offensive coordinator at that point. On the job six months, he had only coached in one game, and it was a game that didn’t matter. The previous month’s Blue-White Game. His high-tempo, no-huddle, run-pass-option offense made the Penn State defense’s third- and fourth-teamers look like, well, third- and fourth-teamers. Still, it remained difficult to predict where Moorhead could help Penn State get. After all, he had never proven anything against Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan.

But here’s the thing about Moorhead that was learned that night and reinforced often over the next year and a half: There was no doubt it was going to work.

Work as well as it did? Maybe that was a bit unpredictable. They went from 101st in the nation in points per game in 2015 to 21st in 2016 to seventh in 2017. What statistic means more to an offensive coordinator than points scored?

But work? And work well enough to be an absolute game-changer for Penn State football? With little proof, he provided a convincing argument at the time.

“It tires me out just looking at it,” he said of his offense’s pace that night, “never mind playing in it.”

Well-deserved promotion: Moorhead accepted the head coaching position at Mississippi State on Tuesday night, and when he did so, he didn’t break many hearts in Happy Valley. Pretty much everyone saw this coming, and if not for the job in Starkville, then another one that would inevitably have been offered shortly after that. At Penn State, Moorhead’s offenses were nothing short of historic, and better than that, they reached historic levels.

He would have been a terrific hire for any program that figures it’s close to being a really consistent contender, because the offense is as easy to learn as he pitched it to be. Since the Bulldogs were ranked in the top 20 before Dan Mullen left to take the Florida job on Sunday, it’s not a stretch to suggest Moorhead can have this team on par with where Mullen had it for the foreseeable future, if not better.

When a hot shot new coach strolls into town, making projections that hardly seem believable, it’s easy to pass that off as little more than bravado. Moorhead doesn’t come off as that arrogant, though. Which is probably why just about everybody around college football really likes him.

PSU must be meticulous in search: That’s why Penn State has to be fairly meticulous in how it goes about replacing him.

It’s difficult for a coach to walk that line between confidence and arrogance as straight and for as long as Moorhead did before players stop buying into the words and start buying into reality. In many ways, Penn State’s offense adopted that Moorhead damn-the-torpedoes mentality in every positive way it could.

In two seasons with Moorhead calling the plays, the Nittany Lions lost five games, and they were blown out of the water in just one of them — and even that one, against Michigan in September of 2016, happened in what seems like another era. They scored 39 and lost to Pittsburgh. They scored 49 and lost to USC. They scored 38 and lost to Ohio State. And they won a handful of other games — against Minnesota and the Buckeyes and Iowa and Indiana and Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game — in which they made every big play they needed to make down the stretch.

Attitude a key: That’s a great offense led by good players, sure. But it’s also part attitude. There were times when players like Trace McSorley or Saquon Barkley or Chris Godwin or DaeSean Hamilton or Mike Gesicki could have shrugged and thought, “What we’re doing isn’t working,” and once that doubt settles in, your offense is dead where it stands. But those players competed with the same attitude Moorhead brought to that dinner in Peckville in May of 2016.

What he wanted to do would work. And it would work well. The players Penn State had could make it work as well as anybody.

Penn State has the potential to be just fine. Unlike the last time Franklin searched for an offensive coordinator, he won’t also be looking for a philosophy. The Nittany Lions have the playbook now. It’s Moorhead’s book, and it’s a recipe for success, as long as it’s built on intelligently.

Where Franklin will have to be careful, though, is that he’ll have to find the man who can continue making Penn State’s offensive players feel as confident in what they’re doing as Moorhead did. Because in the long run that, as much as the system itself, is what moved Penn State’s offense into the 21st century more than anything else.

They’ll be able to find a capable coordinator, because they have an offense in place.

They might not find it so easy, though, to replace the man.