Re­plac­ing Moorhead not easy

PSU OC leaves to be head coach at Mis­sis­sippi State

The Hazleton Standard-Speaker - - SPORTS - DON­NIE COLLINS Staff Writer

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.

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, run­pass-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 Moor- head 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 gamechanger 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.”

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 Starksville, 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.

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 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.

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 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.

Even af­ter Mis­sis­sippi State in­tro­duces Moorhead to its fans some­time to­day, 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.

PHOEBE SHEE­HAN / CEN­TRE DAILY TIMES

Penn State of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Joe Moorhead speaks to re­por ters dur­ing the teams’ an­nual pre­sea­son Me­dia Day in Au­gust. Moorhead agreed Tues­day night to be­come the next head coach at Mis­sis­sippi State.

ABBY DREY / CEN­TRE DAILY TIMES

Penn State of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Joe Moorhead conducts a drill dur­ing a Nit­tany Lions’ spring prac­tice in 2016.

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