When offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead made the jump from the FCS level at Fordham right to the Big Ten, there were many questions surrounding his offensive capacity entering this season. Would the same schemes and tactics that worked against the Lehighs and Lafayettes of college football hold up against the Ohio States and Michigans? Was the jump too sudden? Did he have the talent on his roster to aid his learning curve?
As annoying as they were, all the play clocks that ran out with quarterback Trace McSorley retrieving the play call from the sideline while under center and all the victory formations taken out of the shotgun ended up refuting all of those question marks regarding JoeMo’s capability as a Power Five coordinator. This season, the Nittany Lions averaged 37.6 points and 432.6 yards per game.
Because of the success of this explosive offensive unit, we are featuring the top five plays that we saw from Moorhead’s playbook this season. This is not simply a list of the season’s best plays. Many of the best moments were the result of the Nittany Lions’ talent on the offensive side of the ball and McSorley’s ability to revitalize broken plays.
Instead, we are looking at the X’s and O’s and ranking the times when JoeMo’s prowess on the sidelines, in the film room, and at practice made the difference for Penn State.
5. Saquon Barkley 44-yard touchdown reception vs. Iowa
Moorhead excelled in maximizing Barkley’s touches this year, utilizing him as a threat on the ground and through the air, in addition to his blocking duties. Many times, running backs wrack up receptions on short passes when no other viable options downfield are open. Moorhead though, repeatedly incorporated Barkley into his passing game, giving the Nittany Lions another quick-footed weapon through the air.
With four receivers on the other side of the field, Barkley here sneaks open and takes it in for an easy score in a footrace against an overmatched linebacker attempting to cover him.
4. Trace McSorley to DeAndre Thompkins on 4th and 16 vs. Pitt
One of the focal points of Moorhead’s offense was his aggression and the success that he had due to McSorley’s arm strength and the skillset of his receivers. This dynamic aspect of the Nittany Lions offense enabled them to always seem to be one play away from changing the tides of games, whether that be in the Big Ten Championship, in the Rose Bowl, or at Heinz Field. While that aggression on this final drive against Pitt ultimately resulted in a game-losing interception, few remember that two plays earlier, Moorhead risked the entire game by taking a shot way downfield on 4th and 16.
With four receivers going long, McSorley has no close options and is forced to take a chance deep. The route that Thompkins runs on this play though allows him to get inside his defender, pick up the big gain, and give the Nittany Lions an opportunity to win the game. Two plays later though, Moorhead refusing to back down or play conservatively cost Penn State the game by going for the end zone from the 31-yard line with 2:15 to play. But, as Penn State fans learned once again in the Rose Bowl, live by the deep ball, die by the deep ball.
3. Saquon Barkley 57-yard rushing touchdown vs. Iowa
Part of the success of this team’s explosive offense was the threats that both McSorley and Barkley posed on the ground out of the read option. Defenders had to account for two of the conference’s best runners on every play. Barkley was second in the Big Ten in rushing yards with 1,496 and first in touchdowns with 18 while McSorley had the fourth most rushing yards and touchdowns for a quarterback with 365 and seven respectively.
On this play against Iowa, McSorley’s run-bluff before the handoff distracts the front five who are blitzing, which gives Barkley room to run towards the outside. Barkley then accelerates downfield, running for a 57-yard touchdown.
2. Tommy Stevens 13-yard rushing touchdown vs. Iowa
In addition to the way that Moorhead optimized the athleticism of both quarterbacks on this year’s roster, this second half red zone call was one of my favorite plays of the season because of the badass hits that Tommy Stevens delivered en route to the pylon. In a limited sample size this season, Stevens showed that he is a dynamic talent despite being a backup and Moorhead gave him the opportunities to do so.
Lined up as a slot receiver, Stevens goes in motion and takes the handoff on a jet sweep (Perhaps the greatest play in NCAA Football 13, RIP). The formation with two quarterbacks on the field initially confuses the already battered Hawkeye defense and then Stevens proceeds to body his way into the end zone. The creative play call was genius but even more so, it demonstrated Moorhead’s understanding of his players and faith in them, not at specific positions but as athletes.
If you haven’t noticed, we really loved that Iowa game, which was probably Penn State’s most complete game of the season.
1. Trace McSorley to DaeSean Hamilton 54-yard flea flicker vs. Indiana
On an otherwise sluggish day, this bold play call against Indiana gave the Nittany Lions a much needed jolt and was the turning point in a game that Penn State ultimately won 45-31. The handoff to Barkley was countered by Indiana’s run blitz, which had stifled him all game. With the linebackers anticipating the run, the pitch back to McSorley allowed him to make an unpressured throw downfield to Hamilton, which put the ball inside the five-yard line.
While everyone loves a properly executed flea flicker, what makes this play so impressive is the aggression and conviction that Moorhead showed, even on a day when few things were going right. Trailing by three in the fourth quarter against a 5-4 team in a game that could’ve prematurely cost the Nittany Lions their hopes at a division title, Moorhead took a risk with this gutsy call and it paid off, triggering 24 points from Penn State over the last 13 minutes of the game.