A Closer Look At Joe Moorhead’s Offensive Philosophy
Penn State and James Franklin announced last Saturday the hiring of their new offensive coordinator, former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead. The Nittany Lions’ struggles on the offensive side of the ball were well-documented this year, and culminated in the firing of John Donovan. The nation-wide search concluded with the hiring of a man with the following credentials: turning a 1-10 program into a 12-2 one in two years and most recently, going 9-3 while boasting one of the best offenses in the FCS. Fordham had the fourth-most touchdowns in the nation and 19th-most yards.
So statistically, Moorhead’s team played the kind of offense that Penn State fans would love to see. He was an offensive coach his entire career leading up to his tenure at Fordham, so while his offensive coordinator certainly had a big role in the Rams’ offense, Moorhead also was immensely important.
In the interest of saying that Joe Moorhead is a good hire and not just basing that off statistics, we took a look at the game film from when Fordham opened its season against a common opponent with Penn State: Army. Here’s the entire game (and the source of the following GIFs), if you want to take a look for yourself.
Before we get started, here are some things to keep in mind. Fordham won 37-35 and Penn State won 20-14 against the same Army team that ended up going 2-10. Fordham hung 445 yards on a Black Knight defense that couldn’t solve a quarterback making his first start, and Penn State had 263 yards (Fordham outgained Army by 56 yards, Penn State was outgained by 29). Army was the same team in both games, and Penn State is unquestionably the most talented team of the group, so it came down to play-calling and execution. Fordham played like it was the best team of the three, and here are some key examples why.
Fordham had a very young and very inexperienced offensive line, and many players made their debut against Army. They didn’t play well by any means (the unit took three penalties on Fordham’s first drive, which still ended with a touchdown), nor did they work very well in pass protection (allowing three inopportune sacks of a mobile quarterback). But when the time came to let star running back Chase Edmonds do his thing, the line stepped up.
There wasn’t much of a blitz by Army, but the line attacks and makes enough people on both sides of the ball fall down, giving Edmonds something to work with. Fordham is one of the rare teams that Penn State’s offensive line actually has more experience than — but holes that wide for Saquon Barkley were few and far between. Penn State’s line is expected to improve next year as it garners more experience in the offseason, but Moorhead had his team playing well at Fordham — why not in Happy Valley?
Later that drive, quarterback Kevin Anderson got his team into the redzone with a roll-out that John Donovan would kill to have the chance to run. Hackenberg, while not a slow guy by any means, is not a Kevin Anderson (or, you know, a McSorley, Stevens, or Zembiec). Moorhead is accustomed to working with a player who isn’t necessarily a dual threat, but throws first with running as option 1b, not 2. If Hackenberg stays another year, great, hopefully the offensive scheme caters to a pro-style quarterback. But if the staff is as stubborn as it was in 2015, the three aforementioned options at quarterback are built for this quick bootleg and rip down the sideline:
That play brought up first and goal from the five-yard line, but Fordham took two false starts to move back 10 yards. Then — and sit down if you aren’t already — called a redzone screen play that worked. The team picked up nine yards, then a few plays later scored on a standard goal-line rush.
The offense gave Edmonds the ball as much as possible, and the commentator said, “He’s their most dynamic player.” Moorhead wasn’t afraid to ride his No. 1 back, and he’ll get more of the same with Barkley next season.
Later in the first quarter, Anderson and Edmonds combined for a big gain on a play-action pass. That play was preceded by a deep pass to 6-foot-8 tight end Phazahn Odom and a few tricky runs where Anderson and Edmonds both ran, and the defense had to guess who had the ball each time. Rather than force yardage, they let the defense know who Fordham’s weapons are, then spread the ball around. Here’s the big gain by Edmonds, which was not unlike one of Barkley’s best plays of the year.
— Onward State (@OnwardState) September 26, 2015
Once the team reached the redzone again, Anderson saw his huge tight end in single coverage in the endzone, and he automatically threw it. Odom didn’t hang on, but the lack of plays like that was one of many criticisms lobbed at Donovan this year. Gesicki, Carter, and Breneman (for a short time) should have been one of Penn State’s best positional groups this year, but were used as blockers while Hackenberg’s redzone attempts consisted of screen passes for no gain or 50/50 balls to Geno Lewis.
That Fordham drive ended with a great individual effort touchdown run from Edmonds, with some decent blocks. What’s interesting is that play came on third and goal from the 14 — the exact kind of call fans hate if it doesn’t work and love if it does. As the many runs and screens on third and long proved for Penn State this year, that call wouldn’t have worked for the Nittany Lions and their personnel.
At the 14:01 mark in the second quarter (40:18 in the game video), Anderson hit Edmonds over the middle for an eventual 87-yard gain. It was nothing more than a mis-match and blown coverage, but it’s an interesting statistic that Fordham’s biggest play of their season opener was 28 yards longer than Penn State’s longest of the season (Saeed Blacknall’s 59-yard catch against Michigan State).
Two failed plays followed the huge gain, bringing up third and goal from the six. Fordham had the perfect play call ready to go, and Anderson had the same great roll-out, this time to his right side, before firing the ball to an open Odom. Odom sprinted from the opposite side of the field and outran the defender who was supposed to cover him, so imagine what the speedy Brandon Polk could do in that situation. Odom dropped a sure touchdown, and Fordham kicked a chip-shot field goal on the next play.
Feelings on that field goal are probably pretty positive, but think about the equivalent of that call at Penn State. Fordham was the underdog entering the game, so kicking on fourth down is the safe play but also a decision that was hopefully thought about twice. The Nittany Lions faced a similar situation against Michigan. As the underdogs, the bold thing to do is attack on fourth down and goal, trying to score as many points as possible and pull off the upset. Instead, Penn State accepted multiple field goals from inside the five-yard line and lost by 12 points. Franklin and Donovan seemed to always pick the safe play in those situations — we’ll see how Moorhead thinks soon enough.
At the very least, he closed out the first half the opposite of how Penn State did. The Nittany Lions, with the ball at the 25-yard line with one timeout, down by four points to a ranked opponent and with 51 seconds to work with, ran the clock out. Fordham had 27 seconds left with two timeouts, although it was in Army’s territory at the 40. Fordham called a rush, timeout, incomplete shot to the endzone, completed deep ball over the middle, and field goal to extend its lead before the half. The Rams made the right call in going for it, and the Nittany Lions’ passiveness played a major role in their loss.
Fordham’s first drive of the second half was also its first that ended with a punt. It then started off the fourth quarter with a pseudo screen play. Rather than line up a pack of wide receivers who were obviously going to block for one another, the Rams took off and drew defenders away from the intended receiver.
Any game in which a team puts up 30-plus points and 400-plus yards will look good, but the way Fordham finished the game raises questions.
It started with a botched hold on an extra point, which fluked into a two-point conversion. Here are the drive summaries of the next and final four drives:
- Three plays, -8 yards, punt.
- Four plays, -5 yards, turnover on downs.
- Three plays, -8 yards, punt.
- One play, -6 yards on a kneel, ending the game.
Those first three combine for an average of just under two minutes per drive. One first down would have made a huge difference, but the team couldn’t comfortably finish off the Black Knights. Hindsight makes everything clearer, but while the decision to run almost every play is fundamentally correct, more risks could have been taken that would have further limited Army’s chances to come back.
One reason why the Rams didn’t get a first down, and Penn State hopefully learned this lesson too, is the infamous shotgun formation on a short down. Penn State’s fortunes would usually end with Barkley getting stuffed because he began his rush with no momentum, but that’s at least preferable to Fordham’s center snapping the ball way over Anderson’s head. Edmonds recovered the ball for a loss of 21 yards with his team no longer in field goal range. That fact that this was in the middle of the fourth quarter of a six-point game makes it even more clear that the call was not the right one.
Fordham’s defense held on to win the game, a major victory for the FCS program against a scrappy Army team that scared Penn State. Defense isn’t under Moorhead’s purview in his new job, but for three and a half quarters in the season opener, he proved it’s a good thing that offense is. He was thought very highly of at his former school, as the university president penned a heartfelt open letter saying goodbye. James Franklin said that Moorhead will be in an evaluating role for the TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia while Ricky Rahne fills in as interim offensive coordinator, but once the clock hits zero, it’s Moorhead’s show. Let’s see if he can bring his offensive prowess from the Bronx to Beaver Stadium.