In Year One, Joe Moorhead and Brent Pry Help Land Penn State Among The Best
Before the season, people were questioning Joe Moorhead and Brent Pry — James Franklin’s new staff hires. But after this overwhelmingly successful season there’s no question he has the right guys for the job.
Moorhead came in from the FCS ranks — Fordham, to be exact — where he had plenty of success as head coach. The question about Moorhead wasn’t whether or not he could coach a successful offense, as his time at Fordham proved he could. The main lingering question was if he could successfully coach at the Division I level in the toughest conference in college football known for top-notch defense. Needless to say he answered that question.
Moorhead’s scheme is not too unlike our old friend John Donovan’s, but the small differences have made him much more successful in only his first season. To give Donovan a bit of credit, Moorhead didn’t have to work with a quarterback that wasn’t a fit for his scheme like Christian Hackenberg clashed with Donovan’s. Both coordinators relied on a spread offense utilizing the shotgun formation at all times, and at least three wide receivers. Donovan and Moorhead also gave star running back Saquon Barkley the ball plenty of times, and he found success under both, but it’s Moorhead’s simple scheme that lead to Penn State’s offensive explosion this year.
Donovan’s passing game relied on bubble screens that rarely went for a first down, and short slant routes that were often completed, but completed short. He rarely used the tight end, and also rarely let Hackenberg throw the ball deep to his outstanding wide receivers. Moorhead’s scheme is entirely different in this sense.
He implemented a zone-read based offense that gives the quarterback the choice to pass or hand it off to Barkley, or keep it himself. The read option really sets up the pass game, which Moorhead thrived with this season, even without Christian Hackenberg’s arm. Moorhead uses tight end Mike Gesicki often, because he is a huge target that creates a mismatch. His passing game mainly utilizes the deep ball, allowing his wide receivers to get downfield and create separation like Blacknall and Hamilton did against the Wisconsin secondary on Sunday. He also allows Barkley to get in on the passing game shown on the wheel route he ran to score the go-ahead touchdown last week. Moorhead’s offensive prefers the run but can also use the pass, creating a balanced offense that’s nearly impossible to stop.
Compared to one of the conference greats, Ohio State, Penn State actually stacks up pretty well, especially when you merely observe both teams. Urban Meyer is one of the greatest coaches in the country, but this year his offense isn’t nearly as explosive as it’s been in recent years. Penn State found a way to beat the Buckeyes, and a few others came very close to doing the same. Whereas if Barkley is consistently stuffed at the line (like he was against Wisconsin), Moorhead allows McSorley throw the ball deep and still pick up yardage. When Ohio State is forced to abandon the run, Meyer isn’t as confident in his quarterback to throw the ball deep due to such a reliance on the running game.
By the numbers, Penn State is basically equal if not better. Ohio State had 5,754 yards of total offense and 59 total touchdowns on 936 snaps. Joe Moorhead’s offense gained 5,591 total yards and scored 56 total touchdowns on just 869 snaps — nearly 80 fewer — which is more than a whole game’s worth. Ohio State’s passing game falls short of Penn State’s. The Buckeyes threw for only 2,654 yards and 26 touchdowns while Penn State threw for 3,396 yards and 25 touchdowns. The real kicker? Urban Meyer’s team threw the ball 376 times while Penn State actually threw it 362 times. Penn State’s offense is a force to be reckoned with, and that’s thanks to Moorhead.
On the defensive side of the ball, not too much has changed. Penn State still owns one of the fiercest defenses in the nation despite losing star players to the draft and injury. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry had quite a few questions surrounding him as well, like if he could still have success without his mentor Bob Shoop, or if he could make up for losing three starting defensive lineman. The season didn’t exactly get off to the right start, and the departures and injuries took their toll against Michigan and Pitt, but Pry kept at it and proved himself.
Whereas beloved defensive coordinator Bob Shoop relied on his star defensive lineman to stuff the run throughout the game, Brent Pry’s defense shifted its strength toward the secondary this season. Pry knew he wouldn’t be as effective against the run this season, so he focused on the stingy pass defense Penn State boasts. Pry’s main strategy would be wear the opposition down as much as possible in the running game, make them throw, and let the secondary and pass rush take care of it. In the only losses Penn State had this season, the defense just couldn’t stop the run, as the young linemen and linebackers were still learning the various nuances of the game.
Comparing the Nittany Lion defense to our neighbors to the west is the best way to show just how effective Brent Pry was this season. Pat Narduzzi is known for being a talented defensive coordinator but things didn’t exactly turn out that way this season. Pitt’s total defense is No. 98 in the nation, Penn State’s is No. 22. Pat Narduzzi’s defense allowed 5,424 yards this season and 52 touchdowns, also giving up an average of 452 yards per game. Meanwhile, Pry’s bunch allowed 4,576 yards and 34 touchdowns, averaging 352 yards allowed per game.
The secondary is really the Achilles heel of Pitt unlike in Happy Valley. Penn State owns the No. 26 passing defense in the nation, which is no surprise considering the talent it has in Marcus Allen, Grant Haley, John Reid, and Malik Golden. They’ve given up 2,580 yards, only 13 touchdowns, and allow only 198.5 passing yards per game on average. Meanwhile, Pat Narduzzi’s boys gave up 4,117 yards and 27 touchdowns in the air, allowing 343.1 yards per game.
The numbers speak for themselves; any doubts about these outstanding coaches have been more than quelled after Penn State’s success, and both exceeded expectations given what they had to work with. These men are the reason behind Penn State’s resurgence, and hopefully they remain put for a long time.
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