Andrew Breiner — Joe Moorhead’s former apprentice and now successor — sat on Fordham’s bus ride home from Annapolis and couldn’t help himself.
After his first game as head coach, a loss to the Midshipmen on Sept. 3, 2016, he grabbed his iPad, opened the Big Ten Network app and flipped on the replay of Penn State’s season opener against Kent State.
“It was almost eerie,” Breiner said with a brief pause, “watching the exact same offense in different jersey colors and helmets.”
It was weird for Breiner. To see Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley fill the role of Mike Nebrich and Chase Edmonds was something he’d have to get used to.
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Only a year earlier, Breiner and Moorhead were returning to the Bronx together on a bus back from West Point. The Rams hung 37 points on Army and defeated the Knights, the start of yet another season that ended with an FCS playoff berth.
Despite previous coaching stops at Georgetown, Akron and UConn, Moorhead and his offensive scheme took shape at Fordham. The Rams, who averaged 36.9 points per game in Moorhead’s four years as head coach, were eruptive.
But for individual players, the second go-around was always more precise, if not more productive.
That may seem like common sense, and to some degree it is. But there’s a learned nuance to Moorhead’s system. There’s a deeper understanding that’s grasped in Year 2.
Instead of just knowing what plays were called, Moorhead’s men knew why they were called — and what progression from the base offense got them there. “JoeMo” pushed the right buttons at Fordham, putting his players — most notably, his quarterback and running back — in a position to succeed in Year 2.
Why should anyone believe his second season at Penn State will be any different?
Nebrich, the former Fordham quarterback, described Year 1 under Moorhead as “exciting.”
“That’s the best word I could use,” he said.
In 2013, it was Nebrich’s job. A fresh-faced quarterback in a high-flying system was ready to take a middling team to new heights.
This year, we knew what we were doing. ... It’s all about refining it, refining it, refining it.
Trace McSorley, Penn State quarterback
Nebrich had a McSorley-esque season as a junior. Coming out of nowhere, he was the Patriot League Player of the Year after throwing for 4,380 yards and 35 touchdowns and rushing for nine scores. The 6-foot-1 signal-caller set single-season school records for passing yards, touchdown passes and completions.
Fordham shocked the FCS world, going 12-2 and reaching the playoffs after a 6-5 season the year before.
“Going out there every week with the kind of weapons we had on offense with the scheme we had, we went on a roll that season,” Nebrich said. “Everything seemed to click. All the guys totally bought into the system.”
After inheriting a team that went 1-10 in 2011, Moorhead’s offense turned things around in a couple years.
The hype surrounding Fordham was real in 2014 — and entering Year 2 of running Moorhead’s system, Nebrich was eager to perfect it.
“We wanted to get out there and fine-tune everything,” the quarterback said. “It wasn’t so much about the plays. It was moreso what plays worked against different defenses.”
Breiner, Fordham’s offensive coordinator at the time, agreed.
“The precision of it is going to get better, just with the reps, with the quarterback specifically,” the coach noted. “You’re settled in. You understand not just what the plays are, but why we’re running those particular plays as it relates to the defensive scheme.”
Statistically, Nebrich — who missed two games to injury — wasn’t as prolific. He had only 30 touchdowns and 3,599 yards in 2014, and his 299.9 yards per game was fourth in the country.
But Fordham’s offense was more effective in his second season of leading it.
The Rams averaged more points per game (40.6 in 2014 to 37.6 in 2013), yards per catch (13.2 to 12.7) and rushing yards per game (168.1 to 154.4) — seemingly modest increases, but it’s difficult to improve a unit already so explosive.
Nebrich knew entering Year 2 that Fordham’s offense would be prolific. They had weapons returning, and he was more than comfortable in the scheme.
He was in the same spot McSorley’s in now.
After a surprising campaign in which McSorley threw for 3,614 yards and accounted for 36 touchdowns, Nebrich said the quarterback will continue to put up video-game numbers and lead Penn State in a College Football Playoff run.
But it’s all about precision in Year 2.
“There was that learning curve we hit last spring and it carried into summer camp last year,” McSorley said. “This year, we knew what we were doing. We got through the installs pretty quickly, and it’s about refining it, refining it, refining it.”
Added Breiner: “I would expect Trace to make the correct decision on a more consistent basis. ... You start to gain that conceptual understanding and match it to whatever the defense is presenting to you. You reliably and consistently make the right decision. That’s what playing quarterback in this system is all about.”
‘More of a threat’
Edmonds, Fordham’s senior running back, watches Barkley religiously. He’ll study film, catch games live, check out highlights on Twitter — whatever he can get his hands on.
The Walter Payton Award (FCS Heisman) contender loves seeing “the best running back in the country” run the same plays and make the same reads he does.
And sometimes when the Rams’ all-time leading rusher kicks back and checks out Barkley from afar, he has flashbacks.
For example, Barkley’s 7-yard touchdown grab in the Rose Bowl? Edmonds scored on the same deceiving call two years earlier.
“It was literally the same exact play,” Edmonds said in disbelief. “It’s just another unique way Moorhead used the running back.”
Barkley scored on it late in the third quarter of the Rose Bowl to give the Nittany Lions a 49-35 lead. Fordham ran it in 2015 against Monmouth, resulting in a 20-yard touchdown for Edmonds in his second year with the Rams.
“This is the perfect example of you having that base and building off that base,” Breiner said. “It’s a way to get the ball in a guy like Chase or Saquon’s hands out in space. Those guys thrive in that scenario.”
Like Nebrich, Edmonds had a more complete view of Moorhead’s offense in Year 2 — and it led to increased production.
As a freshman, the FCS rookie of the year’s understanding was limited; in the huddle, he listened for what direction he was running, and that was about it. Statistically, that approach wasn’t a hindrance. Edmonds had 1,838 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns (second in the country) in 2014.
However, Edmonds comprehended Moorhead’s scheme better and was trusted more in Year 2 — not just in the running game, but also on passing downs.
In two fewer games, Edmonds still posted gaudy rushing stats with 1,648 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2015. The most notable improvement, though, was in his receiving game. As a sophomore, Edmonds caught 31 passes for 383 yards and five touchdowns. In Year 1, he recorded only 19 receptions for 121 yards and one score.
Breiner said they weren’t force-feeding Edmonds the ball in passing situations. The uptick in targets just came naturally.
Barkley is expected to undergo that same organic progression in 2017.
Penn State fans saw the running back’s involvement in the passing game grow toward the tail-end of last season. Of Barkley’s 28 catches in 2016, 13 of them came in the final five games of the season — including touchdowns in the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl and five grabs in “The Granddaddy of Them All.”
Like Edmonds’ situation, Moorhead isn’t overzealous on force-feeding Barkley in the passing game.
“If we find a matchup we feel we can exploit, whether it’s Saquon or someone else, we’re going to give him an opportunity to go out and make a play,” Moorhead said.
But Barkley is preparing for an Edmonds-like increase in receptions.
“I feel that — and Coach (James) Franklin will agree — that I’m capable of being lined up in the slot, being able to run routes,” Barkley said. “I did a lot of one-on-one reps this summer with the defense, against defensive backs and linebackers and workouts with Hammy and trying to really fix my routes to become more of threat in the offense.”
More of a threat in the offense? That might not be fair.
On Dec. 7, 2013, Fordham fell in frustrating fashion.
The Rams — sitting at 12-1 at the time — lost to Towson 48-28 in the second round of the FCS playoffs. After Year 1 in Moorhead’s offense wrapped up in defeat, quarterback Mike Nebrich was displeased.
“The second year was more of a business-like approach,” Nebrich said. “That game really fueled us.”
The former Fordham signal-caller believes Year 2 at Penn State will have a similar feel.
Eight months ago, a dormant fourth-quarter offense and costly interception ended Penn State’s season in the Rose Bowl. The Nittany Lions are focused on Akron and the 2017 season, but that loss still stings.
Nebrich said in his conversations with Moorhead since the heartbreaking defeat, he could tell the coordinator was irked about how it finished.
With Fordham’s experience post-Towson loss in-mind, Moorhead is going to make sure his offense doesn’t let something like that happen again.
“That loss definitely left a sour taste in their mouth,” Nebrich said. “[Moorhead’s] looking forward to getting back out there and finishing it off.”
Moorhead certainly has the weapons to make another run at the Rose Bowl — a College Football Playoff semifinal host this season. The offensive line is improved, tight end Mike Gesicki returns, and there’s plenty of depth at wide receiver.
You start to gain that conceptual understanding and match it to whatever the defense is presenting to you. You reliably and consistently make the right decision.
Andrew Breiner, Fordham head coach
But most importantly, the Nittany Lions have McSorley and Barkley back and primed to thrive with a better understanding of Moorhead’s offense.
Nebrich expects McSorley to make quicker, sharpened decisions.
Edmonds fully anticipates Barkley, in his humbled run at the Heisman, will see the field clearer and be more involved in all aspects of the offense.
And Fordham coach Breiner, drawing on experience as Moorhead’s former understudy, envisions one of the nation’s best offenses with the self-belief that comes with it.
“They walk out on that field every day expecting success,” Breiner said. “That is a very powerful thing with 18- to 22-year-olds.”
Penn State’s offense is expected to harness that.
Like the Rams before them, the Nittany Lions are ready for Year 2 under Moorhead.