Penn State Football

Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead talks Saquon Barkley’s Heisman potential, shotgun victory formation

Penn State football offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead talks during media day on Aug. 4 in Beaver Stadium.
Penn State football offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead talks during media day on Aug. 4 in Beaver Stadium. Centre Daily Times, file

Thanks in large part to first-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, Penn State’s offense has garnered quite a bit of attention this season.

The No. 12 Nittany Lions, third in the Big Ten in scoring offense (33.6 points per game), have popped defenses with vertical throws and monster running plays alike.

Through eight games guiding the Penn State offense, Moorhead evaluated his unit, discussed Saquon Barkley’s Heisman prospects, explained the shotgun victory formation and more on Thursday’s conference call.

Q: I was wondering if you could evaluate the offense so far, and how things are going for you during your first season at Penn State?

A: Through eight games, I’d say I’m pleased but not satisfied. We’ve certainly come close to meeting our expectations in some categories and fell short in others. Ultimately, we’ve kind of identified the spots we need to be successful to give ourselves a chance to win — scoring offense, explosive plays, turnover margin — I think we’ve been pretty good there.

Q: You mentioned areas where you could improve. Could you put a percentage on kind of where you are in this process, and is that a part of the process when installing a new offense at a program like this?

A: I didn’t give them a goal on points per game, but I did a little research and saw that Penn State offenses that averaged at least 30 points per game had pretty successful records and went on to pretty good bowls, so we talked about a general number that we wanted to approach ... Being able to push the ball downfield, with teams up in the box trying to stop Saquon, and with the skill we have on the edge, and then turnover margin, we’ve done a great job of that at the beginning of the year ... Obviously third-down percentage, which is not good at all, and quarterback completion percentage, those are things we need to improve on. It certainly can help the bigger picture in terms of scoring offense, explosive plays and things like that.

Q: I wanted to ask you about Trace. Where is he eight games into his first season in your system with regards to decision-making, ball security and, of course, accuracy?

A: I think his decision-making has been pretty good. There are very rarely any times when we come in and look at the film and he misdiagnosed the coverage or misread a read and threw it to the wrong person. So from that standpoint, he understands where he’s going with the ball and why. You talk about completion percentage — the goal or standard I’ve had over the years and we reached at Fordham was 65 percent. That’s the number we’re looking for. Obviously a lot goes into that; it’s not an excuse, it’s a reality of where we are. The number of balls we throw down the field, the number of times we see tightly-contested man coverage on third-and-medium-plus, and the protection, running routes and separating, him throwing accurate balls. A part of avoiding sacks is Trace making great decisions when nothing’s there to throw the ball away, so I don’t want to penalize him for that. Certainly 55 percent is not where we want him to be at. We’d like him at 65 or higher, but I think he’s trending in the right direction — I know not so much the last four games with what the percentage has been, but overall throughout the season he’s getting toward where we want him to be.

Q: After the Purdue game when Saquon Barkley was jogging off the field, there were a few fans chanting, “Barkley for Heisman”. Do you think Saquon has the talent to be in that conversation, whether it’s by the end of this season or next season?

A: Absolutely. You look at some of the things he does on the field, whether it’s running the ball or catching it, he does things that are special. The past few games his production has ramped up and hopefully he continues on that trend. Saquon is a unique talent. He’s a special football player who has those kind of tools, and his ceiling is extremely high. The best part about that is his work ethic and his character match his playing ability. When you combine all those things — a tremendous athlete, great football player, great person, great work ethic — I think the sky is the limit for him.

Q: Kind of looking at the big picture here, the last four games the offense is averaging more than 100 yards and nine points better than in the first four games. Why the big jump in those numbers, and what do you think has been the biggest factor at play there?

A: I think it’s the kids getting settled in and understanding what we’re doing and why, as it pertains to doing it in a game. Toward game four, we made a little more of a conscious decision, James Franklin and I had this discussion, of getting Trace more involved in the run game. Sometimes you go through spring ball and fall camp and you’ve been in another place and certain things have worked there and you have an idea that it might fit and work in your system, there were some things we were doing in the run game the first four games that we were getting production out of, but not necessarily what we anticipated. There’s things within our offensive system that we didn’t quit doing, but we emphasized other things. And once we made Trace more of a threat in the run game, I think that opened things up more for Saquon, and I don’t think we’ve made many changes to the pass game.

Q: So Joe, you won’t go under-center at all?

A: Nope.

Q: I guess that’s a decision you made and that’s where it’s going to be.

A: Yes sir. Over the past few years, I’d say we’ve ran under-center maybe five times. But those were all on two-point trick plays. Nothing up the field.

Q: Why do you prefer to do it that way, as opposed to what you’d see in the NFL or a traditional college offense?

A: We run a shotgun, spread, no-huddle offense. I know there’s some people who are in the shotgun some of the time, or under-center some of the time, but our philosophy offensively is this is kind of what we do. When you’re in the shotgun, you have the ability to add an extra number to the box in the run game that you can’t really account for when you’re under-center. We feel that running game is numbers, angles and graphs, and we feel that being in the shotgun allows the quarterback to see things in the second and third levels and put our running backs in position to execute the plays against the most advantageous looks. And I know the question has been asked, but why are we in the shotgun on victory formation? We’re never under-center, and against Bucknell in 2014, we were under-center to take a knee ... They submarined and torpedoed to try to try to cause a fumble. We were under-center, and they submarined and caused a fumble, recovered it, drove down the field, and fortunately we blocked the field goal on the last play of the game. That would’ve been my fault, putting the kids in a position to fail because we’re never under-center. So from that point forward, when we take a knee, it’s going to be in the shotgun. It’s something that we never practiced during the week.

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9