New Offense Clicks In Penn State's Spring Game

Nittany Lion coach James Franklin liked what he saw from first-year coordinator Joe Moorhead's uptempo attack.

Penn State coach James Franklin called the uptempo spread attack installed by Joe Moorhead, the new offensive coordinator, “a beautiful marriage at the right time.”

His point, made after the Blue drubbed the White 37-0 in Saturday’s Blue-White Game, was that the team’s improved depth and experience appear to meld perfectly with Moorhead’s scheme, which has been adopted at a great many college football outposts.

Whether that proves to be true over the long haul remains to be seen. On Saturday there were enormous contextual issues — the Blue featured the first string (minus Saquon Barkley, who did not play), the White did not — but the exercise at least gave the 65,000 sunwashed fans in attendance some idea at to what they can expect from a strategic standpoint, come this fall.

“We knew what it was going to be like, coming in,” said quarterback Trace McSorley, who took the large majority of the snaps with the Blue. “We know the hard work that we put in, all through spring. That’s what I was most excited about — letting everyone else see it, the culmination of our hard work.”

Leaving Barkley in bubble-wrap — “We just felt like we know what we have with him,” Franklin said — kept the Lions from showing the full scope of the offense.

There were, however, hints of what McSorley can do. He went 23-for-27 for 281 yards and four touchdowns, with one interception. But see above; he was facing a defense largely manned by guys who won’t see the light of day this season.

(For the record, Franklin said it remains an open competition at QB between McSorley and Tommy Stevens, one that will stretch through the summer and into preseason camp. Fine with McSorley. “Competition brings success and breeds greatness,” he said. Stevens was not made available to reporters afterward.)

Of the new offense, McSorley said, “It makes a lot of the reads a lot easier for us. It almost cuts the field in half at times. Whatever the defense does, we know if they do this, we’re (going to) this side of the field, or vice versa.”

In other words, the defense can never be right, provided the QB and receiver make the correct read.

In addition, McSorley said, he is able to get receivers the ball in space and let them go to work. He cited in particular a bubble screen to DaeSean Hamilton that turned into a big gain.

“I mean, it’s a 10-yard throw but in the stat book it goes as a (21)-yard completion,” McSorley said. “So I’m not having to push the ball down the field that much, and still getting those yards from the quarterback position.”

Again, things look a lot better when the receiver is superior to the guy lined up across from him, so it is best to take wait-and-see approach to this whole matter. But at first glance it certainly appears to be a good fit.

“It’s unconventional,” tackle Andrew Nelson said, “but it really works. Was it hard for us to adjust to in the beginning? Yes, certainly.”

It was even a little tough on Saturday, he added. But for the most part, it took everyone about a week to literally get up to speed.

“The first practice is always about the hardest,” Hamilton said, “guys getting adjusted to the tempo and just getting adjusted overall to how many plays, how many reps we would be playing in a game, or in a practice situation. But after that first week everything seemed to be going smoothly.”

Hamilton had four catches for 67 yards, Saeed Blacknall five for 45, with a touchdown. Chris Godwin, DeAndre Thompkins and Tom Pancoast also gathered in TD passes from McSorley.

Overall, Franklin said, “Ninety-five percent of the offense is in.” It’s a matter now of fine-tuning, he said, figuring what best suits the available weapons.

“One of the most intriguing things about taking the job,” said Moorhead, the former Fordham head coach, “was looking at the roster and seeing the pieces were in place for us to be able to implement the system and do it successfully. It’s always kind of fun when you go in and you have them play it, and you see it take root and have it come to fruition.”

More On The QBs

Harvey Levine/FOS

McSorley would appear to have the edge right now, simply because he was the backup to Christian Hackenberg last year — he threw two TD passes in the TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia when Hackenberg was hurt — while Stevens redshirted. And as noted McSorley played most of the day with the Blue. Stevens, under siege while directing the White, went 7-for-14 for 48 yards. It was ruled that he was sacked four times (the quarterbacks were not actually hit), once by defensive end Evan Schwan for a safety.

Stevens was also given a single series with the Blue, hitting all three of his passes in leading a fourth-quarter touchdown drive.

Franklin insisted he will have an open mind about the competition, noting that he doesn’t believe it would be fair to anyone to declare McSorley his guy right now — especially when he believes it is possible Stevens could “really close the gap between now and (camp).”

After all, the coach said, Stevens has “a natural feel, almost like a point guard, to find open guys.” Now it’s just a matter of improving his ability to read defenses — that, and understanding that discretion is sometimes the greater part of valor.

“He has such confidence in his athletic ability — his ability to break the pocket and make plays — that he needs to be careful in certain situations,” Franklin said.

So Stevens needs to throw the ball away at times, understand that a punt it not always the worst thing. Again, it’s a matter of experience.

It is not, however, a matter of size. At 6-4, he is four inches taller than McSorley. McSorley, for his part, has forever tried to measure up in other ways.

“I’ve always been told, never let the game be bigger than you,” he said.

He won three Virginia state titles in high school, then acquitted himself nicely in the bowl game. And on Saturday Franklin marveled once again at his poise.

There were nonetheless corrections to be made. In particular the head coach discussed with McSorley his first-quarter interception, when he missed Gesicki on a crossing route and wound up throwing the ball right to cornerback Amari Oruwariye. That situation — first down at the opponent’s 30 — required an understanding of how compressed the field becomes near the goal line, and how tight the windows can be.

Beyond that, Franklin said McSorley is “probably the opposite of Tommy” in that he has scrambling ability, but is adept at keeping his eyes downfield as he moves around the pocket.

“Tommy’s still got some growth,” Franklin said, “in terms of the time and place there.”

So, McSorley’s ahead, if only slightly.

And it’s much too early to declare a winner.

Givens Stars

Recruited as a defensive end/outside linebacker, Kevin Givens, a 6-1 redshirt freshman, is up to 267 pounds, some 37 more than he carried in high school. That has enabled him to move to defensive tackle, and on Saturday Givens — “one of the big surprises and stars of the spring,” according to Franklin — recorded five tackles (3.5 for losses) and two sacks.

Givens said he did nothing special to put on the pounds, that it was just a matter of eating well and lifting. And at tackle, he said, “It’s still the same moves, but just inside, so there’s not as much area to make mistakes.”

Defensive coordinator Brent Pry said Givens was very raw coming out of high school, but praised his work ethic and football IQ.

“He understands leverage and blocking schemes,” Pry said, “and just a lot of things that came to him naturally that maybe we didn’t get to see on his high school film. He’s a mature guy. He approaches the game the right way — very unselfish.”

Odds & Ends

Harvey Levine/FOS

Veteran linebackers Nyeem Wartman-White and Brandon Bell sat out with injuries. That left Jason Cabinda, the middle man after Wartman-White blew out a knee in last year’s opener, flanked by Manny Bowen and Jan Johnson, a one-time walk-on, on the Blue defense. … The Blue offensive line consisted of Brian Gaia at center, Derek Dowrey and Ryan Bates at guard, Andrew Nelson and Noah Beh at tackle. Paris Palmer also saw some work in Beh’s place on the right side, and Brendan Mahon spelled Dowrey at right guard. … Franklin said defensive end and safety are “probably the two strongest positions on our team” and added that safety Malik Golden is “one of the most improved” Lions — “not just physically but also from a leadership perspective and mentally as well.

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