Mark, at Pitt, fans are accustomed to talking about how their teams might fail to capture explosive starts to the season because Pitt more often than not features a new offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator. In Joe Moorhead’s debut game as Penn State’s new offensive coordinator, did the Nittany Lions come out sluggish, showing signs of a new hire, or were fans’ expectations met?
“I would say probably somewhere in the middle. It wasn’t too black or too white. They did not play with the tempo that I think we’re ultimately going to see. They checked with the sidelines a lot, and Franklin said that it was because they got some defensive looks from Kent State that they didn’t expect. I think it was more that they were, I hate to say it because it’s so cliché, ‘vanilla.’ But they really could have done a seven or eight-yard out pattern on every play and completed it, but they didn’t do that.
“The other thing to think about is that it was Trace McSorley’s first game as a starter. He came in during Penn State’s bowl game last year against Georgia, but that was a different situation. He played well Saturday, but both he and Franklin said after the game that he left some plays out there that he could have executed better. He didn’t throw the deep ball particularly well. There were a couple of running plays in which he got to the second level but didn’t make the cut on a defensive back that he needed to. So I think the situation was that Penn State had a new quarterback than they had a different coordinator.”
We heard so much about Penn State’s special teams play in week one. Is this group good enough to be a potential difference maker Saturday?
“Penn State did not have a scholarship placekicker or punter until last year from the time the sanctions ended. The sanctions hit in 2012, and in the ‘12, ‘13, ‘14 and ‘15 classes, they could not afford to spend a scholarship on a specialist. This past year, they got Blake Gillikin, a freshman who came in and punted amazingly. And then, they also have a place kicker who is going to redshirt this year, but the kid who is kicking for them this year, Tyler Davis, is a former soccer player who came to Penn State and made the team as a walk-on and started kicking late last year. So when they say that he has been perfect last year and this year, that was just a part of the season last year and then this year.
“If you look at the numbers that Penn State had in punting over the past three to four years, it was just brutal. Penn State was always near the bottom of the Big 10, so to have this kid in terms of field position has been a tremendous advantage. Right now, I think Penn State has 81 or 82 scholarships, so they have what they need and are getting very close. Where they are different right now is that a full two-thirds of their scholarship players are first-year or second-year guys. These are super-young players.
“Where can these young guys make an impact? Where do we always see great young athletes make an impact? On special teams. So you’re going to see better coverage, better blocking. I wouldn’t be surprised if they blocked more kicks this year because they have better athletes across the board. I think it’s important for this game. Can they do it in clutch situations? We’ll see moving forward.”
Why was it that Saquon Barkley was the only running back that really played in week one? Could we see the introduction of a second running back this week?
“For all the talk about Penn State running an up-tempo offense this year, they only ran 69 plays, which was two more than what they averaged last year. So, again, they didn’t get into the full-on ‘warp speed’ mode, which is what the coaching staff refers to the fast-paced play as. Barkley had 22 carries last week, so it wasn’t a whole heck of a lot. They are not going to have him out there for less than 22 carries. I think when you get into one of these games in which they are running 90 plays, that’s where you see the Miles Sanders, the Andre Robinson. I wouldn’t be surprised if, at one point, you see two-back formations because they have really good backs. It just comes down to the fact that there weren’t that many carries to go around that game.
“If you go back and look at that game, Barkley had a couple of two-three-four yard carries that were spectacular. Even though Kent State was loading up the box every play, he was very patient and didn’t lose his cool. Some of his best carries were his short ones where he was dancing around and making people miss.”
I’ve watched a ton of James Franklin over the past couple years, but haven’t been able to pick up his tendencies or philosophies with using less-traditional offensive play-calling that might include jet sweeps, fake punts and using specialists on offense. Could we expect some trickery or even some less traditional play-calling from Franklin and Moorhead on Saturday?
“Moorhead can be an extremely creative offensive coordinator, so I would not be surprised if we see some things that we haven’t seen in a while at Penn State, but, exactly what? Nobody knows. After their first touchdown on Saturday, Penn State went for two. They didn’t convert, but I think it was the staff trying to send a message. The last two years, Penn State’s defense has played really well, all things considered, and Penn State has really enjoyed that. These Penn State fans have had to watch a really brutal offense in recent years, and I think just for the sake of giving the players some confidence and giving the fans something to look forward to, I wouldn’t be surprised if Moorhead pulled a couple things from up his sleeve.”
What is Trace McSorley’s throwing ability like and in what situations is he most accurate?
“He has a good but not great arm. He has really succeeded throwing on the run, scrambling and throwing, that sort of thing, which fits in really well with this offense. At Penn State, they had a really bad offensive line the past two years. And Hackenberg was the classic drop-back pro style quarterback. It was like the worst possible combination that you could have. And then Franklin comes in and his issue was having guys like McSorley, who are pass-run quarterbacks, guys who aren’t the traditional type, the ‘sit back there, take a seven-step drop, pat the ball a couple times and then fire 60 yards downfield.’ I think almost everybody is figuring that McSorley is much better for what Franklin wants to do, and then, when you bring in Moorhead, it’s not even close.
“I think he was looking around to different targets. He had a touchdown pass late in the game, and he also missed a receiver wide open down the field on a post route, earlier he threw a deep ball to a redshirt freshman Irvin Charles late in the game, so he really wasn’t locked in to one guy. That was one of the issues with Hackenberg. When he got really comfortable with one guy, he went to him over and over again. I don’t think you’re really going to quite see that.
“Everybody is looking at the quarterback situation saying that this is the kind of quarterbacks that Penn State is going to have moving forward. McSorley was part of Franklin’s first recruiting class at Penn State. He was committed to Vanderbilt, and they ended up bringing him over to Penn State, so Franklin was looking forward to having a mobile quarterback. But then, for the next class, they actually had a guy named Brandon Wimbush, who is another mobile quarterback with a really good arm who decommitted and went to Notre Dame. When Wimbush decommitted, Franklin got Tommy Stevens, a mobile quarterback with a good arm, from Indiana. So Franklin is finding guys who play that sort of style, and I think you are seeing the future of Penn State’s offense with McSorley at quarterback.”
How about on defense, were the expectations met there with new defensive coordinator Brent Pry?
“The defense outscored Kent State 7 to 6, so I think you could say the expectations were met. But there were some broken plays where the defense looked a little out of whack. I think Kent State rushed for over 200 yards, but when you add in the sacks and loss of yards, it got knocked down to about 140. So Kent State was able to do some things with the rush.
“But the thing to keep in mind is that Brent Pry was the co-defensive coordinator last year, so Shoop was the guy, but Pry was very much involved, so this change isn’t anything remotely close to the change over on offense. The difference on defense had a lot to do with personnel. Last year, Penn State had a really good defensive line. Three of those guys they had on the line last year are on NFL rosters right now. Their defensive ends right now are really good, but only one of them has played a lot. Their defensive tackles are really young. There’s not a ton of experience or depth there at defensive tackle. So that’s a primary difference. The way they make up for it is by having a stronger starting linebacker corps, and their secondary is very good. This should be the best secondary they’ve had in a while. They have four really good corners and three really good safeties that they can rotate through there. So they are not afraid to use their money package, where they run a lot of nickel and dime. The difference is that the strength is no longer the defensive line necessarily, but maybe the linebackers and the secondary.”
If you are Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada, what areas in the Penn State defense are you looking to exploit?
“I think everybody is going to try the power running game for the exact reason I said. When you’re looking at a lot of new faces on the defensive line, I think you’re going to see every team test Penn State with the power running game. The test for Penn State’s defense this year will be how the defensive line ends up.”