Penn State football returned to prominence in 2016, hoisting its first Big Ten championship trophy of the division era in the conference. It was a season few saw coming, but one that proved James Franklin’s decisions and personality were just right for the program.
Getting back to the Rose Bowl was certainly a big milestone for the program. But, as we turn our attention to the 2017 season ahead, it is important to understand the season in a fuller context.
To that point, what did 2016 teach us about the program and about the season to come in general? Let’s take a look at a few lessons we learned about the Nittany Lions from last season.
Offense Matters Too…
While the saying goes, “defense wins championships,” the opposite was true for the Nittany Lions in 2016. No doubt the defense mattered a lot, but Penn State’s quick rise to the top of the Big Ten didn’t happen just because it had a good defense.
It happened because it found a dynamic quarterback, one of the nation’s best running backs and got the coordinator right too. What was an offense full of potential in the first few years of the Franklin era turned in to what everyone hoped it would.
Franklin’s hire of Fordham head coach Joe Moorehead as offensive coordinator helped this offense reach its full potential to say the least. After averaging just 23.2 points per game in 2016 with the likes of Christian Hackenberg and Saquon Barkley in the mix, Moorehead’s first offense jumped to third in the Big Ten (37.6 points per game).
It helped that Moorehead had a fresh quarterback to work his full offensive scheme with. Trace McSorely went from question mark to answer to any issues Penn State’s offense had. His leadership spoke volumes in what became one of the most incredible
Having a Full Roster Matters
One of the most brutal parts of the NCAA sanctions was the reduction in scholarships and recruiting. However, that has finally all gone away and 2016 was a prime example of why the sanctions mattered to the Nittany Lions on the field.
Penn State had to overcome some brutal injuries at linebacker and while they eventually had to go down the depth chart to walk-ons, it would’ve been an immediate situation for Penn State teams of the past. Instead, the injuries and depth of the squad allowed for plenty of help instead of hinderance for the team.
It also has really helped the offensive line grow in to a strength of this team heading in to the 2017 season. Trace McSorely was less likely to be running for his life than Christian Hackenberg was and depth has helped this group be more competitive and have more options to plug and play as needed.
Joe Moorhead is Big Ten’s Best Offensive Mind
The Big Ten has had a long reputation as a boring offensive conference. Urban Meyer and the spread offenses that have come in to the league have changed some of that reputation, but Penn State’s hire of Joe Moorhead blew that out of the water.
What was a stale offense was turned in to one of the most explosive in the country, let alone the conference in just one year. Moorhead keeps opposing defenses off-balance, allows his most explosive players to get in to positions to use their skill sets to full advantage and most importantly knows his personnel well.
Let’s just say we weren’t the only ones to notice that info last year. Even CBS Sports noticed the transformation from bland to bold.
We’ve already talked about the stats, but for me, it is the fact that the two-deep wasn’t just the focus of Moorhead’s offense this past season. He was able to know his best players in certain situations and get them on the field.
Getting to know the guys on the third and fourth team (if you want to put it that way) and understanding how they fit in to the offense so quickly was impressive last season. It should also serve Moorhead and the players well as they step up in 2017.
But, all of it pales in comparison to his ability to be inventive. Simply put, watching Penn State’s offense work was fun in 2016 and that was just in the first year with McSorley as the starting quarterback.
While Moorhead is likely to be pushed by the likes of Kevin Wilson, Jeff Brohm, Paul Chryst and others in the “best offensive mind” category, don’t be surprised if his inventiveness during games puts him ahead of the rest of the strong pack.