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Penn State Football: Moorhead Looks to Heal His Achilles Heel

by on July 27, 2017 9:45 PM

Third downs are important.

Allow Penn State offensive lineman Ryan Bates to mansplain why:

"In football, if you don't get past third down you have to punt," Professor Bates said prior to Lift For Life a few weeks ago.

"So third downs are big. We need to have a high third-down percentage. Joe Moorhead emphasizes that a lot. It's important."

The Joe Moorhead in question would be the Nittany Lions' second-year offensive savant and architect of a scheme that in Penn State's final seven games last season produced 62, 41, 45, 30, 45, 38 and 49 points.

Third down is where it's at, Moorhead likes to say. And you thought spread offenses, tuddies, Moorpoints, 50/50 balls, prognosticating big plays, Trace In Space and Saquon Is Gone were what turned on Moorhead. Not so.

"Joe Moorhead has a big emphasis on third down," says Bates. "That's his baby." 

"Oh, yeah," agreed Mike Gesicki, whose 48 grabs for 679 yards in 2016 comprised the best season ever for a PSU tight end. "That's Joe's thing. Absolutely."


All of which is kind of funny. Because for all its many successes in 2016, Penn State's offense was historically bad on third down last year.

Hysterically, even.

Penn State was 56 of 172 on third downs last season, a conversion percentage of 32.6% — 117th out of 128 major college teams.

What's even funnier is that the Nittany Lions' third-down offense actually improved under Moorhead. In 2015, with John Donovan calling the jet sweeps and bubble screens, Penn State converted only 27.6% of its third downs — 125th out 127 teams.

Other than that 2015 squad, over the past four decades only one other Nittany Lion offense was worse on third down than the 2016 group. And that would the 1998 team — with leading rusher Eric McCoo (822 yards) and leading passer Kevin Thompson (1,691 yards) — which converted just 32.3% of its third downs.

Which again, is kinda funny, considering the Nittany Lions in 2016 averaged almost 38 points per game, quarterback Trace McSorley led the nation with an average completion of 16.133 yards and Saquon Barkley — whose 22 TDs from scrimmage (18 run, 4 catch) were tops in the Power 5 — was never average.

In some ways, it didn't matter. Here's how little Penn State relied on third down last year. In 2016, it had 285 first downs — third-most in a single PSU season since 1980, only behind the 2008 and 2009 squads, with 300 and 289, respectively. But in 2016, only one out of every five first downs came on third down — 19.6% (56 of 285 first downs), to be exact.

(That 19.6% figure is a true anomaly at Penn State: Only twice since 1980 did PSU have a smaller percentage of its first downs come on third down — 21.9% in 2013 and 23.4% in 1994. For comparison purposes, the '94 number by that blitzkrieg offense is particular apt. Ki-Jana Carter averaged 7.8 yards per carry, Kerry Collins averaged 16.138 yards per completion and the Nittany Lions averaged 22.8 first downs per game. The 2016 Lions averaged 20.4 first downs per game.) 


So in context, maybe you can even look at the low third-down conversions as a positive, as Norman Vincent Franklin pointed out a couple of times last season.

"Part of those numbers," head coach James Franklin said, "means we are getting better at first and second down." Which is true. The flip side of that 19.6% means that 80.4% of the Nittany Lions' first downs in 2016 came on first, second and fourth (where they were 10 of 20) downs.

But let's not get carried away. In the offseason words of the veteran O-coordinator, "we need to improve on third down." That's something he said moor(head) than once, too.

Penn State's veteran players, as they ran the team's summer practices sans JoeMo and James, took heed.

"We have to improve on third down and, obviously, do our best not to get there," explained Gesicki a few weeks ago. "We need to be successful at it."

So, practically speaking, they practiced it.

"In 7-on-7's, in the past we would just do drives and go," said Gesicki. "Now, it's almost like practice. We'll do a third-down period. We'll come and do third-and-2, third-and-4, third-and-8, third-and-10. We'll go through a specific series of plays. We'll go against our defense. I think it will help us be more successful on third down."

Moorhead knows whereof Gesicki speaks.

In Moorhead's four years (2012-15) as head coach at Fordham, the Rams owned third down, with third-down conversion rates of 43%, 50%, 42% and 46%. By contrast, in Franklin's three seasons at Vanderbilt with an undermanned team that was an oft-successful underdog in the staunch SEC, Franklin's offenses — with Donovan calling the plays — had third-down conversion rates of 34%, 34% and 33% from 2011-14.


As he strives for that coveted 50% conversion line of demarcation in 2017, Moorhead won't just rely on Barkley and McSorley. Veteran wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton bristled when someone at Lift For Life noted that the Penn State offense had two of the best players in the nation.

"We have, like, 10 of the best players," said Hamilton, who needs 19 catches to become Penn State's all-time receptions leader. "I'd hate to call a game against us, because we're going to find a way to get our weapons the ball in space. And we're going to find a way to put our offense at an advantage and succeed.

"We have weapons from top to bottom at every single position. For us to not drop 40 points, may not be a disappointment but it is an expectation for us. Especially with Coach Moorhead — he likes to score a lot of points."

Good point. And it's as simple as that.

As that great sports mind once said — it was Albert Einstein, although it could've been Ryan Bates as well — "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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