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Penn State Football: Only a Trace (McSorley) of the RPO Remains

by on November 30, 2017 9:00 PM

With JoeMo now gone, does it mean it's R.I.P. for the RPO?

After all, only a Trace (McSorley) of it remains.

When it comes to the passing and running major cogs of the PSU RPO, four of the top five big wheels will not be with the Nittany Lions next season.

Gone is Penn State's offensive coordinator and quarterback coach.

Soon to be gone, after a bowl game, are a generational runner, Penn State's most prodigious tight end ever and the Nittany Lions' all-time leading receiver.

(Not to mention a semi-big cog at running backs coach, who was a key recruiter.)

And with their departure, James Franklin's 2018 Nittany Lions will lose 62% of their receiving yards, 56% of their rushing yards and 60% of their touchdowns. (Without Tommy Stevens, the percentages rise to 64% of receiving yards lost, 67% of rushing yards lost and 69% of TDs lost.)

The major reason Penn State utilized the RPO offense in 2016-17 was because it was the scheme that Joe Moorhead liked to run; he had had been very successful with it; and at Fordham he had demonstrated that it can change fortunes very quickly. He was the architect of Penn State's run-pass offense and the offense's play-caller. It was his baby, brainchild and bailiwick.

It also fit neatly with the Nittany Lions' strengths at the time — a smart and shifty quarterback, a versatile and stunning running back who could turn a small crease into a huge highlight reel, and a deep and broad set of athletic receivers, including a tight end who was a human mismatch.

It also compensated for the weaknesses of the Penn State offense, which were mainly an offensive line that was young, not very deep and greatly confused by a complex blocking scheme. Things got easier and simpler in a blink of a Moorhead eye, aided by a shift in teaching style along the offensive line. Herb Hand's sometimes-heavy-handed approach was replaced by the calmer, more-teacher-like manner of Matt Limegrover (aka LineGrower).


The result can be measured best in two big ways:

1. Penn State went from a 14-12 record in 2014-15 to a 21-5 record in 2016-17.

Four of those five losses over the past two seasons came by a combined 10 points — 3 vs. giant-killer Pitt, 3 vs. a hot-streaking Sam Darnold and USC, 1 vs. potential Big Ten champ Ohio State and 3 at the buzzer vs. Michigan State at the end of what Franklin correctly deemed "a perfect storm." In three of those losses, Penn State led by 15, 14 and 3 points heading into the fourth quarter.

2. Penn State scored 569 points combined in 2014-15 — an average of 21.9 points per game.

In 2016, Penn State scored 526 points — an average of 37.6 points per game.

In 2017, Penn State scored 499 points — an average of 41.6 points per game. That's moor(head) than twice the 20.6 ppg average of 2014. #Double! #MakePennStateGreatAgain

Overall, the turnaround was a combination of X's and O's, as well as Jimmy and Joes. And Joe.

But now...

The RPO could be gone, leaving only a Trace.

OK, not totally true: Ricky Rahne, the Nittany Lions' QB coach in 2014-15 who was the tight ends coach in 2016-17, returns as well. There are some reports that he might be promoted to offensive coordinator. And, for now at least, Limegrover will also be back.

But neither are RPO guys.

Rahne, who coached with Franklin at Kansas State and Vanderbilt before becoming a Penn State assistant in 2014, is more of pro style expert, both as a coach and former record-setting QB at Cornell, although Vandy did on occasion run its quarterback, especially in the person of Jordan Rodgers. As an offensive coordinator at three stops, the last at Minnesota, Limegrover was more of a power guy.

Franklin is, as he likes to say when answering many questions, "a combination of a lot of things."


Personnel-wise, McSorley is the most RPO guy left at PSU.

He was a gifted runner-passer at Briar Woods High School in northern Virginia — just 32.1 miles as the crows fly from Maryland Stadium. And he's been a sometimes-underappreciated master of it at Penn State. Overall, McSorley is 76-10 as a starting duel-threat quarterback.

As a passer, he's tossed a TD in all 26 of his starts at Penn State. He is the only QB in PSU history with 50-plus TD passes (55). He's the first Nittany Lion to throw for over 3,000 yards in two seasons. He's accurate (No. 15 in the country, with a 65.3% completion percentage) and prodigious (he is No. 21 nationally and No. 1 in the Big Ten, with 269 passing yards per game).

As a runner, he's scored 17 TDs on the ground. He's rushed for 839 yards in his career, including 431 in 2017. Sixteen times he's both run and passed for a TD in a game. He's carried the ball 291 times (counting sacks) and has never been hurt over the course of his career. He knows when to slide, when to duck out of bounds and when to be a baller (which is basically always).

Moorhead got the Lions' share of the credit, but McSorley has been the secret sauce that has made the RPO go.

Now, will the RPO simply go away?

And if it does, what remains?


Top returning running back Miles Sanders and top returning receiver Juwan Johnson seem capable of excelling in almost any offensive scheme. Touchdown Tommy Stevens seems versatile enough to succeed in almost offense as well — and, at almost any position (I'm not kidding). The biggest area where Penn State will improve in 2018 is along its offensive line (Brendon Mahon is the only starter there who is not returning). It has the size and potential ability to play well under schemes beyond the RPO.

"The line took it upon themselves," McSorley said after shelling Maryland, "that they could handle it upfront and be a big factor along the line of scrimmage in the run game, and be great in the passing game."

McSorley thought he grew the most himself as a thinking quarterback — and not necessarily as an RPO hand-off QB.

"I improved the most reading defenses and going through progressions, and being able to match those two up," he said post-Terps. "Now I can see coverage and understand what the progression needs to be based off of that. I thought I did better job with not forcing the ball downfield when it was a little covered up, then moving on and finding the easy completion.

"Part of what got me into trouble last year was when I didn't quite know what was going on or I'd get a little stumped by the defense — I'd just try to find Chris (Godwin) and give him a chance. Over the off-season and going into the season, I wanted to get better at understanding defenses and being better with my progressions, so I didn't have those mistakes. I've done better at going through the progressions and find the open guy, how guys get open in each progression and which guy can I look for a little bit more. Not necessarily zooming in on one guy, but understanding who has the best chance of getting open."


In 2017, Penn State scored 157 points in its final three regular season games — 35 then 56 then 66.

By comparison: In 11 games in 2004, the Nittany Lions scored a total of 195 points. Total.

The RPO had a lot to do with Penn State's recent success. So did the team's ability to execute the offense, especially in Moorhead's final days and games. They finally felt comfortable with it. McSorley said so after the 66-3 rout of the Terrapins:

"We're confident in our play calls, we understand what we're doing and what we're trying to do," he said. "That makes it so much easier to go out and execute it."

The question now is:

Because of its quick-change success — and despite of its occasional maddening failures — will Penn State's RPO be executed even better in 2018?

Or, will it simply be executed?

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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