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Why Penn State’s Players are Excited Tyler Bowen is Interim Offensive Coordinator…and Where That Algorithm Leads Us

by on December 22, 2019 7:30 PM

Tyler Bowen is Penn State’s offensive coordinator. For now. And at least through the Cotton Bowl next Saturday.

The Nittany Lions’ offensive players couldn’t be more excited. They’re practically gushing.

“I think Coach Bowen is a very aggressive play-caller,” says tight end Pat Freiermuth, who has worked closely with Bowen the TE coach the past two seasons.

“He likes to get shots downfield. He has the mentality where he expects us to make plays. We’re going to go to the bowl and expect to make big plays.”

Quarterback Sean Clifford instinctively knew the coach they call TyBo would get the call to make the play calls in the Cotton Bowl.

“TyBo is definitely someone who I have a lot of trust in,” Clifford said, “and I kind of assumed that after Coach (Ricky) Rahne left, Coach Bowen would be the guy. I’m really excited about it.

“He brings a lot of wisdom to the offense. I know that he helped Coach Rahne calling the plays during the game, anyways. They were in each other’s ear during the whole game.”

If there’s one thing the Nittany Lion offense needs — after a healthy Clifford and KJ Hamler — it’s the ability to complete mid- and long-range passes downfield. Over the final three games of the 2019 regular season, Penn State completed just four passes of 20 yards or more: two vs. Indiana and one each against Ohio State and Rutgers.

It’s the most serious symptom of a declining deep passing attack that was among the nation’s best in 2016, but has been relatively incomplete since. In 2016, Penn State had 65 pass plays of 20 yards or more. There were 58 in 2017, 49 in 2018 and just 39 in 2019. (See the chart below for the complete numbers.)

We need to listen to Freiermuth when it comes to assessing Bowen and his potential impact on the Nittany Lions’ passing game. He’s spent every single day of his PSU career with Bowen. Freiermuth jokingly says, “I think I’ve been making him look good the two years I’ve been here.”

Whether it’s a wily veteran like Trace McSorley (2018) or a first-time starter like Sean Clifford (2019) throwing his way, Freiermuth has been successful catching the ball. In that time, he’s had 67 receptions for 836 yards and a staggering 15 TDs, while averaging 12.5 yards per grab. Credit, at least in part, TyBo.

“He’s put (Nick) Bowers and me in a great position to succeed,” Freiermuth said, “and I know he’ll continue to do that. I won’t be changing my approach about how I do things.”

Only Hamler has had more receptions than Freiermuth over the past two seasons. The redshirt sophomore, who might be playing his final game for PSU in the Cotton Bowl, has made 96 receptions for 1,612 yards and 13 TDs. Hamler’s an excitable guy, both on and off the field, and he is thrilled Bowen will be the play-caller vs. Memphis.

“Coach Bowen is more aggressive with the passing game and things of that nature,” Hamler said on Friday. “He’s doing a really good job. He knows his stuff. He knows the ins and outs. I think we’re going to be fine with him as the OC.”

TYBO AND JOEMO

Bower has been an offensive coordinator before.

Bowen, who was a player then a GA under James Franklin at Maryland, was a GA at Penn Stare in 2014. In 2015 Bowen went to Fordham and under boss Joe Moorhead, Bowen coached the offensive line. Then, in 2016 after Moorhead left for Penn State, Bowen stayed.

In 2016, Bowen was the offensive coordinator for Fordham. He was just 27. That season, the Rams led the Patriot League and ranked fourth in the FCS in total offense (498.2 yards) and scoring offense (40.1 points). Fordham also led the Patriot League in rushing offense (229.7), which was 12th in the FCS. 

To be fair, though, Andrew Breiner — who succeeded JoeMo as head coach at Fordham — was the in-game play-caller during Bowen’s time there. But there’s no doubt in Bowen’s mind that he’s ready for his own show, at least for a day.

“We just had a talk about this,” Freiermuth said, speaking of himself and Bowen. “He kind of has a chip on his shoulder, with being young in this profession and having the opportunities he’s had. He’s always been trying to prove people wrong. He tries to put us in a position where we prove our doubters wrong. That’s a reflection of his personality and the whole offense’s personality. I think we’re in a good situation.”

Penn State offensive tackle Will Fries, like Clifford and Freiermuth, has seen that confidence up close and personal.

Fries: “It’s spooky. When he’s talking to us for this game as the offensive coordinator, he brings tremendous confidence. I think it gets us all fired up and ready to go. He talks about having a simple plan and being aggressive. We do some work together — tackles and tight ends — so him taking the reins of the offense is exciting and cool to see.”

Clifford: “We didn’t skip a beat in the first meetings with him. You never know what a coach is going to think or how he’s going to change when he gets on a bigger stage in front of everybody. But Coach Bowen didn’t blink.’’

Wide receiver Jahan Dotson has seen the initial game plan for Memphis. And he’s impressed.

“He’s put together a very good plan,” he said. “It’s a plan that is going to allow us to play fast, play hard and let us execute and get the job done.”

IF YOU LIKE TYBO, THEN…

Now. Onto that algorithm.

Just like Amazon (“customers who bought this, also bought that”) and Pandora (“if you listen to this, you might like that”), there may be such an algorithm for Franklin as he does some last-minute, very late-night holiday shopping for an offensive coordinator.

Sure, the Cotton Bowl has yet to be played. But…Bowen — definitely from the JoeMo RPO Tree — also already received rave reviews.

And if the Nittany Lions hang 40-plus on Memphis, that may make Breiner an even stronger candidate for the open OC position, since he has already proven he can successfully work collaboratively with Bowen and the current Nittany Lion offense.

As Franklin took great pains to point out during his presser on Friday that workstyle is a huge part of the PSU OC’s J-O-B.

“We don’t really want someone to come in and start all over again,” Franklin said. “You look at that across the country. Look at that even in our conference, where maybe it took the first four, five games for people to get used to a new system.”

(CJF Troll Alert: Was that a veiled reference to Josh Gattis and his early-season OC woes at Michigan, which scored 14 and 10 points in two of its first five games of 2019?)

Franklin continued: “And we’re looking for somebody that has the experience as well as the humility to come in and blend, to say, ‘OK, what are the things that I have conviction about for me to run my offense that I can’t really change? I need these things to be comfortable to call the offense and what things can we keep the same from a verbiage standpoint so that the players aren’t having to learn a completely new system.’

“So,” Franklin concluded, “what things can change and what things can stay the same? So that’s what we’re looking for — someone that can come in and do that.”

Breiner would seem to fit the bill. At Fordham in 2016, when Bowen was OC for the Rams, Breiner was head coach and called the shots. And the plays. Breiner has spent the past two seasons at Mississippi State, coaching quarterbacks under Moorhead — including ex-Lion Tommy Stevens in 2019. JoeMo, though, called the plays. (MSU has averaged 6.2 yards per play in each of the past two seasons; Penn State’s offense averaged 6.6 yards per play in 2018, then fell to 5.9 yards in 2019.)

So, perhaps, success by Bowen could bolster Breiner’s candidacy to succeed Rahne.

You have to think that among all the cross-country in-person interviews that brought Franklin back to Happy Valley at 4 a.m. over the past two weeks, one most likely was a stop in Stark Vegas for a meeting between the two Pennsylvania boys who played their college ball in the PSAC.

It makes sense. Breiner played his high school football at Hershey High School, then played his college football — as a 5-foot-11, 170-pound backup wide receiver — at Lock Haven University. Talk about Pennsylvania boys with a Penn State heart. Breiner worked under Moorhead and his offense at UConn, then at Fordham as JoeMo amassed a 38-13 record.

Algorithmically-speaking, if you like JoeMo and TyBo, then don’t you have to like Breiner?

It’s a deep shot, but we’ll find out soon enough.



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