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Joe Moorhead’s rare adaptability could play quite well at Mississippi State

If you can win playoff games at Fordham and turn around the Penn State offense almost immediately, you can win in Starkville.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The SEC has always been a defense-first kind of league. Back in the 1950s, when a different league team was making a national title run each year, it was always based around dominant D: Auburn allowed 28 total points in an unbeaten 1957 run, Ole Miss allowed 21 points in 1959, Alabama allowed 25 points in 1961, etc.

Defense is in the DNA. But points aren’t a bad thing. Nor is adapting with the times.

The SEC technically still grades out as the nation’s best conference, on average, this season. But after enjoying a massive advantage as recently as two or three years ago, the advantage has shrunk quickly, if not disappeared altogether.

You can make the case that coaching hires have been the primary cause.

While the ACC has upgraded its coaching roster significantly, adding Mark Richt, Bobby Petrino, Justin Fuente, Dave Clawson, Bronco Mendenhall, and others within the last few years, the SEC has been a little bit more predictable.

From 2013-16, the league hired nine new head coaches. Six of them came from the defensive side; of the four hires made in 2015-16, three had Nick Saban ties.

To a degree, those hires worked out. Georgia’s Kirby Smart appears to be the one former Saban assistant who has flashed a Saban-level ceiling, Florida Jim McElwain managed to snag two division titles before flaming out, and while South Carolina’s Will Muschamp isn’t putting an aesthetically pleasing team on the field, he’s 8-4.

While football is a copycat’s game, copying the master doesn’t usually produce master-level results (Smart aside).

You might need to figure out a different path.

So far, so good. At least six league teams are replacing head coaches — Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Texas A&M — and the first three to make their choices have all gone after offensive guys.

  • Florida’s Dan Mullen is a former Gator coordinator whose Mississippi State offense has ranked 31st or better in Off. S&P+ in five of the last eight seasons.
  • New full-time Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke was offensive co-coordinator at Duke and Ole Miss. He helped to raise Duke’s Off. S&P+ rankings from the 100s to the 50s, and Ole Miss’ offense has ranked 14th or better in each of the last three years (including 2017, in which the Rebels dealt with QB injuries).
  • Forced to replace Mullen, Mississippi State has selected Penn State coordinator Joe Moorhead, who oversaw possibly the most fun offense in the country over the last two years.

For all we know, the other three league schools could still skew toward defense. Tennessee, after all, tried to sign Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano before unsuccessfully going after offense-friendly Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy on Tuesday. (The next options on the list appear to be offensive guys, at least.) And who the hell knows what Arkansas is going to do? Arkansas doesn’t, therefore we don’t.

The Moorhead hire is particularly intriguing.

First, he comes from outside the league. A few outside influences aren’t a bad thing. We don’t know anything about the staff he will put together or how he will establish ties in a new recruiting area, but the organic growth of his offensive system has been startling.

The first time Moorhead was officially in charge of an offense, he raised Georgetown’s scoring average from 17.4 points per game to 22.6 in 2003. He ended up on Rob Brookhart’s staff at Akron, and in three years, the Zips’ Off. S&P+ ranking rose from 100th to 55th. His first year as Randy Edsall’s coordinator at UConn (2009) produced a six-point improvement and No. 31 ranking in Off. S&P+.

He became Fordham head coach in 2012, and after a 6-5 debut, the Rams took off. They went 32-8 from 2013-15, and this Bruce Feldman piece does a great job of outlining all the tweaks and tricks that took shape. The Rams stole from exciting offenses all the time.

Fordham head coach Andrew Breiner (Fordham offensive coordinator/QB coach, 2011-14): I can still remember it was Eastern Illinois vs. Northern Illinois. They were on the right hash going into the end zone away from the scoreboard in NIU. We probably watched [EIU QB Jimmy Garoppolo] 15 times. Our staff got into an argument over whether they were actually reading a safety in the run game or not. Joe was saying, “I think they’re reading the safety.”

I said, “No, how can you ask the QB to read a safety [as a run defender] and make a throw?” We kept going back and forth on it, and the more we watched it, the more I realized Joe was right. The safety was making an immediate movement towards the line of scrimmage, reacting on the run, and then they’re bringing the post right behind him from the X-receiver into the boundary.

Davidson co-offensive coordinator Tim Zetts (Fordham running backs coach, 2011-14):: The thing that Joe did which was phenomenal was finding that next thing to be innovative. Before he did that, he was always saying, “If you can’t block him, read him. He’s too good to block.” He was finding ways to cancel [interior] players out.

An open mind led to Moorhead’s early adoption of the run-pass option, but his offense is still grounded in rushing potential and H-backs.

[Smart Football’s Chris] Brown thinks offenses will move more in the direction of Penn State, continuing to chug down the RPO tracks but trying to get the quarterback hit less.

“If you watch Penn State,” he says, “almost everything for them is based on having five interior linemen and an H-Back. Oklahoma State is still in 10 personnel [one back, four receivers] because of those great receivers, but now it’s much more 11 personnel [one back, one tight end or H-Back] — and they’re usually blocking the six interior linemen and linebackers.

“They’re not very often leaving the defensive end unblocked so he can crash down on the quarterback as he’s making one of those downfield RPOs. They’ll do a bunch of variations of that.”

Penn State head coach James Franklin’s trajectory in Happy Valley took a nearly 180-degree turn when he brought Moorhead to town. His first two Nittany Lion teams each went 7-6, and despite the presence of blue-chip quarterback Christian Hackenberg, they ranked 112th and 62nd, respectively, in Off. S&P+.

In need of an energy boost and a healthy dose of adaptability, Franklin looked to Moorhead. PSU improved immediately, to 18th last year and 12th this year, and they are 21-5 since he came to town. Brent Pry’s defense has been top-20 in Def. S&P+ both years, too — this hasn’t been a one-dimensional team — but the defense was good before Moorhead arrived. The offense, not so much.

Moorhead won’t inherit a Saquon Barkley in Starkville.

He will take over an offense scheduled to return quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, running back Aeris Williams and Kylin Hill, a foursome of freshman and sophomore receivers (Deddrick Thomas, Reggie Todd, Keith Mixon, Jamal Couch) that combined for 800 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, and an offensive line with only one 2017 senior.

His work with Fitzgerald could be fascinating. As important as Barkley (2,630 rushing yards, 996 receiving yards, 41 combined touchdowns in 2016-17) has been, Moorhead’s bond with quarterback Trace McSorley was as or more vital.

McSorley's completion rate was just 55 seven games into his first season with Moorhead, his passer rating just 133.4. Since then: 63 percent and 162.1. He caught fire, playing nearly perfect ball in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin and throwing four TDs in the tight Rose Bowl loss to USC. This year, he's thrown for 3,228 yards and 26 touchdowns despite rarely playing in fourth quarters. (Not including sacks, he’s also rushed for 1,093 yards in the last two seasons.)

Moorhead will only get one year with Fitzgerald. The QB pipeline isn’t dry after him, mind you — four-star prospect Keytaon Thompson got thrown into the deep end when Fitzgerald went down early in the Egg Bowl — but how quickly Moorhead and Fitzgerald can reach the same page will set the bar for 2018.

(A defense with only two seniors among its top 16 tacklers can’t hurt.)

Moorhead is known for points, but his resourcefulness could pay off just as much.

From 1954 to 2010, Fordham didn't offer football scholarships. The Rams play in the Patriot League, a non-scholarship league. In 2009, they elected to offer scholarships, which disqualified them from the Patriot League title but allowed them to better position for at-large playoff bids.

Still, they were playing catch-up. Despite this, creaky facilities, and crowded offices, Moorhead’s Rams indeed made the FCS playoffs for three straight years. They beat Sacred Heart in the first round in both 2013 and 2014 and lost only to excellent teams each time: Towson in 2013 (the Tigers went on to make the finals), New Hampshire in 2014 (the Wildcats made the semis), and Chattanooga in 2015 (the Mocs barely lost to No. 1 Jacksonville State in the next round).

In Feldman’s oral history piece, Zetts said, “I don’t think there’s anybody who can do more with less than Joe. That’s him. His big thing was, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ That ended up being the mindset of our players. They were numb to it.” You could argue Moorhead’s culture and Tripper-from-Meatballs attitude might be even more important than his RPOs.

The MSU job is commonly regarded as the hardest in the SEC West — the facilities are good but no better than that of division peers, there’s less history to sell, and Starkville is small and isolated.

Before leaving for Florida, Mullen raised expectations to a nearly unforeseen level. He inherited a program that had won just 29 games in eight years and, in its history, had attended 13 bowls with three top-15 finishes. In nine seasons, he engineered eight bowl bids and two top-15 finishes.

This is a much better job than it once was, but you’re always going to be playing catch-up in Starkvegas. That won’t be anything new to Moorhead.