Coordinators play big role in success
No assistant coach in the country has done a better job this season than Joe Moorhead. Take that to the bank, regardless of what the folks say with the Broyles Award, which egregiously omitted Penn State’s offensive coordinator from its list of finalists for top assistant in the nation.
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry has done terrific work of his own. The Nittany Lions’ defense had to overcome an insane number of injuries early on and has thrived of late. After allowing 131 points the first four games (32.75 per), PSU has given up only 142 points in its past eight contests (17.75 per).
Not to be outdone, special teams coordinator Charles Huff deserves huge credit, as well. The Lions not only came up with one of the most memorable plays in program history with the blocked field goal and return for TD against Ohio State, but special teams have been a big part of the team’s overall success all year.
We hear all the time about complementary football. Penn State’s complementary coaching, with all three coordinators doing tremendous work, is a major reason why the Lions are one win away from a Big Ten championship.
“This is a staff award,” Franklin said Tuesday night on Big Ten Network when accepting the league’s coach of the year honor. “We’ve got the best staff in the country.”
Moorhead has been getting the bulk of attention among the assistant coaches, which is understandable. Penn State’s offense was downright awful the past couple of years, plagued by simplistic playcalling, poor execution and lack of overall sophistication for big-time college football.
The Lions averaged 23.2 points per game last season. That number is 36.6 points this year, good for 25th in the country.
There might have been some skepticism when Franklin hired the head coach from Fordham to take over PSU’s offense, but man, what a brilliant decision that turned out to be.
“Joe has done a great job,” Franklin said Tuesday. “I love working with Joe. He’s got a really creative system. He’s a really smart guy. He knows how to work hard but also have fun doing it, which I think is a really, really valuable trait to learn. We talk about that with our players all the time. You’re going to do the work anyway, might as well have fun while you’re doing it.”
There was concern when coordinator Bob Shoop left Penn State for Tennessee after last season that the defense would have a big dropoff. Not just because of his departure, either, but also because the Lions lost three linemen to the NFL.
Franklin never really had a decision to make for the new defensive coordinator, not with Pry already on the staff. Franklin has frequently heaped praise his longtime friend, and did so again Tuesday when asked about the defense’s turnaround the second half of the season.
“I’ve been saying for three years that Brent Pry did not get enough credit,” Franklin said. “I’ve been saying really for six years that Brent Pry did not get enough credit for the type of defense that we’ve played. That’s why when the opportunity came, as you guys all saw, it did not take very long. We had our plan and we moved forward. He’s been awesome.”
Things very easily could have gone south in a hurry for Pry this season. The enormity of losing so many defensive starters — six were out at Michigan — on top of already having a lot of inexperience on defense would have crippled some coordinators.
Pry’s personality, though, is such that he was able to keep everyone focused on the process, improving and believing that things would get better.
Get better they did, too, starting with the defense getting healthy, finding ways to shut down the run and forcing big turnovers.
“They never blinked,” Franklin said of Pry and the defensive coaches. “They never panicked. They never pointed the finger. They never made excuses. They just kept training guys, getting guys ready to play. Our players saw that in our coaches, in Coach Pry, the confidence that he had, his leadership, his command, his demand for guys to play up to our standards. I mean, it’s remarkable.”
That word, remarkable, also describes the special teams turnaround this year.
Seemingly every game the past two seasons, a big special teams mistake would hurt the Lions’ chances of winning. This season, Penn State has won several games in large part because of big plays on special teams, most notably the blocked punt and blocked field goal that led to the upset of Ohio State.
“I would make the argument that special teams has been as dramatic an improvement as any area on our team,” Franklin said.
It’s been said numerous times this year that merely having more good players and depth throughout the roster has been a major part of the special teams improvement.
But let’s give Huff his share of credit, too. He went through a bunch of trying times and endured a ton of criticism the past two years — a lot of it coming from yours truly — but Franklin remained loyal to him, and Huff has made that loyalty pay off.
While the coordinators have been and will continue to get most of the of praise for this season, there’s no way anyone should overlook the magnificent work done by new offensive line coach Matt Limegrover.
Penn State’s line was lousy the past two years, and while there is more depth this season, Limegrover also has had to deal with a large number of injuries to key players on his unit. Like Pry, he has handled that part of the job tremendously well, keeping everyone focused and ready for the opportunities that have come their way.
There’s plenty of praise to go around on a 10-2 team, and of course, the players and all the assistant coaches deserve their share, along with Franklin.
Collectively, they’ve perfected the concept of complementary football this season.
Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.