Coaching deserves some blame
The sky is not falling on Penn State. The team is still going to finish 10-2 and go to a decent bowl game, most likely the Citrus or Outback.
Still, there are serious problems the Nittany Lions must address for this season and beyond if they’re going to remain nationally prominent and take those difficult next steps of someday getting into the College Football Playoff and winning a national title.
Here’s the key question: Are the problems more related to personnel or schemes?
The answer is both.
The easiest gripe is to say PSU’s offensive line is not very good. But you know, I am so sick of defaulting to that because it’s been the case for so long now that blame has to fall as much on the coaches as the players. They get paid a lot of money to solve the issues, be it the departed Herb Hand or current line coach Matt Limegrover, and the job isn’t getting done.
So let’s get into the scheme issues, because it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are trouble spots in Joe Moorhead’s system.
Teams have figured out how to play against Moorhead’s run-pass option offense this offseason. They haven’t figured out how to stop it necessarily, because the Lions can still be productive and score a good bit, but the opposition has learned how to shut down the run and force PSU to do other things.
Moorhead has received enormous praise for this offense, and rightfully so since he has done things at PSU that haven’t been seen for most of the program’s storied history.
But Moorhead’s offense has flaws that are being exposed.
Saquon Barkley is the best running back in the country and in PSU history, and yet for most of the season he hasn’t been able to do a whole lot on the ground, getting held under 100 yards rushing in six of nine games.
I don’t care if defenses are focusing heavily on stopping him. If Moorhead’s offense really is that great, he has to figure out a way to combat it instead of seeing a once-in-a-generation talent like Barkley get stuffed far too often.
Several years back, the wildcat was all the rage in the NFL, and for about a season, several teams (most notably the Dolphins) ran it a ton. Then defensive coaches figured out how to stop it, and lo and behold, we rarely see the wildcat in the NFL anymore.
Coaches on other teams are smart. They have their jobs because they know how to break down film, identify tendencies and figure out how to stop them. Moorhead has been around for nearly two seasons, and a blueprint has been identified by other teams for how to slow down PSU’s run game.
It’s time for Moorhead to adjust. Or counter punch, as Pirates manager Clint Hurdle likes to call it.
Sports Illustrated wrote a huge story in September calling Moorhead “the guy behind the most dynamic offense in the nation.”
Would anyone say that about PSU’s offense now, especially with Barkley getting bottled up repeatedly?
When you start thinking a coach is a genius, be careful. Moorhead is a very good offensive coordinator, but he’s not a miracle worker.
Let’s talk about stubbornness and arrogance.
OK, so PSU isn’t going to use a fullback. Never. Ever. Just not going to do it, under any circumstance.
All right, fine.
The Lions also are never going under center. Ever.
They’re also never going to huddle. Ever.
Individually, none of those is a big deal. But collectively, it presents a pattern of an offensive coach who is so totally inflexible that he’s not even willing to consider trying something, anything.
If Moorhead is hell bent on not doing any of those things, what else is he hell bent against trying? Are there other things he simply dismisses that actually could help from time to time, just because of a policy that he’s not going to do them?
That’s a dangerous way of thinking in any job or walk of life. I try not to ever rule out anything 100 percent because there just might come a time when you need to do something unusual and it works.
I was stunned when James Franklin actually admitted the offense was “too finesse” following Saturday’s loss at Michigan State. You almost never hear a coach describe his own team that way.
I wrote that the Lions have a finesse offense last week and actually felt badly doing so, because labeling big, tough guys as finesse is very much a putdown in some ways.
But there was Franklin using the word finesse, which is basically him saying the team isn’t tough enough on offense and that he doesn’t like at least some parts of what Moorhead or other coaches are doing with the group.
When I asked Franklin last week about Barkley getting the ball in a stand-still position too much, he dodged the question by pointing to past success and repeating four times in about 45 seconds that “we have one of the most explosive offenses in the country.”
That’s an arrogant response to a valid question about one obvious flaw in the Lions’ running game. Sure, the team scores a bunch of points in a lot of ways, but if Franklin wants to go down the road of using past success to write off current problems, then it makes you wonder how much the coaching staff is willing to look at every single aspect — including no fullback, no under center, no huddle — and remain so adamant about being unwilling to budge on certain ways of doing things.
I’ve talked a lot about the offense, but the defense has major problems, as well. It doesn’t get pressure on the quarterback, as Franklin keeps pointing out, and has been lit up the past two weeks by Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett (328 yards) and Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke (400).
The fact that PSU led the country in scoring defense two weeks ago was totally misleading because the Lions hadn’t played any good offenses. Can you imagine what an Oklahoma, Oklahoma State or Washington State would do to PSU’s pass coverage? It wouldn’t be pretty.
Yes, end Ryan Buchholz is injured, just like left tackle Ryan Bates is injured on the O-line. But those injuries aren’t enough to explain why the two lines have played so poorly and been pushed around over the past two weeks.
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry needs to be taking a long, hard look at everything he and the other defensive coaches are doing to correct the problems.
The big concern over all these issues isn’t just this season — with PSU probably still able to go 10-2 because it’s loaded with talent — but next year.
Barkley will be gone, and so will Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton on offense. That’s three of the unit’s four best players (along with Trace McSorley).
On defense, Jason Cabinda, Marcus Allen, Grant Haley, Christian Campbell, Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren will be gone. Shudder at the thought of what a good offensive opponent might do against PSU next year.
That’s why the past two weeks have been so disappointing, because Penn State clearly let a golden opportunity slip away. And because the program will be losing so many outstanding players, next year could see a dropoff in a lot of areas.
That makes it all the more important for the coaches to figure out the areas where they are not doing all that well and fix them.
Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.