Joe Moorhead was a home-run hire for Mississippi State, and a huge loss for Penn State
I’ve had this theory for about a year now. It’s an unpopular one, and frankly, it’s one that needs some context before it’s thrown out there.
Fourteen months ago, James Franklin’s seat was hotter than a Lane Kiffin tweet. He was the coach of a 2-2 team that looked destined for another hollow, 7-win season. By “hollow,” I mean Penn State would get to 7 wins by not really beating anyone elite and by playing a lot of close games against teams with inferior talent. That was the feeling after the Lions were trucked by Michigan in the final weekend of September in 2016.
After that, of course, the rest is history. The Lions went 19-3 over the next 2 seasons, which included an upset of Ohio State, a B1G Championship, a Rose Bowl berth and possibly another New Year’s Six bowl depending on how things shake out after conference championship weekend.
OK, so back to my theory. For SEC folks, this might come as a bit of a surprise because Franklin left the conference with the reputation as a winner for the job he did at Vanderbilt. And this isn’t meant to say Franklin is any less of a coach than he’s viewed as nationally.
But my theory is that if Joe Moorhead wasn’t in State College the past 2 years, Franklin is not currently Penn State’s coach.
That’s how monumental Moorhead’s offense has been in reviving Penn State. It was the play of Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley that fueled the program’s incredible 2-year run. In the first month of the 2016 season, the spread offense was a work in progress. Since then, it averaged 41 points per game and Moorhead quickly became one of the top offensive minds in America.
That’s why he was a perfect fit at Mississippi State, where he’ll carry the offensive torch passed on by Dan Mullen. Needless to say, Moorhead’s next quarterback (Nick Fitzgerald) already sees the impact he can have.
— Nick Fitzgerald (@nickfitz07) November 29, 2017
The guy they call “Moorpoints” is capable of doing just that for Mississippi State, which was prolific, but often struggled to continue that offensive production against elite defenses during the Mullen era.
Moorhead’s reputation in the B1G quickly became that of “offensive guru.” Penn State averaged 35 points per game against Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin after the 2-2 start in 2016.
It was Moorhead who helped Barkley maximize his skill set as a pass-catching tailback, which was necessary with the Lions’ banged-up offensive line. It was Moorhead who drew up the plays that resulted in McSorley’s home-run swinging touchdown celebration.
The big question of the offseason for Penn State won’t be how it recovers if and when Barkley leaves for the NFL (backup Miles Sanders was the top tailback recruit in the entire 2016 class). It’ll be how the Lions recover from losing Moorhead.
Of course, the Lions knew one day that a smart administration like Mississippi State’s would one day come along and give their heralded offensive coordinator the Power 5 opportunity he deserved. Purdue nearly did that last year after it watched Moorhead’s offense light up the vaunted Wisconsin defense in the B1G Championship (something neither Michigan nor Ohio State did with such success).
One can’t help but applaud Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen, who didn’t panic when Mullen was swooped away by Florida. Like Penn State with Moorhead, Cohen knew it was only a matter of time before Mullen took that next step. Cohen, unlike the brass at Tennessee, went out and executed that hiring plan with ease.
It didn’t matter to him that Moorhead had zero experience coaching in the Southeast. A move like that hadn’t really been made in the SEC since Jeff Long stole Bret Bielema from Wisconsin.
Moorhead, however, will walk into a different situation than the one Bielema inherited in Fayetteville. Mullen already had the right personnel in place for Moorhead to run his spread attack. Moorhead’s task will be finding the right defensive coordinator. Getting Todd Grantham to stick in Starkville instead of following Mullen to Gainesville would be perhaps the biggest recruiting victory Mississippi State could get in the next few weeks.
Shoring up the defense is obviously priority No. 1 for Moorhead. It’s worth remembering that while Moorhead is indeed an offense-first guy, he was a head coach at FCS Fordham for 4 years (he went 38-13) before he gambled on himself to dominate as a coordinator at Penn State. He knows the demands of running an entire program, so the learning curve that typical coordinator-to-head coaches face won’t be quite as steep.
That’s what made Moorhead the perfect candidate for this job. If Mississippi State didn’t hire him, somebody else would’ve. That was a tough thing for Penn State fans to stomach after watching their team soar to new heights the past 14 months. Moorhead was too good at his job not to be one of the top coaching candidates across the country.
How ironic it was that he picked Mississippi State, where no rebuild is required for a team that held its own in arguably the toughest division in the country. It’ll be different than the situation than he entered at Penn State, which had the right pieces but lacked the right leader. This opportunity was teed up perfectly for Moorhead.
And like his former Penn State quarterback, don’t be surprised when Moorhead knocks it out of the park.