Editor’s Note: In advance of the start of spring practice for the Mississippi State football team on March 20, Dispatch beat writer Brett Hudson examines how new coach Joe Moorhead’s offense is going to throw the football and run the football. Hudson also looks at how Moorhead is going to teach his players his system.
STARKVILLE — When Joe Moorhead and his 2016 Penn State offense were the toast of college football on its run to the Rose Bowl, most of the fervor surrounded its aerial attack. The Nittany Lions had the best passing offense in the Big 10 by yards per game and completion percentage on top of ranking third in the nation in both passes of 30 or more yards (48) and passes of 40 or more yards (30).
It was only half of the picture. Moorhead is much more than a passing savant.
Throughout his career, Moorhead has shown a desire and ability to facilitate an effective rushing attack, one he said he plans on bringing with him to year one with Mississippi State.
“First and foremost, offensively, we’re going to be a team that runs the ball successfully,” Moorhead said in his introductory press conference. “We’re going to run the ball successfully and when — not if, when — we do that, it forces team to commit numbers to the box for support and that creates 1-on-1 matchups on the perimeter.”
The Moorhead run game revolves around three principles: numbers, angles and grass.
Moorhead’s offense revolves around the run-pass option (RPO), which relies heavily on the numbers aspect of that formula. RPOs, in their most basic form, give the quarterback the power to decide whether the play called is going to be a run or a pass based on how many defenders are in the box. As Audrey Snyder, the Penn State beat writer for dkpittsburghsports.com told The Dispatch, running the Moorhead offense, “puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback to make the right read.”
The number to know is the number of defenders within the box. If a team has six defenders within the box, that indicates to the offense that a run will be successful because it can account for every threat: five offensive linemen are handling five of the six defenders, with the last defender being the victim of the postsnap read that determines if the run goes to the quarterback or the running back.
That calculus can change when tight ends are introduced and whether they are assigned to block or release into pass routes, but the basic underlying principle in the numbers aspect of the Moorhead run game is how its formation and play call stack up against the defensive alignment. When Moorhead says numbers in the run game, he wants a numbers advantage.
Making that presnap read was one of the biggest parts of Michael Nebrich’s job under Moorhead. Nebrich originally signed and played eight games for Moorhead at Connecticut, where he was the quarterbacks coach in 2011. Moorhead took over as the head coach at Fordham in 2012 and Nebrich followed him there. Nebrich ended his career with 8,084 passing yards and 66 touchdowns in 28 games, all while orchestrating one of the Patriot League’s most powerful rushing attacks — and it all started with numbers.
The next pillar of the Moorhead run game, angles, is also dependent on the quarterback.
“It’s the angle of the defender the quarterback is reading, where his shoulders are angled and off those angles, you determine do I pull it or do I give it,” Nebrich told The Dispatch. “Even in the RPOs where we’re reading off the linebacker and throwing behind them, those angles are so important because when those shoulders are angled in the right direction, you obviously have that guy beat. Being able to read those angles in such a quick moment, that determines whether you’re going to have success on that play or not.”
That’s a departure from the norm: most coaches that run read concepts teach their players to read defenders based on their position relative to the mesh point, where the running back could receive a handoff. Moorhead teaches his quarterbacks to read the angle the defender is facing, trusting that as a better indicator of which potential ballcarrier the defender is more poised to tackle.
“That’s not how Joe does his style of offense because that’s kind of the dumbed down version of it, and he expects his players to know better,” Nebrich said of reading defenders by positioning. “If you’re reading the angle of the defender, you’re much more likely to have an accurate read than if you’re reading the position the guy is currently in, because obviously at that level, especially in the SEC, if they’re in one position, they can literally be in the other position in half of a second.
“If you’re reading the angle of the shoulders and the hips, it’s very difficult to change that angle on the fly to where they can then make a play.”
The burden of the postsnap read does not come easy: Tyson Lee learned it first hand in his two years as a MSU quarterback in 2008 and 2009. Lee, a Columbus native, now works for MSU as the Director of the M Club Lettermen’s Organization. From his experience, the only way to get comfortable making the postsnap reads in run games structured this way is constant repetition — yet true confidence may not come until the season starts.
“Getting as many reps as possible with the exact number of steps as you’ll take in a game is critical,” Lee told The Dispatch. “Once you’ve had a few game reps, that’s when you’re confident.
“Until you go against a live defense, you don’t really know. You can put a coach in there or put a defender in there and tell them to play hard, but it’s not the same flow as a game.”
There is one nuance of the Moorhead system that might make it easier: the angles. When Lee was running it, Mullen’s was one of the aforementioned offenses that primarily masked its quarterbacks to read defenders based on positioning while Moorhead asks them to read angles. In certain ways, reading the angle may be easier than reading the positioning, given the quarterback has less to monitor in the determined read defender.
“They’ll play games with you with their positioning,” Lee said.
When one combines the numbers advantage created by a correct RPO read and the right read on an angle, the result is the final pillar of the Moorhead run game: grass. There is bound to be open grass when everyone is blocked and the ball goes away from the one defender who isn’t blocked; Nebrich saw a lot of it in Penn State running back Saquon Barkley’s usage under Moorhead.
The Moorhead way may seem like a unique recipe, and in some ways it is, but he doesn’t see it as a tough study. In watching what MSU did last year, he saw a lot of postsnap reads for quarterbacks in the run game — exactly what he’ll ask them to do.
“At least offensively speaking, I’d say it’s same church, different pew,” Moorhead said. “The schemes that we run and the things that Coach Mullen did, the majority of it is shotgun spread offense, one back. They spent a little time under center this year, but we’re just a different branch of it.
“Inside zone is inside zone, power plays are power plays, routes are routes, it’s just how you package it and how you dress it up. It’s not a tremendous deviation.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson