Joe Moorhead made Penn State’s offense much better in almost every facet in 2016. The first-year offensive coordinator brought a zone-read scheme and thirst for big plays that lifted the Nittany Lions to a scoring average of 37.6 points per game from 23.2 the year before.
That success, however, tended to disintegrate on third down.
Penn State finished 118th nationally with a third-down conversion percentage of 32.7. For all of their explosiveness and ability to turn any snap into a gain of 20-plus yards — sometimes even on third down — the Nits could not consistently move the chains if they didn’t convert on early downs.
One yard per series, though, may be all Penn State needs to turn those struggles around in 2017.
Consider: The Nits faced an average distance of 7.42 yards on third down, which placed them 95th nationally. Conversely, Michigan faced an average third-down distance of 6.04 yards — sixth-best nationally — and converted 43.6 percent of its attempts en route to putting up the best scoring number in the Big Ten at 40.3 points per game. Ohio State, the only other Big Ten team that averaged more points than Penn State, converted 48.9 percent of its third downs from an average distance of 6.48 yards — the 19th-best mark nationally — and scored 39.4 points per game.
Getting better on third down, then, isn’t so much about clutchness or brilliant third-down play calls as it is avoiding dead plays — those that go for no gain or negative yards — and using first and second downs to set up third-down situations only slightly more favorable than Penn State faced in 2016.
Of course, there are dead plays baked into Penn State’s gameplan.
Moorhead likes to take lower-percentage throws down the field to push defenses back, giving the running game and underneath passing game more room to maneuver. Sometimes the throws go for long gains, but other times they land harmlessly incomplete.
He also likes to call zone-read running plays that require the quarterback to either dish the ball to his halfback or keep it himself based on how a defender, identified before the play, reacts when the ball is snapped. Many times, the Nits catch that defender out of position and are able to exploit him for big plays — or at least productive gains. But sometimes they misread him or are simply sniffed out for a dead play.
It will be almost impossible for Penn State to eliminate these hazards because it’s hard to complete every long pass and fool defenders every time. It can mitigate the damage, though, by improving at finding those extra yards on other plays.
For quarterback Trace McSorley and his receivers, that means making more plays in the short and intermediate passing game.
McSorley finished the season with a completion percentage of 57.9. That’s fine, considering he passed for a Penn State single-season record 3,614 yards. But coach James Franklin said in November that he’d like to see that completion percentage in the “mid-60s or higher,” which we can take to mean that there are a lot of plays Penn State didn’t make in the difference between 58 and, say, 65 percent.
McSorley can get better by avoiding the overthrows that hurt him at times. The receivers can improve by limiting drops and making sure they’re getting off the ball well when the play calls for them to find room underneath.
And in the running game, Saquon Barkley can be mindful of the fact that he doesn’t have to hit a home run every time, something Franklin pointed in September. Via the Allentown Morning Call’s Mark Wogenrich:
“Saquon, I think all year long, has really been trying to make every run an 80-yard touchdown. You’ve got to be willing to lower your shoulder down and just run people over, or get in a gap and push the pile for four or five yards. He’s been trying to make the extra cut every single run, and there’s a time and a place for that.”
That was obviously before Penn State’s offense really got rolling. But it’s a behavior Barkley demonstrated even later in the season, sometimes costing Penn State that yard that’s the difference between a third-and-7.42 and third-and-6.04 or 6.48.
Yes, the explosiveness to turn even the narrowest windows into 80-yard runs is what makes him special, but the willingness to grind on first and second down is what will make him a complete runner as an upperclassman.
So for all Penn State’s success, there are certainly things on which McSorley, Barkley and the rest can work this offseason. With most of the playmakers coming back, it’s reasonable to expect this offense will retain the ability to turn every snap into a big gain.
It’s the plays between those long gains, though, that will determine whether it can continue pushing that scoring average higher.