Opposing defenses are loading up this season to prevent Penn State from hitting the occasional big play that was such a strength for the Nittany Lions in 2016, but offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead is more than satisfied with how his unit has functioned.
Last weekend's Iowa game is a case in point. The Nittany Lions had just one gain of 40 yards or more, a 44-yard run by Saquon Barkley, but piled up 579 yards of total offense in their 21-19 victory.
"Iowa was trying to keep everything in front of them," Moorhead said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. "I thought they did a good job with that. Ultimately our offense is predicated on taking what the defense gives you, and while it didn't necessarily translate to points on the scoreboard, we moved the ball very well between the 10s."
Barkley wound up with 40 touches from scrimmage – 28 rushes (211 yards) and 12 receptions (94). Moorhead said the Hawkeyes "were playing soft on the edges, gave us perimeter runs, and weren't letting the ball get over the top.
"That's why Saquon ended up getting a lot of passes. They were taking the deep route away, and Trace [McSorley] was making the right reads and dumping it down. You don't want to overuse [Barkley], but when you have a guy of that skill set, you have to make sure you get the ball in his hands enough times, because he does special things when he has it."
The fourth-ranked Nittany Lions, who will face Indiana on Saturday at Beaver Stadium, have gained 20 or more yards this season on 26 plays (6.3 per game) — 16 passes and 10 runs — compared to 89 last season (6.4 per game). Seven plays – six by Barkley – have gone for 40 or more yards, something the Lions did 30 times last season.
"Entering the season, a lot of people talked about would we be able to maintain our explosiveness of pushing the ball down the field in the pass game," Moorhead said. "Some people felt we needed to be more efficient and work on the underneath stuff. So you just have to strike a balance.
"I think maybe the pure down-the-field throws, the ones that are going over people's heads, are down a little bit. But that hasn't affected our explosiveness per se in the pass game or our ability to create plays of 15 yards or more. It's about what the defense is giving us and how we're trying to get the ball and disperse it among our playmakers."
Moorhead's definition of explosive plays is a run of 12 yards or longer or a pass completion of 15 yards or more. He said Penn State had 14 explosive plays against the Hawkeyes.
Through four games, the Nittany Lions are third in the Big Ten in points scored per game (40.5), passing yards per game (282.5), and total offense (496.5). But they are 12th in third-down conversions (35.4 percent), and Moorhead said improvement is a matter of "doing a good job putting them in the position to be successful with the play call and going out and executing it."
In last year's game against Indiana, a 45-31 Penn State win, the Hoosiers held the Lions' rushing attack to 77 yards, with Barkley gaining 58 yards on a career-high 33 carries. But McSorley excelled in the passing game, passing for 189 yards in rallying his team from a 10-point deficit in the last 18 minutes.
"When the defense is hell-bent on taking away one aspect of your offense," Moorhead said, "we feel confident that we're balanced enough that we can make up for it."
Punt return touchdowns scored by Indiana's J'Shun Harris II in the past two weeks.
Scores (one touchdown, two field goals) allowed by Penn State on six trips by its opponents in the red zone, tied for first in the FBS.
Receiving yards needed by Saquon Barkley to give him 1,000 in his career, which would make him the first Penn State player to reach that plateau and gain 3,000 rushing yards.
Three Things to Watch
Indiana plays at a faster offensive tempo than that of the Nittany Lions. The Hoosiers have averaged 78 plays in their first three games, 11 more than the Lions, who have played four games.
Saquon Barkley hurt Iowa last week with his rushing and his receiving. Which one of those options will the Hoosiers try to take away?