New Oregon offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead was previously the OC at Penn State in 2016 and 2017 (#23 and #5 in offensive SP+, respectively), and the head coach at Mississippi State with offensive playcalling duties in 2018 and 2019 (#32 and #36). He was the head coach at his alma mater, FCS Fordham, from 2012 to 2015, with a 38-13 record, three straight playoff appearances, and a conference championship. He was the OC and QB coach at UConn from 2009 to 2011, when the Huskies went to the Fiesta bowl. His first FBS OC job was at Akron from 2006 to 2008.
That’s a pretty diverse resume, coaching offenses with wildly different talent levels, opponent quality, and roster strengths and weaknesses. I have acquired film of all these stops and reviewed 19 games across thirteen years at five schools.
This article will break down tape of each, offer predictions about what type of offense he’ll run at Oregon, and attempt to identify any potential areas of concern.
Let’s start with some clips that illustrate the core principles that remain consistent throughout Moorhead’s career: using versatile personnel sets (primarily one RB and one TE) to attack grass, angles, and numbers, and produce explosive plays through defensive manipulation:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them at ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Trips to the field who carry three DBs deep with them along with an RPO fake. The RB presses inside which draws the other two DBs and the backside LB down, then follows the pulling tackle outside for a nice run into open grass.
- :18 - On the field side, the pump fake to the RB draws the DB down and puts a linebacker on a slot receiver for what might have been an advantageous downfield matchup. But the LT gives up pressure and the boundary CB blitzing flush the QB. The safety is coming to replace the CB but the LB is in conflict between curl/flat coverage and the TE racing past - the defense simply loses him on the sideline.
- :39 - The back motions from pistol to offset, altering the linebacker posture since they’re expecting a run to the field, but instead it’s a option pitch to the boundary. The defense is better than every offensive player on the field except the running back, who makes some impressive moves against the isolated backer and then breaks free of the guys the OL hasn’t blocked properly to find completely cleared out grass down the sideline.
- 1:04 - Oregon fans should be familiar with this levels concept after the last two years - the inside receiver dropping back for a screen draws three defenders leaving the other receiver wide open after he fakes a block and then heads downfield. He’s got lots of grass ahead of him because the flanker runs off the CB and the high safety and rest of the defense is occupied by the TE and RB releasing on the other side of the field.
- 1:21 - Cover-0 with an excellent defensive line and six on the line of scrimmage. The fake outside run gets the linebacker in man moving, the TE chipping then releasing pulls another out, the RB acts as another blocker, a guard pulls around to lead block and the tackle cuts the remaining backer. That’s using scheme and motion to neutralize the defense’s advantages in talent and knowing a short yardage QB keep is coming.
- 1:37 - This RPO pulls eight men into the box to defend the run, with only the high safety on the slot receiver who’s got a vast swath of grass to run into. Just an easy read of the backer and a quick throw for a big gain.
Other than the inside QB keeper, virtually all of the plays I saw in Moorhead’s film are substantially similar to plays I’ve seen in Oregon’s playbook over the last two years. The Ducks have made extensive use of read options, split zones, off-tackle runs, and gap schemes in the run game. They have been using deception plays like RPOs, H-back blocks under the formation turning into pass options, fake screens into downfield passes, and everything else illustrated in the above video. In terms of personnel, Oregon is already very comfortable in 11-sets, tight and spread formations, shotgun snaps, pistol and offset backs, pre-snap motion, post-snap reads, no-huddle and no-substitution drives, and every personnel variation (except one) that I saw in every game Moorhead coached.
There’s nothing, in other words, that strikes me as fundamentally alien between these playbooks. As such, from the perspective of installation, I think this will be a fairly smooth transition for the new offense. Moorhead’s offense appears to be an evolution of the previous one with a focus on generating more explosive plays, rather than a wholesale change in philosophy like Oregon’s 2005 and 2018 offseasons.
Akron, UConn, Fordham
Going back to the beginning of Moorhead’s coaching career, we can see extensive adaptation to his available players as well as experimentation as he refined his playcalling style. There were quite a few different formations and plays over his time at Akron, UConn, and Fordham that mark his evolution as a playbook designer and inform his present philosophy over the past four years calling plays at the Power-5 level. Some faded away as his career progressed, but I think might be good fits for Oregon as new wrinkles in the playbook.
His run plays used two-back sets and had the QB under center quite a bit, with a lot of power running mixed in. The most significant changes over the first nine years of his career reflect the relative strength of his offensive line - he knows how to run the ball when he’s at a physical disadvantage, but he isn’t shy about leveraging superior talent when he has it. Some examples:
- :00 - I love this play and hope Moorhead brings it to Oregon: 21-personnel split gun, with one back acting as lead blocker to the weakside and the pulling guard coming around to clobber the backer.
- :26 - Haven’t seen this in Eugene since the Berlin Wall fell: I-formation with a real live fullback as the lead blocker and the QB under center. Great job by the RT to surprise the backer on that long pull.
- :32 - While at Fordham, Moorhead heavily bought into the RPO and used it to juice his run game, as with this play that manipulates the linebackers and safeties even though the QB ultimately hands off. Here all it takes is the ILB heading for the opening gap to one side and the RB cutting to the other to find a whole lot of open grass.
- :58 - There’s a number of draw plays like this one earlier in his career that I’d like to see at Oregon. The OL dropping into pass pro pulls all three linemen into the backfield and sends the backers into coverage, so the back after the delayed handoff has a much easier job dodging one and the LG has crept downfield to block the other.
The route structure in the passing game is where I saw the most change during the early years of Moorhead’s career. By the end of his time at Fordham, he’d settled on a pretty simple set of configurations that we see extensively over his last four years, but early on there was plenty of experimentation:
- :00 - This one’s certainly daring, a rollout to the field then throwing back to the RB on a very long developing wheel. That’s one way to take advantage of a southpaw QB.
- :23 - We’re starting to see how Moorhead likes using the whole field: there’s an option at every lateral section from sideline to sideline. The defense is doing a fairly good job here, including the safety maintaining outside leverage, but the TE has put the LB in conflict and he loses his footing, so the QB has a nice quick hitter over the middle.
- :37 - The Strong I gets the defense to put eight in the box. The SAM is surprised the fullback isn’t stopping for a quick dumpoff … but why should he, there’s no pressure coming since the OLB drops to cover the releasing TE. All the FB has to do is run over the poor high safety.
- :49 - Here’s 20-personnel in the spread, which is about as opposite of a formation as you can get compared to the last one. More RPO misdirection here - the fake screen draws off the field DBs, the ILB lets the first back go thinking this is an inside run by the other one, and suddenly there’s nothing but grass till the endline.
The first thing that grabbed my attention when I turned on the PSU tape is that they simply did not have a reliable offensive line, and were losing at least one battle in the trenches on almost every snap. Even their future NFL tight end, while a great pass-catcher, was a fairly ineffective blocker. On the other hand, they had quite an extensive collection of top-flight skill talent, and Moorhead leveraged that with a scheme that used a lot of outside plays, quick throws, and keeping the QB on the move.
Let’s examine four drives over his time at PSU that demonstrate how he adapted his offense to his roster’s strengths and weaknesses, and began employing 11-personnel sets almost exclusively. The first is against USC in the 2016-17 Rose Bowl:
I chose this drive to show what a tough time the OL is having against USC’s sheer talent in their defensive front, giving up pressure on passing plays and not opening any holes for inside runs. Moorhead deals with this by using the wide receivers on the outside run by heading downfield and taking the DBs with them before blocking to open space, and on the first and last play by getting them into 1-on-1 coverage where his guys get the DBs turned around and on their heels.
Next we’ll go to a drive against Michigan in 2017, when they had the #5 defense in SP+. PSU is again outgunned in the trenches, but Moorhead neutralizes that advantage by sticking with the same versatile personnel group and preventing the Wolverines from rotating their players:
The first three plays are all passes, where Michigan is forced to use different coverages out of the same personnel. On the first and third the QB does a great job looking off the only safety and letting a future NFL receiver win single coverage, while the second has the back split out as a receiver against zone with two deep safeties where everyone gets run off leaving the crosser with plenty of space for yards after catch. The next two are outside rushes, one to isolate a backer who gets his ankles broke by a first-round pick RB, the other an option pitch that freezes the unblocked end that would have worked had the LT actually gotten to the backer as he was freed up to do. A timeout finally lets the defense sub out, and they switch to a fourth defensive lineman in the red zone. The tight end vs a safety in man is a matchup problem and the other safety is so far away he doesn’t even need to be looked off, and on the final play four (!) defenders are so locked onto the back on the goal line that the QB practically walks in.
While Moorhead did have some incredible skill players to work with and a QB who was willing and able to run the ball, his scheme was still effective without having to rely on transcendent talents. Here’s a quick 6-play TD drive against Iowa in 2016 (the #18 defense in SP+) in which the freshman RB is in, the TE gets no targets, and the QB never runs:
Mostly rushes on this drive despite the backup RB, he gets a weakside off-tackle run to the boundary to start off while most of the defense is to the field dealing with the overload, then two plays later (after a false start) he bounces it outside after the read handoff. I believe there’s multiple RPO components on most of these plays as well: on the actual throw there’s two different passing targets based on the backer coming up and then the high-low read on the CB in conflict. The next three plays are all handoffs, but notice how the passing option is open to the tight end or field receivers depending on the defensive reaction. The last play is a nicely executed sweep, by the backup QB of all people.
Finally, let’s go back to that 2017 Michigan game for another no-substitution drive, this one locking the defense into a 4-man front:
The first two plays are about the RG’s struggle with the 2i. On the first one the defender wins and the back has to dive to the other side instead of the big open grass in the middle of the field the overload has created, but on the second one the RG does what it takes to keep him clear and the QB has a huge lane when the LBs pursue the back on the sweep and the pulling LG seals the end. On the third play the defense has to use a linebacker to cover the tight end in zone, and the WR is left wide open in the middle of the field - this is a mechanically poor throw under pressure from the blitz, it’s badly underthrown and to the wrong guy at that, but a mismatch all the same. The defense tries an end-first stunt on the last play which gives the QB even longer to make his pitch read on the tackle coming around. The linebackers have all gone backside because that’s where the OL is going (and aren’t blocking great but it doesn’t matter, they’re just decoys for the outside run anyway), and the single high safety has an awful long way to run to get to the back on the pitch.
In Starkville, the relative talents of the offensive personnel Moorhead inherited are almost the opposite of those in Happy Valley. He got some pretty good running backs, including a starter who’ll become the SEC’s leading rusher, but as we discussed on the podcast with Noah Mashburn of ForWhomTheCowbellTolls.com, none who have the same ability to make something out of nothing. And outside a couple of backs, I don’t believe any of the offensive skill players are NFL draft prospects. While the PSU QB had some limitations to his arm talent, the 4-year senior starting QB at Miss St had almost no arm to speak of. But on the other hand the offensive line, though probably not elite, was much bigger and more capable of holding their own against competitive defensive fronts.
So in 2018 the Bulldogs were almost exclusively a rushing offense, and we got to see some interesting blocking schemes that will probably translate to Oregon in 2020:
Although each of the runs on this drive are different play types, they share a number of common themes: pulling or downfield blocking linemen (sometimes both), aggressive TE and WR blocking to the outside, the same basic 11-personnel (even if the back or TE are split out as receivers), the QB as a runner or at least run threat, and an outside run possibility freezing or otherwise manipulating the defense. I particularly like the LG on the last play getting five yards downfield to block the backer.
The passing game was something of an adventure during Moorhead’s first year at Miss St. Interestingly, even as I thought the o-line was better, I saw a lot more max protect than before - possibly for the purpose of buying the WRs more time to get open:
The first four plays are runs, and should be familiar by now: other than the second play — a pitch option keep that appeared earlier in this article at Penn St — these are all concepts that Oregon used extensively over the past two seasons … that fourth play with the H-back wham blocking to seal the backside was a bread-and-butter play for the Ducks. Four of the final five plays are passes, and none are RPOs, just straight dropbacks. They’re also pretty different route trees compared to Penn St or Fordham: mostly simple 3-vertical concepts with the back and TE staying in pass-pro and the WR in single coverage, with the QB just waiting for one of them to get enough separation to try the throw.
As far as I can determine, there are three main reasons Moorhead’s coaching tenure at Miss St started to go south in 2019. The first I’ll put under the general heading of “cultural problems”, and there’s an extensive discussion of them — an academic scandal, historic regional differences, losing the locker room, possibly unrealistic fan expectations, no other strong offensive voice in the room — on the podcast with Noah.
Many Oregon fans have questioned whether Moorhead got a fair shake at Miss St; in my opinion this is beside the point - these things, if real at all, are either not his fault or not his exclusive purview at his new job. There’s certainly nothing in his record to suggest he’s a toxic personality whose mere presence (as opposed to failing to stop other bad actors when in power) affirmatively sabotages a team’s chemistry, all evidence is to the contrary.
Second, there was a tremendous falloff in defensive performance in his second year, from the consensus #1 defense in 2018 to somewhere in the 50s or 60s in most categories and advanced statistical models in 2019. Frankly I have no idea why this was, as I didn’t have time to watch the defense as well. There were a number of defensive losses to the NFL, and the academic scandal mostly fell on defensive starters. Moorhead hired Bob Shoop as DC for both years; I don’t know much about him (his defenses have never caught my eye enough to do film study on them), but Noah is much more familiar as seven of his last nine years as a DC have been in the SEC and he thinks Shoop is a pretty good coordinator.
While I suppose the buck stops at the head coach and he did make the hiring and disciplinary decisions, I have a hard time putting any of these problems at Moorhead’s feet, especially since the same model — let the DC have free reign over the defense — worked for his predecessor as head coach, Dan Mullen. I even think the poor defense lets Moorhead’s offense off the hook a bit, since it struck me that he was constantly battling poor field position.
Third, and by far the biggest potential problem for Oregon fans, is that the QB performance in 2019 was appalling. Moorhead inherited one QB on the roster, a 4-star dual threat named Keytaon Thompson who was apparently a fan favorite. I can’t evaluate him since I don’t believe he ever saw the field. His other two options he has to own: one was a grad transfer from Penn St, Tommy Stevens (we saw him running in a TD earlier in this article), the other a true freshman he recruited, Garrett Shrader.
Moorhead chose Stevens as starter, but between repeated injuries and ineffectiveness, repeatedly benched him in favor of Shrader, then let him get his starting job back despite, to my eyes, not being any better despite having four more years of experience. The situation was baffling to me (I think that you permanently bench an underperforming 5th-year and go with the freshman in that situation to invest in the future) and reminded me of Cal’s 2018 self-inflicted destruction by their QB carousel, culminating in a bowl result at least as bizarre as the Cheez-It Bowl, where a linebacker who’d been suspended by the NCAA for eight games due to an academic scandal punched Shrader in the eye during bowl practice and rendered him unavailable for the game.
Here’s a drive from the second half against Tennessee (#19 SP+ defense) by Shrader, as Stevens started the game after coming off missing most of the last game due to an early injury, but was then benched at halftime for throwing two interceptions (astonishingly, this was the second time for both of those things in a six-week period):
The pair of runs go awry due to the defense winning one-on-one battles, but this drive is mostly passing plays. One breaks down and Shrader saves it with his legs, another is a bad decision to go deep against two high safeties who can easily generate double coverage instead of taking the easy underneath options. But the three successful passes are all nice manipulations of the defense to put the ball in the soft spot of the zone coverage, and the final play adds a rollout and high-low read with the TE to what’s otherwise the same route structure as the one two plays prior.
In Moorhead’s final game at Miss St, two turnovers (one on special teams), four sacks, a defensive collapse, and the aforementioned QB drama sunk his chances of a season-salvaging bowl win. But all things considered I thought the offensive gameplan made sense, using 2:1 rushing and featuring some interesting innovation:
Three zone runs on this drive, all featuring some nice blocks by the TEs and WRs. The o-line was having some pretty curious problems in this game given how massively outsized they are compared to Louisville’s defensive front, and Miss St’s star running back got injured on the first play, but plays like these kept them ahead of the chains. The QB punches it in on a rollout with an RPO tag to the TE, with the safety overcommitting to the throw and opening a hole for the QB to dive for the endzone. I really like the back-to-back gadget plays - a reverse that generates a facemask flag, and a flea flicker that I didn’t think Stevens had in him. But here’s the most interesting thing: every play in this game was conducted out of 12-personnel, which I’d never seen Moorhead use before, and there were several plays that used both TEs in combination that he’d never put on tape since UConn. He was innovating and adapting till the very end.