The play that found the end zone — Penn State’s first game-winning touchdown on the final snap in 88 years — had actually been called earlier in the game. Tight end Mike Gesicki had managed to sneak out in the flat and come well open on the sideline, but Iowa’s pass rush caused the pass to be well underthrown.
But when the Nittany Lions called timeout before the decisive fourth-and-goal play on Saturday night, there was still some tinkering to be done.
Receivers coach Josh Gattis had approached offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead with the idea to switch Juwan Johnson’s route on the play to the middle of the field. With Kinnick Stadium hitting its loudest roar and only a minute before the play clock would start up, Moorhead went to work.
“It was something that we didn’t even practice, to be honest with you,” Gesicki said. “He just kind of drew it up right there — literally drew it up on a piece of paper and said, ‘You’re going to go here, and you’re going to go here and this is what you’re going to do.’
“That’s kind of what you can do when you’re coach Moorhead and you’re a football genius.”
The coach himself isn’t exactly using that word to describe himself these days. Not even after a lengthy profile by Sports Illustrated and several national outlets listing him as a top head coaching candidate for 2018.
For now, Moorhead is trying to block out the talk about his future in the profession.
“I’m like anybody in the world,” Moorhead said. “People don’t like to be criticized and they do like to be praised. But when you get caught up in it and allow it to affect who you are as a person, it becomes a distraction.
“What I hang my hat on everyday is that we’re gonna come in and take care of business. The things that come along with that after the season, we’ll address it then.”
As to the Lions’ current situation, Moorhead is looking to clean up their work in the red zone heading into Saturday’s game against Indiana.
Penn State recorded nearly 600 yards of offense against Iowa but scored only 21 points. After being torched a year ago by several big plays, the Hawkeyes were determined not to let it happen again this time, playing soft coverage that took away the deep ball.
But it did give Saquon Barkley plenty of room underneath on checkdowns, which is a big reason why he finished with a career-high 12 catches.
It’s not an uncommon strategy. While Penn State is still doing well by its definition of explosive plays — runs of 12 yards or greater and passes of 15 yards or greater — those touchdowns of 40 and 50 yards are harder to come by.
“I think that’s a byproduct of what the defense is giving us and how we’re trying to get the ball out and disperse it among our playmakers,” Moorhead said.
Saturday will provide an interesting test for Moorhead’s offense. In last year’s meeting, the Hoosiers were as good as anyone in bottling up the Lions on the ground as Barkley finished with a paltry 58 yards on 33 carries (1.8 ypc) and Penn State had just 77 rushing yards as a team.
But five different players caught deep passes in the Lions’ 45-31 win — Chris Godwin (26 yards), Barkley (32), Saeed Blacknall (43), Gesicki (45) and DaeSean Hamilton (54).
Tom Allen, then the Hoosiers’ defensive coordinator, is now the head coach. And he and Moorhead will have themselves another chess match.
Moorhead is looking forward to it.
“No one rises to low expectations,” Moorhead said. “Every time that we take the field, our expectation level when a possession begins is that it’s going to end with a touchdown,” Moorhead said. “To this point in the season, we are averaging 40 points, close to 500 yards of total offense. But I do think that we have more in us.
“I do think we have to continue to improve on a weekly basis with our preparation, our play calling and our execution, but I definitely think that our best football is still ahead of us.”