In order to win, Bill O’Brien decided that he had to be willing to lose.
With a little over ten minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Penn State had the ball on the Northwestern 5 yard line, trailing 28-17. The Nittany Lions faced 4th and goal, and O’Brien faced one of the toughest decisions of his young head-coaching career. Kicking has been anything but a guarantee so far this season, but the safer option still would’ve been to attempt the chip shot 22 yard field goal. Reduce the lead to eight points and live to see another drive.
Instead, he elected to go for it all with the touchdown. The possible reward would be cutting the lead to potentially a field goal and a ton of momentum for the defense, but what about the risk? What if it was not successful? “Then the game would have been over,” said a calm O’Brien. Allen Robinson made sure it was not over, hauling in a 5 yard pass from Matt McGloin for his second touchdown reception of the day. A successful run by Michael Zordich for the two point conversion cut the Wildcats’ lead to 28-25.
The game wasn’t over for OBrien’s squad. As a matter of fact, it was just beginning.
It was this aggressive attitude that would propel the Nittany Lions (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten) to a 39-28 victory over the No. 24 Northwestern Wildcats (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten). The Nittany Lions turned a double digit fourth quarter deficit into an eleven point victory, beating a ranked team at Beaver Stadium for the first time since 2008.
That fourth down conversion served as a preview for what was to follow. Getting the ball back after the Nittany Lions defense forced a three and out, Matt McGloin and Zach Zwinak would drive down the field before facing 4th and 2 from the Northwestern 19 yard line.
Rather than trotting out Sam Ficken for a potential game-tying field goal with 4:50 to go, O’Brien gambled again knowing he may not receive another chance if the play failed. It worked again as McGloin avoided pressure and somehow found Brandon Moseby-Felder for a 13 yard gain to move the chains.
Three plays later, McGloin would scramble to his right and find the end zone on a broken play to give his team the lead. The Wildcats only trailed by four points and had three timeouts and almost three minutes to work with, but things changed a lot in a hurry. “We knew it was over,” said a smiling Jordan Hill after the game. His unit made sure of it. The Wildcats could only gain 3 yards on 4 plays before Penn State took over on downs and added a Zordich touchdown to put the game completely out of reach.
Dramatic comebacks against Northwestern are nothing new, but this one was different. In 2005, the Nittany Lions scored a game-winning touchdown in the final minutes to complete a road comeback in Evanston. In 2010, they scored 35 unanswered points to erase a 21-0 hole, but it started a minute before halftime and was complete by the time the third quarter ended. Double digit comebacks in the fourth quarter were uncommon under the previous coaching staff.
Against ranked opponents over the past three seasons, the Nittany Lions always seemed to play safe, not-to-lose football, trying to maintain life but never willing to take the extra risk to deliver a kill shot. This only worked for so long as opponents took advantage of a team trying to play an ultra conservative style for sixty minutes of football.
Today was the complete opposite as the Nittany Lions offense attempted 6 fourth down conversions and were successful on 5 of them. Three of the five touchdown drives would feature a successful fourth down attempt. While part of this has to do with a struggling kicker, it signifies that O’Brien does not mind this style of play. “Even though we haven’t always executed, I have good confidence there,” said O’Brien.
Running backs coach Charles London agrees and believes the players are enjoying the strategy. “I think the kids love it. We can use it as another way to plan on third down and keep defensive coordinators guessing. The kids love his [O’Brien’s] aggressive style, and I think you saw that today,” said London.
Perhaps singling out the previous regime is a bit unfair. These types of comebacks are not too frequent across football as a whole. It takes the aggressiveness and desire to win rather than just surviving to see another play.
This tactic comes with a considerable amount of risk, but today, the reward was a fourth straight victory following an 0-2 start and the first home win against a ranked opponent in almost four years.
- Zack Zwinak eclipsed 100 yards for the second straight game. He led the Nittany Lions in carries and yards for the third straight game.
- The Nittany Lions held Wildcats running back Venric Mark to a season low 72 rushing yards.
- Mark was still a factor with a 75 yard punt return touchdown that gave the Wildcats a 28-17 lead. It was the first punt return for a touchdown that the Nittany Lions allowed since the 2006. Orange Bowl versus Florida State.
- Kain Colter did not attempt a pass all game and was held to 24 yards after running for 161 against Indiana last week.
- Gerald Hodges came to play today, leading the team with 11 tackles. Michael Mauti and Jordan Hill chipped in 9 and 8, respectively.
- Matt McGloin set a Penn State record with 35 completions on a career high 51 attempts.
- Allen Robinson was back to leading the team in receiving yards after a somewhat quiet day last week.
- The Nittany Lions have now won their last six games against the Wildcats, scoring at least 33 points in every contest.
- Announced attendance for today was 95,769, lower than the Ohio and Navy games but higher than Temple two weeks ago.