During his first season patrolling the sidelines in Happy Valley, Bill O’Brien acquired the reputation of a gambler when it came to fourth down decisions.
The game that may best exemplify the head coach’s aggressiveness is the fourth quarter comeback against Northwestern. Penn State converted fourth downs on consecutive offensive drives to overcome an 11-point deficit and regain the lead against the Wildcats, but keeping the offense on the field on fourth down started way before this and continued as the season went on.
O’Brien’s style was certainly a contrast to the often conservative offenses that Joe Paterno and his staff presided over, but just how aggressive was he and will it continue heading into 2013? We take a trip back in an attempt to look into the future with the following chart that recaps every time O’Brien decided to go for it on fourth down in 2012.
|Opponent||Distance||Line of scrimmage||Quarter||Score||Play Result||Drive Result|
|Ohio||2||Ohio 49||First||0-0||9-yard completion — Kersey||Fumble|
|Ohio||5||Ohio 30||Third||14-10||Incompletion||Turnover on downs|
|Ohio||10||Penn State 11||Fourth||14-24||16-yard completion — Carter||Interception|
|UVA||1||UVA 33||First||0-0||1-yard rush — McGloin||Touchdown|
|UVA||1||UVA 45||First||0-0||3-yard rush — Zordich||Touchdown|
|UVA||4||Penn State 42||Second||7-0||19-yard rush — Carson||Turnover on downs|
|UVA||4||UVA 33||Second||7-0||Sack||Turnover on downs|
|UVA||5||50-yard line||Second||7-3||15-yard rush — Bench||Time expries|
|Navy||12||Navy 34||Second||20-0||24-yard completion — Williams||Turnover on downs|
|Navy||8||Navy 8||Second||20-0||Incompletion||Turnover on downs|
|Temple||5||Temple 41||First||0-0||41-yard completion — Robinson||Touchdown|
|Illinois||6||Illinois 36||First||14-0||Incompletion||Turnover on downs|
|Illinois||5||Illinois 16||Third||21-7||Sack||Turnover on downs|
|Illinois||2||Illinois 13||Fourth||35-7||1-yard rush — Dukes||Turnover on downs|
|NW||4||NW 31||First||0-0||12-yard completion — Robinson||Field goal|
|NW||1||NW 10||First||0-0||3-yard rush — Zwinak||Field goal|
|NW||1||NW 16||Second||3-0||2-yard rush — McGloin||Touchdown|
|NW||4||NW 34||Second||10-7||Incompletion||Turnover on downs|
|NW||4||NW 6||Fourth||17-28||6-yard completion — Robinson||Touchdown|
|NW||2||NW 19||Fourth||25-28||13-yard completion — Moseby-Felder||Touchdown|
|Iowa||3||Iowa 45||First||7-0||34 yard completion — Carter||Touchdown|
|Iowa||3||Iowa 30||Second||14-0||Incompletion||Turnover on downs|
|Iowa||1||Penn State 36||Third||31-0||Rush for no gain||Turnover on downs|
|OSU||12||OSU 25||Second||0-0||8-yard completion — Moseby-Felder||Turnover on downs|
|OSU||9||OSU 43||Third||10-14||Incompletion||Turnover on downs|
|OSU||1||OSU 23||Fourth||10-28||2-yard rush — Belton||Touchdown|
|OSU||8||OSU 19||Fourth||10-28||15-yard completion — Carter||Touchdown|
|Purdue||1||50-yard line||First||0-3||Incompletion||Turnover on downs|
|Purdue||2||Purdue 28||Third||34-3||Incompletion||Turnover on downs|
|Purdue||6||50-yard line||Fourth||34-3||1-yard loss — Zordich||Turnover on downs|
|Nebraska||5||Penn State 25||Fourth||23-32||Incompletion||Turnover on downs|
|Indiana||3||Indiana 26||First||0-0||26- yard completion — Robinson||Touchdown|
|Indiana||9||Indiana 32||Third||28-22||11-yard completion — Moseby-Felder||Field goal|
|Wisconsin||6||Wisconsin 41||Fourth||13-14||41-yard completion — James||Touchdown|
Some statistics that jump out from the chart:
- Penn State was successful on 19 of 34 fourth down attempts.
- The attempts spanned 28 different drives.
- Nine of the drives resulted in touchdowns, and three led to field goals.
- Penn State was 12 of 24 when passing on fourth down and 7 of 10 when running the ball.
- Two of the attempts came by way of a fake punt.
- O’Brien went for it in all different situations and was most successful in the first and fourth quarter going 8 of 10 and 6 of 9 respectively. The Nittany Lions were 4 of 9 and 1 of 6 in the second and third quarter respectively.
- 25 of the 34 attempts came when Penn State was either losing or in a one-possession game.
- 19 attempts came with the Nittany Lions needing 4 yards or less to gain a first down.
- Eight of the attempts came in the red zone.
- Four of the attempts came in Penn State’s territory.
The last few points are particularly interesting and suggest that while aggressive, most of O’Brien’s calls were calculated and either made sense given the game situation or could be chalked up to a struggling kicker. A few decisions including the 4th and 12 against Ohio State and having the offense stay on the field with big second half leads against Iowa and Purdue can be questioned, but most others appear justified.
The results from the second half of the season imply that this could change though. Following a rough first seven games of the season that saw Sam Ficken only convert 4 of 11 field goal attempts, the sophomore kicker made his final 10 attempts, beginning with a 27-yard kick in the third quarter against Ohio State. From there, O’Brien trotted Ficken out eight times with the Nittany Lions in the red zone, a stark contrast to the first half of the season where several close field goal attempts were passed up.
The combination of a more confident kicker and a less experienced quarterback could alter the aggressive nature. Matt McGloin was very good on fourth down including four touchdown passes and two successful quarterback sneaks. If Ficken, who did not attempt a field goal outside of 40 yards during the final five contests, can improve his range, it could lead to some more conventional decisions.
“Fourth down comes down to how many yards you need for the first down, what the situation is in the game — a lot of 4th and threes, 4th and ones,” said O’Brien last week. “Sometimes it’s better to go for it.”
The fourth down aggressiveness brought excitement to a fanbase that was previously unfamiliar to it. It helped the Nittany Lions establish an identity and worked more often than it backfired, but the success may be tough to replicate, and certain game and yardage situations may not lend the chance.
An O’Brien led offense is not suddenly going to go into a shell and frequently run fullback dives, but do not be surprised if the Nittany Lions finish 2013 with less fourth down attempts than 2012.
This is the 30th in a 33-day series about Penn State football program leading up to the Blue-White Game on April 20. Click here for past installments in the series.