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Countdown to Blue-White / 4 Days: Will Penn State Be as Aggressive on Fourth Down in 2013?

Bill O'Brien 4th Down

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.

Recent Stories: 

Day 10: Year Two Has Had Ups and Downs for Former Penn State Head Coaches

Day 9: Top 5 Springtime Quarterback Battles

Day 8: Will Bill O’Brien’s Run-Pass Ratio Change in 2013?

Day 7: How is Penn State’s Secondary Different from 2012?

Day 6: O’Brien Looking to Get Everyone Involved in Running Game

Day 5: Ficken Ready to Continue Streak Into 2013

image Dave Cole
Football - The Penn State Nittany Lions football program currently resides in the Big Ten conference and has won two National Championships. Known for tradition, Beaver Stadium, and Joe Paterno, the program is a point of pride and solidarity in the community. Read more