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Penn State Football: Bill O’Brien’s Fourth-Down Call a Mixture of Guts, Heart and Statistics

by on October 15, 2013 12:01 AM

For two of his biggest nail-biting late-game decisions against Michigan on Saturday, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien was torn.

Should he listen to his heart, his gut or his statistics?

Which one won out? O’Brien’s Nittany Lions, of course.

And that’s because, in part, O’Brien made his most important decisions in the four-overtime classic – won 43-40 by Penn State before a WhiteOut crowd of 107,884 at Beaver Stadium -- using a bit of each. What he didn’t use was a lot of time.

“I try to be as decisive as I can,” O’Brien said. “I try to give myself under four seconds. I try to have a thought in my mind.”

The first of the biggest big calls came with 27 seconds remaining in regulation, after a 36-yard circus catch by Allen Robinson, on the receiving end of a Christian Hackenberg pass. Penn State trailed 34-27, with a first-and-goal on the 1-yard line. On national television, ESPN announcers Matt Millen and Joe Tessitore called for a play-action pass.


O’Brien may be thought as the gambler, but he knows the numbers. And in this case they said run. In the four games since the 2013 season-opener against Syracuse and heading into the Michigan game, Penn State’s offense was faced with 16 short yardage (two yards or less) situations on third and fourth down. These are the statistics O’Brien knew: Ten of those times the Nittany Lions ran the ball and nine times they got the first down. The other six times they passed, and completed just two.

A run made sense. So a run it was, as Hackenberg dove right for a yard and scored the touchdown. Michigan still led, 34-33. Sam Ficken’s extra point tied the game at 34-34. O’Brien’s gut briefly contemplated going for two points, to win the game right then and there after his team had came back from a nine-point deficit. But his cooler Irish head prevailed.

“I felt like I wanted to try to end the game right there,” O’Brien said on the SVP-Russillo ESPN Radio program on Monday. “I had an impulse to do that, but I also know the communication of the play I wanted to run probably wasn’t going to go very well. So I decided to kick the PAT (by Ficken). Obviously, I’m glad I decided to do that.”

In the minutes after the game, O’Brien said, “I feel really good about our two-point plays. At the same time, I said, ‘You know what, let's tie it up and see how it goes in overtime.’”

Four overtimes, to be exact.


Once overtime(s) hit, it appeared as if both teams had run their playbooks dry. In OT, Michigan ran off 14 plays for 35 yards – 9 of 17 on the ground and 2 of 5 for 18 yards passing. Penn State, hampered by a sack of Hackenberg and a lost fumble by Robinson, fared even worse. PSU gained just 18 yards on 11 rushes and failed to complete any of its three pass attempts.

“With that game going so long, the well runs dry on some plays,” O’Brien said. “You're trying in some ways to draw plays up in the dirt at some point.

“I just try to go back to what I believe in and what I thought was going to be good as I prepared during the week against Michigan. I tried to stick with the plan and I thought, overall, we did that. I think when we didn't, it probably wasn't a great play call by me. I think, overall, we hung in there and tried to stick with the plan."

In overtime, Michigan was 0 for 4 on third downs, while Penn State was 0 for 3. The difference? It came down to a fourth-and-10-inches from the Michigan 15. After a three-yard run by Bill Belton to set up the fourth-down call, Penn State’s offense hurried back to the line of scrimmage. Penn State trailed 40-37, so if it failed to make the first down Michigan won.

O’Brien wanted more time to make the right play-call, so he ran 20 yards along the Penn State sidelines to find an official and call time – just before his offense snapped the ball.

“I was going to hurry up and go for it, so I was trying to go up-tempo and get to the line,” O’Brien told SVP and Russillo. “I saw where Michigan lined up in a deal that would not have been good. The game would’ve ended. So I used that Brown University speed and went down the sideline and tried to get the timeout. I got it. I was lucky there.

 “I felt like we didn’t want to run the play I originally wanted to run,” he added. “I ended up getting the timeout and calling the play we wanted.”


The fourth-down play was a run, by Belton off-tackle right behind the block of fullback Pat Zerbe. O’Brien followed his gut with the timeout, then called the play by the numbers. It was the general kind of call that had worked in short yardage on third and fourth down nine out of 10 times since MetLife – a run. Numbers.

A field goal attempt by Ficken would have only been 32 yards, but the Nittany Lion kicker made just 2 of his last 4 field goal tries up to that point. Part of O’Brien’s decision? Gut.

“Well,” O’Brien remembered thinking, “it’s less than a yard and somebody’s got to score a touchdown to win this thing. We could keep on trading field goals back and forth, but it was time to try and go win the game.”

Plus, the clock was ticking. The game started in sunlight, at 5:05 p.m. It was now 9:07 p.m., the skies were dark and the crowd was still white – right down to its knuckles. The players were looking kind of pale, too.

“I don’t know if our kids could go much longer there,” O’Brien said on the field after the game, seconds after he rose from his knees, brought there either from fatigue or for prayer. His fighters showed heart. Again. “They gave us everything they had. Their tanks were empty.”

So, with the game and perhaps the season in the balance, the fourth-down call went to Belton, who slithered for a three-yard gain and a first down. Three plays later, he carried for the 20th time since halftime, around left end – for two yards, a touchdown and a victory.

“That (fourth-down) run,” O’Brien said, “was a heckuva run.”

It showed guts. As did the call.

Related Stories:

Penn State Football: Michael Robinson Congratulates the Nittany Lions

Penn State Football: As The Nittany Lions Win, Hackenberg Passes His Midterms

Penn State Football: The Top 10 Wins In Beaver Stadium History

Penn State Football: How Big is a Win Over Michigan?

Penn State Football: Nittany Lions beat Michigan, 43-40, in Four Overtimes

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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