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Penn State Football: Cracking the Code of Bill O’Brien and Fourth Down

by on October 12, 2012 2:00 AM

When it comes to fourth down for Penn State in 2012, coach Bill O’Brien is more crafty than crazy.

Through six games, which is the midpoint of the season for 4-2 Penn State, the Nittany Lion offense has converted 13 of 20 fourth-down chances.

Moreso than the acumen of a Brown grad or the luck of the O’Brien, the move is basically borne of being stricken by poor Sam Ficken’s poor field goal kickin’.

The sophomore from Valparaiso, Ind., although a nice guy and good student, has made just 3 of 9 field goal attempts this season, missing 4 of 5 that essentially cost the Lions their game against Virginia.

(Meanwhile, Anthony Fera, who transferred to Texas in July but has been injured, was 1 of 2 in his first appearance for the Longhorns last week. Overall, Fera made 14 of 17 field goal attempts for PSU in 2011.)

The Farewell of Fera has forced O’Brien’s hand, as he often opts for a first down try instead of a field goal attempt. (Either that or a punt by an inconsistent Alex Butterworth.) Not a bad idea when your place-kicker has made field goals from just 21, 21 and 32 yards. And has missed from 18, 20, 38, 40, 42 and 47 yards.

We don’t know if all those misses have made the tightly shaved head of O’Brien turn grey, but the fourth-down approach does raise the hair on the back of many fans’ necks.

The strategy really earned national interest after Penn State defeated Northwestern, 39-28, in Beaver Stadium last Saturday, when O’Brien went for it six times on fourth down. And made five, including two in the fourth quarter. On Thursday morning, ESPN’s Mike & Mike marveled over the approach when O’Brien was a guest via phone. Later in the day, on his own radio show, O’Brien was also quizzed about it by a fan.

O’Brien played it off both times. And rightly so. It may seem aggressive. But upon further review, O’Brien isn’t that much of a risky gambler.

Here’s O’Brien’s Fourth Down Statement of Purpose, as seen from my corner of the Fourth Estate:

He’s gone for it only five times in the fourth quarter, albeit twice against Northwestern. Only three times has O’Brien gone for it from midfield or his own territory, in the fourth quarter of the season-opener against Ohio when his team was behind with two minutes remaining and twice in the first half against Virginia. Just three of his tries have been from beyond 6 yards – and nine from 3 yards or less. Sixteen of the 20 tries have come with Penn State tied (six) or ahead (10).

Pretty sensical. Not very Suessical.

Here’s more fourth-down fodder:

Fourth-down breakdown: Punts, 24; offense goes for it, 20; field goal attempts, 9; field goals made, 3; fake punt, 1.

Success rate by quarter: First, 6 for 7; second, 3 for 6; third, 0 for 2; fourth, 4 of 5.

Of the 20 times O’Brien has gone for it, 11 have been passes (making seven) and nine have been runs (making six).

Touchdowns on fourth down, both from quarterback Matt McGloin to wide receiver Allen Robinson: 41 yards against Temple and 6 yards against Northwestern (in the fourth quarter).

Down and distance: Nine tries from 1-3 yards, 4 from 4 yards, 4 from 5-6 yards, 3 from 8-12 yards.

Average distance to go on a fourth-and-go-for-it: 4.05 yards.

Upback Glenn Carson's 19-yard first-down run on a fake punt for a first down at Virginia doesn't count toward the 13-for-20 statistic.

A case can be made that Ficken didn’t quicken the pace. Since his first miss against Virginia, the Nittany Lions have been 9 for 15. Before that: 4 for 5.

O’Brien turned down field goal attempts from these distances to go for it on fourth down: Ohio - 47 yards; Virginia - 50, 52; Navy – 25, 51; Illinois - 30, 33, 47, 52, 53; Northwestern – 23, 27, 33, 36, 48, 51.

Number of the above field goal attempts that would have been from a realistic distance for most college kickers, i.e. 49 yards and in: 10 of 16.

Four fourth-down tries beyond a 53-yard field goal attempt:

• Two times against Ohio, from the Ohio 49 in a scoreless first-quarter tie and from Penn State’s own 11, the latter with two minutes left in the game and down 24-10.

• Once against Temple, on a fourth-and-5 from the Owls’ 41 that McGloin converted into that TD pass to Robinson.

• Against Virginia at midfield, with Penn State ahead 7-3 in the second quarter, and at their own 45, early in the first quarter.

Penn State’s statistics after six games in 2011: Fourth down, 10 of 12 (84 percent); field goals, 10 of 14.

Also in 2011, the New England Patriots’ success rate on fourth-down conversions in 16 games, when O’Brien was offensive coordinator: 7 of 11.

Just goes to show you:

In the pros -- when Bill Belichick is your boss and your place-kicker is 28 of 33 -- there are a lot more cons about going for it on fourth down.

Related coverage:

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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