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Penn State Football: Fourth Down Calls and Stickin' With Ficken are O’Brien’s Style

by on September 10, 2012 6:16 AM

Just two games into the 2012 season – and his career as a head coach – Bill O’Brien is developing his own style.

Part by design, a big part by necessity, his rapid metamorphosis from assistant coach is being caused chiefly by the NCAA sanctions and player defections, as well as injuries.

If Plato said, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” then O’Brien is the father of keeping Penn State in contention. So far, in eight quarters home and away, through rain and shine, O’Brien has:

  • Gone for it seven times on fourth down.
  • Successfully called for a fake punt.
  • Had a 237-pound linebacker return punts.
  • Moved a second-string quarterback to tight end.
  • Filled the special teams with starters.
  • Had his quarterbacks throw 91 passes.
  • Inserted into the game a quarterback who was stung not once, but twice in the same elbow-numbing spot by the same defender three minutes apart.
  • Run the two-minute half-ending offense with a true freshman quarterback who’s been in some of his classes for only a little longer than that.
  • Gave the ball 10 times on Saturday to a fourth- (maybe fifth-) string tailback who missed spring practice and is still digesting a five-pound playbook.
  • Took nine true freshmen and 11 redshirt freshmen on the road, with the youngsters comprising almost 30 percent of Penn State’s travel roster.
  • And stuck with a struggling place-kicker again, and again, and again, and again.

That’s to say nothing of the Chamber of Commerce breakfast he spoke at during game week, the weekly radio show set at the local rib joint and the ESPN reporter who was embedded with the coaching staff the week leading up to the opening game. At Penn State, that’s definitely out of the (coaches’) box thinking.

If Penn State was the team that everyone couldn’t wait to hate over the past nine months, O’Brien’s gutsy style that is personified by a dwindling never-say-die group of players is winning people over.

The Nittany Lions take a $60-million, 65-scholarship, no-bowl-game licking, and they keep on ticking.

Even when their name is Sam Ficken.

On Saturday, O’Brien could have given up on his place-kicker any number of times. After the three missed field goals. Or the blocked point-after. But he called the sophomore kicker’s number (which is an improbable No. 97) 245 seconds into the fourth quarter, and Ficken made a 32-yard field goal – his first after three misses – to give Penn State a 16-10 lead.

That set up O’Brien’s final decision of the day – and this is his lot in life these days: Go for a touchdown from 25 yards out with one second left in the game, down 17-16. Or put a kicker back in who has missed from 40, 38 and 20 yards, plus that PAT block, to attempt a 42-yarder.

There were O’Briens in the midst of the Potato Famine who had easier decisions.

Even in the face of a field goal famine, O’Brien went with Ficken. Who missed.

In many ways, O’Brien had no choice. His roster depleted, his No. 1 kicker long gone to Texas, Ficken was who O’Brien had – and has. Evan Lewis, who made just 1 of 5 field goal attempts in 2011, made the trip for Penn State. But he’s a wide receiver now and who knows if he even took along his kicking shoes on Saturday.

This will be O’Brien’s world for the next year, two years, three years… He must dance with whom the previous staff brought him, then convince new recruits that he and his own coaches can prepare them for The Show.

O’Brien’s Way will be something new not only to Beaver Stadium but all of college football. Two-way players, moving guys who are way down the depth chart to another position, being way careful about hitting in practice, passing the ball the way New England in the NFL and Houston in the USA do – that may be the way to go for Nittany Lion football the next half-decade. Way not easy.

It’s a bit of parlor game, one I play frequently with Dr. Jack Selzer, former president of the Rhetoric Society of America (talk about a bad guy to argue with): What can O’Brien to do to win games, to make it interesting, to keep the players and fans motivated? That is O’Brien’s challenge.

For example: Take fourth down. Please. O’Brien is.

So far in 2012, O’Brien has gone for a first down seven times on fourth down, making it five times. That’s nearly as many times the Nittany Lions have punted.

He’s only called for a punt eight times, for good reason beyond playing the odds: Penn State punter Alex Butterworth is averaging 38 yards per kick – but subtract out a 56-yarder for a touchback against Virginia that would have been better played as a pooch kick, and Butterworth’s average is a high schoolish 35.4 yards.

O’Brien’s fourth-down strategy has worked 71.4 percent of the time, with the 19-yard fake punt run for a first down against Virginia by linebacker slash upback Glenn Carson the poster child of Bill’s ballsy moves.

His decision-making has yielded as many, if not more, fourth-down first downs as the Nittany Lions have had in 12 of the past 20 entire seasons (records only go back to 1992). And he’s on a pace that would more than double PSU’s fourth-down calls in any one season of the past two decades – and rank fourth in success rate.

For O’Brien, such thinking is already de rigor. And personally, the new Nittany Lion coach is also making strides.

And in the course of one week, O’Brien has seemingly learned not to take everything to heart. In the press conference after the Ohio game, he was dwarfed by the circumstances – he was grumpy, gruff and quite short with his answers.

On Saturday after the loss at Virginia, O’Brien was not happy. But he was hopeful, cordial and thoughtful.

“We’ll break through,” he promised, then punctuated it with a wane smile: “We’ll break through.”

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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