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Countdown to Blue White / 4 Days: Reviewing O'Brien's Success on Fourth Down

by on April 16, 2013 12:30 AM

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.

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 4th down in 2012.

Opponent

Distance

LOS

Quarter

Score

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 4th down attempts.

  • The attempts spanned 28 different drives.

  • 10 of the drives resulted in touchdowns, and 3 led to field goals.

  • Penn State was 12 of 24 when passing on 4th 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.

  • 18 attempts came with the Nittany Lions needing 4 yards or less to gain a first down.

  • 8 of the attempts came in the red zone.

  • 5 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 suggests 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 8 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 4th down including three 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.

 

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

 



This post was originally published by the staff at Onward State. Follow Onward State on Twitter @OnwardState
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