O’Brien to stay aggressive on 4th down

UNIVERSITY PARK – The rules give teams four plays to get a first down, so it’s really kind of silly, if you think about it, that coaches so readily give up 25 percent of their opportunities by always punting on fourth down.

Bill O’Brien was hailed as a risk-taking, mad genius at times last season for taking so many chances on fourth down. And his strategy paid off for Penn State, which converted 56 percent of its fourth-down tries (19-of-34).

That’s a good number, right, 56 percent? Most coaches would take that conversion rate any day.

But surprisingly, PSU’s 56 percent figure was only 44th best in the nation last year. Ten teams converted at least 70 percent, while 33 converted at least 60 percent.

Football coaches can be stubborn, and many simply don’t want to risk it on fourth down. But as more and more coaches realize the odds really are in their favor in more situations than previously thought, going for it on fourth down more frequently could become commonplace in college football.

“Personally, I think it’s kind of fun because it comes down to 1, 2 yards, who’s going to man up and do it,” running back Zach Zwinak said. “So it’s always fun to test it.”

Penn State rarely played that way under Joe Paterno, who preferred to punt it away, let his strong defense do its job and win the field position battle.

O’Brien views things very differently.

“We’re going to go for it on fourth down,” O’Brien said.

Penn State’s players love that mentality.

“It’s very fun,” receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder said. “Some teams maybe only have three downs, but for us to go for it on fourth gives us a lot of opportunities to make touchdowns and first downs.”

The Nittany Lions did take more chances than most teams last year, going for it on fourth down 34 times, which tied for sixth in the country. Their 19 conversions ranked 12th.

“I had always assumed everyone punted on fourth down until O’Brien came in here and started going for it,” Zwinak said. “At first it definitely threw a lot of us for a loop, like, really, you’re going to go for it on fourth down?

“But football-wise, he’s a genius, and whatever he calls we’re going to do. We’re going to execute whatever he wants us to do.”

There’s a method to O’Brien’s fourth-down madness, and he’s not just some reckless coach taking unnecessary risks. Time, situation and field position obviously are the keys, and as O’Brien frequently says, he often has a play call he really likes in a given scenario.

“If we get the ball on the 50-yard line going in and we’ve got an advantageous fourth down and the momentum of the game or all the different factors that go into it,” then it’s worth going for it, O’Brien said.

“Obviously we’re not going to be dumb about it,” the coach added. “If we feel like we’re in a good spot and we can punt the ball and pooch it inside the 5-yard line, then that’s what we’re going to try to do.”

The biggest factor in going for it or not is simple: What does Penn State have to lose? The Lions can’t go to a bowl game, so why play timid? And with far fewer scholarship players than other teams, winning means thinking outside the box.

There also are two major factors that should weigh heavily into O’Brien’s decisions this year.

He has a young quarterback who has never played a Division I game rather than a veteran in Matt McGloin, so there might not be as much of a tendency to put extra pressure on the signal caller on fourth down.

Also, place-kicker Sam Ficken gave O’Brien no reason to have confidence in him early last year, so that meant going for it deeper in an opponent’s territory. If Ficken shows this year he can consistently make field goals from 40-45 yards, O’Brien might settle for three points instead of going for it on, say, fourth-and-5 from the 25.

“Will we go for it on 4th down as much as we did last year? Who knows?” O’Brien said. “How many fourth-down situations are we going to have? Last year was a little bit unique in the fact that we had a lot of fourth-and-short situations. Will that happen this year? Who knows?”

The players love that O’Brien has confidence in them to convert on fourth down, which gives them more confidence. And the more they do go for it, the more relaxed the players become in those important situations.

“It’s a game of downs,” Moseby-Felder said. “If you think you have an opportunity to go for it, then go for it.”