Penn State coach O'Brien to keep 'go for it' strategy

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- He went for it right away, so within the first minutes of his college coaching career, Bill O'Brien was deemed a gambler.

It happened against Ohio. Facing a fourth-and-2 situation from the Ohio 49, O'Brien called a passing play to Shawney Kersey, and Penn State got the first down. Just like that, O'Brien had done something few Penn State fans had witnessed for the past several decades -- choose the riskier option. Just like that, O'Brien had become the gambler.

And the reputation was deserved. Only five teams in Division I-A went for it on fourth down more than the 34 times Penn State did last season.

As you might expect, O'Brien doesn't want to divulge his true secrets or strategies pertaining to the actions he undertakes on fourth downs. It's one of those questions he answers with a quick "I'm not telling you" response

But then he does tell you something, just a little something. For him, the time left in the game, the yardage needed, the distance to go for a first down, the momentum of his offense and the power of the other team's offense are all important. Earlier this month, he said the combination of those factors, especially the distance needed, led to the large number of times Penn State went for it.

"Last year was a little bit unique in the fact that we had a lot of fourth-and-short situations," he said. "Will that happen this year? Who knows?"

This is a look at the trends of O'Brien's decisions to go for it on fourth down and whether those choices have been effective and characteristic of the strategy he has outlined. And hopefully, it will give some hints to the method behind his decision-making.

Let's start with field position. O'Brien has said that he thought kicker Sam Ficken's field-goal range was 35 to 40 yards last year. That would mean if Penn State was anywhere between its opponent's 45 and its opponent's 25 and didn't have an especially far distance to go for the first, it would go for it.

And generally Penn State did. When faced with a fourth down between its opponent's 25 and 45 last year, the Nittany Lions went for it 16 times, compared with punting or kicking a field goal 14 times. Eleven of its fourth-down attempts were facing distances to first down of five yards or less. The other five attempts were for more than five yards.

Of the 34 times Penn State went for it, the distance to first down was five yards or less 23 times. Of those 23 times, the distance was three yards or less 15 times. So Penn State generally went for it on fourth and short.

One of the criteria O'Brien mentioned that goes into his decision-making on fourth down is realizing how well his offense is performing. If he believes it is playing well, he is more likely to go for it.

Though Penn State's 56 percent success rate on fourth downs is middling -- 44th in the nation -- the decision often paid off. Of the 19 times Penn State converted on a fourth down, it scored a touchdown or a field goal on those drives 10 times.

It's that kind of reward that makes the risk worth taking, and O'Brien acknowledges he's not about to change.

"I'm sure we'll go for it on fourth down a few times this year," he said.

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Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.


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