Penn State's O'Brien embraces fourth-down risks

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- He dropped the hints he was a risk-taker here and there in the preseason.

Nearly every time someone asked coach Bill O'Brien about Penn State's punting game, he would give a formulaic response. He had faith in punter Alex Butterworth and wanted to see him gain consistency. Then he tacked on a reminder: Penn State could always go for it.

In two games, the Nittany Lions have done just that. They have gone for it on fourth down seven times and converted five of those attempts.

In those games, the Nittany Lions have punted the ball once more than they have attempted a play on fourth down.

O'Brien said going for it is part of his preset game plan and will continue to be. He thinks of a third down as a second-down play, where you want to get half the distance so that you're close enough for a first down on the next play.

"I don't think many coaches have said that in a long time," O'Brien said.

"But you're trying to create a manageable fourth down. You're also looking at the field position.

"So, once we get really close to the 50, I'm pretty much not going to punt it. I'm just going to tell you that. Like we're going to go for it, unless it's fourth and forever."

His play-calling over the first two games backs up his statement. It would be wrong to say that his decisions to go for it are a matter of necessity, and he has generally gone for it when the ball is near midfield.

Against Ohio and Virginia, Penn State has converted fourth-down attempts on the first drives of the game.

Of the seven fourth-down attempts, only one has been urgent, a fourth-and-10 from the Penn State 11in the fourth quarter against Ohio.

Four times, Penn State has gone for it on fourth down with the ball within 6 yards of midfield rather than have Butterworth punt.

He has punted only three times when the ball was within 5 yards of midfield, and two of those times Penn State needed a "forever" type of distance of 10 yards.

Only Southern California and Air Force have gone for it on fourth down more than Penn State, at nine apiece. Missouri, Vanderbilt, Louisiana-Monroe and Houston also have attempted fourth-down conversions seven times.

O'Brien's mentality has so far differed from what he did with the New England Patriots. Calling plays last year, the Patriots went for it 11 times all season, converting on seven.

Center Matt Stankiewitch said the team has enjoyed O'Brien's decisions to go for it on fourth down.

The huddle takes on a different atmosphere. The players stare each other in the eyes. Stankiewitch said they all accept more responsibility.

The defense likes it, too. Cornerback Stephon Morris said a decision to go for it on fourth illustrates not only confidence in the offense to convert but confidence in the defense because it might have to protect a shorter field if the offense fails.

"Just for him to have faith in us means a lot," Morris said.

Quarterback Matt McGloin said he thought O'Brien made fourth-down decisions more out of necessity, even though the coach said it was part of his general strategy.

McGloin, however, concluded the obvious about the new coach's fourth-down strategy.

"O'Brien likes to keep the offense on the field," he said.

psusports

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com and Twitter @mdent05.


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