Before this season, Mike Guman may have been the name most closely linked to Penn State and fourth down.
A running back at Penn State from 1976-79, Guman was the player who got the goal line call for a potential game-tying touchdown on fourth-and-inches late in the game against Alabama in the 1979 Sugar Bowl. Guman got stuffed on the play, and Penn State went home without a national championship.
But now there’s a new name that arises in people’s minds when they think of the Nittany Lions and going for it on fourth downs, a name fans have familiarized themselves with in the past eight months.
Through two games as a head coach, Bill O’Brien has proven he isn’t going to hold back when the down marker is turned to four. In eight quarters, O’Brien has had his team attempt seven fourth-down conversions, five of which have been converted.
Many players on the roster have said they like O’Brien’s aggressiveness, and it’s not just current players taking notice.
“He’s gone for it a number of times on fourth down, I think that’s great,” said Guman, who attended the Lions’ season opener against Ohio and watched their game against Virginia on TV. “They’ve been successful at some of that stuff. That gives confidence to the offense, to the line, to the people who are carrying the ball, to the people who are calling the plays, to the quarterback. I think it’s a great message to them.”
When talking about his punting game in August, O’Brien said “we don’t always have to punt, we can go for it.”
At the time, it was tough to tell how serious O’Brien was about that claim. In the first two games, however, it’s become clear O’Brien meant what he said.
On the ninth play from scrimmage in the O’Brien era, Penn State faced a fourth-and-two from Ohio’s 49-yard line. Not even five minutes were gone in the game, and most coaches probably would have tried to pin their opponent deep with a punt.
Quarterback Matt McGloin found wide receiver Shawney Kersey (who has since left Penn State’s roster for what the team called “personal reasons”) for a nine-yard gain and a first down. Though the drive ended up yielding no points, it set the tone for O’Brien’s daring style of play calling.
“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,” O’Brien said. “Like we’re going to go for it, unless it’s fourth and forever.”
With O’Brien — who serves as offensive coordinator in addition to head coach — in the mindset of using all the downs he has if given the opportunity, he said it can change what he does on third down.
“You know, when you go for it on fourth down, you can’t just all of a sudden go for it,” O’Brien said. “So your third down call is more of a second down call because you’re trying to get half the distance to the first down, so it’s a manageable fourth down. I don’t think many coaches have said that in a long time.”
With nine attempts each, only Air Force and Southern California went for it more times on fourth down than Penn State in the first two weeks of the 2012 season. The five conversions Penn State has are tied for the most in the country along with Air Force, USC and Louisiana-Monroe heading into week three.
Going for it on fourth down is not something the Lions have done all that much in the past.
In the last four years, Penn State has averaged 13.5 fourth-down attempts per season. The team is on pace to go for it 42 times on fourth down in 2012.
Center Matt Stankiewitch said though the team is taking more chances this season, the fourth-down attitude remains the same. And that attitude is to fight for whatever yards are necessary.
“Everyone digs deep, everyone looks at each other in the huddle we make eye contact, we shake our heads up and down and say ‘Let’s do this,’ ” Stankiewitch said. “It’s a sense of urgency knowing it’s fourth down and short and we feel that responsibility as an offensive line.”
Six of the seven times Penn State has gone for it on fourth down this season have come in manageable (five yards or less to go) situations. The exception came on a fourth-and-10 Penn State had trailing by 10 against Ohio with less than three minutes remaining.
It’s not always the offense that is on the field to try and move the chains in a traditional punting scenario. In Penn State’s game against Virginia, O’Brien showed he had some tricks up his sleeve as he called for a fake punt on a fourth-and-four in the second quarter. Junior linebacker Glenn Carson ran for 19 yards to convert.
Regardless of whose hands the ball is in, McGloin said he shares the mentality of his head coach.
“I like that opportunity,” McGloin said of going for it on fourth downs. “We’ve been successful with it so far in the past two games. You know, sometimes I agree with [people] saying that you put your defense in a tough spot, but we have a great defense.”
While O’Brien hasn’t been necessarily confident in his punting game so far this season, he does appear to trust the defense. And the defensive players seem to be fine with the extra stress a failed fourth down can put on them.
“Just for [O’Brien] to have faith in us means a lot,” Morris said. “But when we do go, we have to be aware if we don’t get it, we got to make sure we back them up on those plays.”
There’s no doubt a fourth-down play can be one of the most tension-filled in a game. So while O’Brien is letting more of the game ride on the shoulders of his offense, Guman said he’s also making things more difficult for opposing defenses.
“There’s as much pressure on a defense as there is on an offense, it depends how you look at it,” Guman said. “You know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re going to do.”
And even with all that comes with the number of fourth-down plays Penn State has been calling this season, the player under center welcomes it.
“I’ve always been a big fan of the saying, ‘We have four downs for a reason,’ ” McGloin said.
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