“Wild Bill” O’Brien?
It has a nice ring to it. I can already see the T-shirts sporting the first-year coach’s visage with flowing long hair and a cowboy hat.
After all, the first-year coach has taken a lot of chances this year. He’s left his offense on the field for 20 fourth down conversion attempts, which already dwarfs the Lions’ total of 18 last season.
And judging by the questions O’Brien faced from reporters after his team converted five of six fourth down attempts in Saturday’s win against Northwestern, even the media is buying into this “O’Brien as a gambler” persona, too.
But were his calls really that daring on Saturday?
I, like most people in the stadium, scratched my head when O’Brien decided to go for a fourth-and-four from the 6-yard line and down 11 points early in the fourth quarter. If Penn State had failed to convert, it’d have been very difficult for the Lions to mount a comeback down two possessions. The conventional wisdom says to take a short field goal attempt.
The conventional wisdom doesn’t account for Penn State’s erratic kicker, Sam Ficken, who has hit just 2-4 field goal attempts inside of 30 yards this season. If you include his 19-21 extra point conversions in that calculation, he’s hitting at an 81.4 percent clip.
Conversely, the Penn State offense has converted 11-16 fourth down attempts of five yards or shorter, or 68.75 percent. That means that, if O’Brien is playing percentages, his team has an 18 percent better chance of converting a short fourth down than it does of hitting a field goal from inside 30 yards. It also has just a 12 percent worse chance of converting a fourth-and-five or shorter than it does converting an extra point or field goal inside 30 yards.
Kind of takes the wind out of the sails of the “O’Brien is a crazy gambler” argument, doesn’t it?
Look, O’Brien has undeniably done a lot of things to help the Lions get to a surprising 4-2 record. He’s coached Matt McGloin into being one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He’s found a way to get his preseason fourth-string running back, Zach Zwinak, 100 yards in two consecutive games.
And that’s just the results we’ve seen on the field.
Off the field, he’s kept the Lions together in the face of crippling NCAA sanctions, deflating transfers and a mountain of negative headlines. He’s also convinced some solid prospects including Adam Breneman and Christian Hackenberg to remain committed to the program.
Why cheapen that by characterizing statistically insignificant risks as daring gambles?
O’Brien himself has downplayed the number of times he’s decided to go for it by saying he likes the play calls and the quarterback executing them.
And why shouldn’t he?
The numbers say his offense is more efficient on fourth-and-short than his kicker is on short field goals.
If he had a near-automatic kicker to count on and went for conversions at the same rate he is now, then it might be a questionable practice. But at the moment, the numbers favor the offense over Ficken.
So really, O’Brien isn’t so much a gambler as he is a person who can do math.