Quarterback Matt McGloin looked to the sideline, and the field goal personnel stayed put.
It was the penultimate fourth down try for the Lions in their 39-28 win over Northwestern, in which Penn State converted five of six fourth down attempts. Coach Bill O’Brien said if the Nittany Lions were in Northwestern territory, he would most likely give the offense four shots to move the chains.
“It’s not that hard on playcalling because your third down call is like a second down call,” O’Brien said. “You know you’re going to go for it. It’s not like all of a sudden you say, ‘We’re going to go for it!’ It’s a thought-out deal, and hopefully we continue to execute on fourth down.”
With the clock winding down in the fourth quarter, Penn State faced a fourth-and-four from Northwestern’s 6-yard line. The Lions were down 28-17. A field goal would make it a one-possession game, but at some point, they would need a touchdown to effectively mount a comeback.
The way O’Brien saw it, why take three points when the Lions could have six?
In that instance, Penn State came away with eight. McGloin found wideout Allen Robinson in the endzone and fullback Michael Zordich punched in the two-point conversion. Had Penn State failed to get the first down, Northwestern would have been able to milk precious minutes off the clock. Instead, the Lions were a field goal away from tying and touchdown away from the lead.
“We feel like Matt [McGloin] really understands what we're trying to do,” O’Brien said. “I just felt good about what it was there. I didn't think twice about it and made the play call.”
After Ficken missed four field goals against Virginia, O’Brien has opted against his kicker more often than not. Ficken has only had four chances in as many games since Virginia, and three of those chances were inside 25 yards. Ficken missed two of them.
Six games through the season, many of the players and assistant coaches have settled into O’Brien's aggressive style of offense. Tight end Garry Gilliam said the offense likes having more control of the game.
“We like pressure,” Gilliam said. “We like going out there under pressure knowing if we get this, we keep the drive going. We want to keep the ball for us. It shows how much confidence coach O’Brien has in us to allow us to do that.”
Running backs coach Charles London echoed those sentiments, adding that there’s something different about a play when the Lions know it’s do or die.
“No matter what the down or distance is, you got to have the situation in your head,” London said. “If it’s fourth-and-two, and you have the ball, you have to get it. Great example with Zordich, down on the two-point play, there’s not a second chance there, you either get it or you don’t.”
Gilliam said when the offense fails to convert, he feels comfortable with the defense’s ability to get the ball back as soon as possible.
Despite converting more fourth downs through half of a season than they did through all of last season, the Lions have also missed seven chances in 2012.
As linebacker Michael Mauti put it, the defensive players are “about to have a heart attack” as they watch on the sidelines, helmets in hand.
On Penn State’s one turnover on downs Saturday, Northwestern countered with a touchdown. But in the big picture, Penn State’s defense has held opponents’ offenses to just two touchdowns in seven turnovers on downs this season.
“I know there weren't many people sitting down at the stadium today at the end of the game,” Mauti said. “It really comes down to guys taking control and making the plays when they get the ball and doing whatever it takes.”