October 6, 2012 at 5:35 PM
It was the fourth quarter. It was fourth down. The Nittany Lions needed four yards.
They got six yards. They got six points.
The Lions went on to beat Nortwestern, 39-28, Saturday in a game that likely came down to that one play. At the time, Penn State was down 28-17, and a field goal would have turned it into a one-possession game. Instead, coach Bill O’Brien opted for passing play, and quarterback Matt McGloin connected with wide receiver Allen Robinson in the back of the endzone.
“It’s not that hard on play-calling because you’re 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.”
The Lions converted 5-of-6 fourth down attempts Saturday, choosing only once to go with Sam Ficken for a 22-yard field goal. O’Brien said if it’s fourth down and Penn State is in Northwestern territory and outside Ficken’s range, the Lions are going for it. Since Ficken hasn’t had great range this season, they’ve been going for it almost every time.
Running backs coach Charles London said the players love that type of do-or-die mentality.
“No matter what the down or distance is, you got to have the situation in your head,” London said. “If it’s 4th-and-2, and you have the ball, you have to get it. Great example with Zordich, down on the two-point play, there’s not second chance there, you either get it or you don’t. And he did a great job of getting it.
“It keeps our guys on edge and it’s all about competition and competing and that’s what we do best right now.”
As the Lions’ defense has shown its stopping ability though six games this season, that has helped the offense transition into trying fourth downs regularly. Penn State’s offensive unit just knows by know to stay on the field, and if they can’t convert, the defense will get them the ball back.
“We have one of the best defenses in the Big Ten if not the best defense in the Big Ten,” tight end Garry Gilliam said. “In past years, we’ve had to ride on them because we weren’t scoring any points. Add both [offensive and defensive success] together, there’s no worries, at least on our end, that they’re going to stop somebody, and we’re going to get the ball back and score.”