Penn State finds success on 4th down, despite skid
Fourth-and-1 at midfield on the game's opening drive, and Penn State is going for it.
The previous regime might have played it safe in such a situation and punted to play for field position. Most other coaches probably would, too.
But these are Bill O'Brien's Nittany Lions now.
''So once we get really close to the 50, I'm pretty much not going to punt it,'' the coach said this week. ''I'm just going to tell you that.''
Talk about a new era at Penn State.
So many changes have engulfed the program hit by scandal and strict NCAA sanctions, and one of the biggest is the coach and his strategy. O'Brien arrived in January from the New England Patriots, where he coordinated a high-octane offense, and ever so slowly, he is trying to employ the same aggressive approach at Penn State.
The results so far have been so-so. Navy (0-1) visits Beaver Stadium on Saturday, with Penn State hoping to avoid its first season-opening three-game slide since it was 0-4 in 2001.
The offense is young or inexperienced at most of the skill positions. The execution has been sporadic in the red zone. But there's no doubt that the play-calling has been spiced up, and that's all O'Brien.
The Nittany Lions converted two fourth-and-1 plays in the opening drive last week against Virginia, leading to Kyle Carter's 8-yard touchdown reception for a 7-0 lead.
Later, linebacker Glenn Carson ran for 19 yards and a first down on a fake punt on fourth-and-4 from the Penn State 42. And backup quarterback Steven Bench ran for 15 on a fourth-and-3 from the 50 for another first down later in the second quarter.
Through the season's first two games, Penn State is 5 for 7 on fourth-down conversions.
It's not just a spur-of-the-moment call for O'Brien.
''But if it's a manageable fourth down, we're going to go for it and we have some third-down/second-down calls on fourth downs depending on the distances that we're prepared for,'' he said this week. ''We prepare the kids for it. The kids know we're going to go for it. So I think it's been OK. ... We could probably be 7 for 7. So the plays have been OK.''
Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green has been impressed so far.
''They spread you out and have a very effective short passing game, but will also go for the long ball at any time ... They give you a lot of formations, a lot of motion, a lot of things to defend,'' he said. ''There are a lot of similarities to what (O'Brien) did in New England.''
Penn State hasn't been as successful so far on third downs with a 46 percent conversion rate (18 of 39), compared to 71 percent for fourth downs. But O'Brien's defense doesn't mind the gutsy fourth-down calls that could put the unit in a tough spot if the offense doesn't convert.
''I like it,'' defensive end Deion Barnes said. ''If it keeps drives alive, I have no problems with it.''
Senior cornerback Stephon Morris said the ''defense always urges them to go for it. In years past, we never went on fourth-and-1s. That he has faith in us means a lot.''
O'Brien's predecessor, the late Joe Paterno, often played it more conservatively in those situations. Fourth-and-short plays at midfield often meant a punt, hoping to pin foes back against their own goal line. It's a textbook call for most coaches.
O'Brien appears to have a slightly different playbook for fourth downs.
''I believe in that attitude. I'm all for it. That's the attitude we embrace as a team,'' center Matt Stankiewitch said. ''It's a different type of football knowing we're going to go for it on fourth down.''
NOTES: Walk-on kicker Matt Marcincin, a redshirt freshman, is the second player this week to leave the program. A team spokesman said Thursday night that Marcincin cited personal reasons for departing but remains enrolled in school. The Centre Daily Times first reported Marcincin's departure. Starting receiver Shawney Kersey also left under similar circumstances. A backup kicker leaving the team would have been less conspicuous if not for starter Sam Ficken's dismal day last week against Virginia, when the scholarship sophomore had an extra-point attempt blocked and missed four field goals, including a 42-yarder as time expired in the 17-16 loss. O'Brien said this week the kicking job is open every week, and Ficken has won the competition each week.
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