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College Football Analysis: Bill O’Brien's Bold Play-Calling Has Been Key to Penn State's Success

If there is anything that Penn State has gotten good at this past year, it’s dealing with adversity. Off the field, the story is well-documented.

Now, we’re seeing on-field diversity produce positive gains as well. The spotty kicking game has caused offensive-minded head coach Bill O’Brien to change his entire philosophy on drive management.

In short, 4th down is the new 3rd down.

Any time Penn State faces 4th down in enemy territory, O’Brien is inclined to go for it. 

He doesn’t trust kicker Sam Ficken for any kick longer than 25 yards (if that), which means PSU will go for it from between the 5- and 35-yard line. And if the team is between the 35 and midfield, O’Brien trusts his defense enough (and his punter Alex Butterworth not-enough) to sacrifice some field position in the event of a failed attempt on 4th down.

So far, the risks have paid off.

In fact, the definitive play of Saturday’s Northwestern game came on 4th down.

Penn State capped off an 18-play, 82-yard drive to start off the 4th quarter with a 6-yard McGloin-to-Robinson touchdown strike on 4th and 4. Convention said take the three points and make the game 20-28; O’Brien energized his team with a vote of confidence deep in the red zone. Following the touchdown, Zordich’s two-point conversion rumble set up a possible Ficken field goal later in the game to tie, but it would never be needed.

The tide had turned. Penn State trucked down the field again on the next drive (on their way to doubling the Wildcats’ time of possession on the day), and McGloin scrambled over the right pylon. No 4th down was needed for the go-ahead score.

Heading into the bye week, there is plenty to be excited about. The meat of the schedule still remains, but only a visit from Ohio State and a trip to Nebraska should cause justifiable worry. The other four foes have been mediocre at best.

The offense seems to get better and better. McGloin--despite a record-setting day on Saturday--didn’t even need to be crisp to lead the offense down the field time and time against a decent Wildcat defense. If the streaky senior actually gets hot--as odd as this is to write--I’m not sure anyone can stop O’Brien’s offense.

The defense appears to be evolving as well. While DC Ted Roof’s playcalling seemed sporadic in weeks 1 and 2, the Lion defense has been nothing short of stout the past four games. At the midway point in the season, it’s hard not to call the 2012 defense as good as any former typical Penn State defense ever was.

(Special teams, well, let’s just hope the football gods send down some good-luck lightning bolts on that part of the team. Nobody should be surprised if we lose one more game due to special teams gaffes down the stretch.)

And, lastly--knock on wood--Penn State is mostly healthy. A week off should help us get stronger and healed up for a big road test at Iowa.

Critics will cite our tougher schedule during the last half of the year as cause for a late season collapse. And in years past, I may have agreed. But this Penn State is different. 

It’s evolving, it’s getting better, and it’s redefining the way colleges play the game. 

One down (or four) at a time.

Ryan Murphy sends you good vibrations every week with his "Midweek Serenity" column during the season. Check out his book for more positive vibes from Penn State football's years of yore. Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives, available in ebook and paperback.

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