Penn State is Good to Go

Neither PSU quarterback Matt McGloin nor head coach Bill O'Brien has any reservations about going for it on fourth down.

At this point Penn State just goes for it.

There is no agonizing, no reason for the crowd to urge the Nittany Lions on.

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Because barring impossible field position, they go for it on fourth down.

And they’re going for it in a larger sense, too.

Caution has been tossed to the wind. Conservative is for chumps. A whaddaya-got-to-lose mentality has taken hold, because really, what do they have to lose?

There is no possibility of a bowl game — not this year, nor the next three. The NCAA assured as much, you might have heard, when it handed down sanctions against the school in July. The Lions can’t so much as play for the Big Ten championship, either.

What they have, new coach Bill O’Brien said Saturday afternoon, is 12 one-game seasons, a number now down to six. And every week they seem to pour everything into it — every ounce of emotion, every strategic nuance.

They stormed back to beat previously unbeaten Northwestern in Beaver Stadium, 39-28, and run their own winning streak to four. Scored 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, the first 15 after drives covering 82 and 85 yards, respectively, to go ahead for good. Converted a fourth down into a TD to cap the first of those marches, and another fourth down to set up the second.

In all PSU (2-0 Big Ten, 4-2 overall) went 5-for-6 on fourth down, and is now 13-for-20 in such situations this season. Entering play Saturday, only conference bottom-feeders Indiana and Illinois had as many as 10 attempts.

“I am a firm believer that you get four downs for a reason,” quarterback Matt McGloin said, “as is Coach O’Brien. I guess I don’t have to tell you.”

Not really.

“A lot of times it’s worked out this year, where it’s been about field position,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think you see me going for it on fourth down backed up on our own 20 or, really, on our side of the 50.”

But if the field position is right and he believes the Lions are out of the field-goal range of kicker Sam Ficken, O’Brien said, “It might be better to have a good play, especially if it’s a manageable fourth down.”

And, he added, “It’s not that hard on a playcaller, because your third-down call is like a second-down call, when 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.”

McGloin went 35-for-51 for 282 yards and two touchdowns in all. He was 14-for-16 for 111 yards and a score on those pivotal drives, which lasted 18 and 15 plays and consumed 5:55 and 5:38, respectively. He also ran five times for 11 yards during that stretch, including the five-yard TD run with 2:37 left that put the Lions ahead to stay, at 32-28.

“That was a scramble all the way,” O’Brien said. “He’s going to come in on Monday and tell me he’s a 4.3 40. I’m going to tell him we time him with a sundial.”

Hey, whatever works — which, again, seems to be the whole idea at this point.

Fullback Michael Zordich added an insurance score on a three-yard run with 1:30 left, as the Lions erased a 28-17 deficit — one forged when Big Ten punt-return leader Venric Mark followed up a TD run by teammate Kain Colter by taking a punt 75 yards for another score with 50 seconds left in the third quarter.

Then McGloin, aided and abetted by reshirt sophomore fullback Zach Zwinak (28-121 rushing), went to work. The Lions converted four third downs in marching from their 18 to the Northwestern 6, where they faced a fourth-and-four.

A field goal there, and it’s an eight-point deficit — a one-score game.

Field goal? They don’t need no stinkin’ field goal.

“I didn’t think twice about it,” O’Brien said.

But if they don’t convert, a reporter pointed out in the postgame media scrum, the game’s over.

“The game’s over now,” O’Brien said.

Feel free to wonder if O’Brien’s hand is forced by the fact that Ficken, 3-for-9 on field goals this season with his make Saturday, has struggled. But it really does seem like there’s more at work here than that.

And on this occasion McGloin fired over the middle to wide receiver Allen Robinson, who made a diving catch in the end zone, despite tight coverage from cornerback Nick VanHoose. Zordich then ran for the two-point conversion, cutting the gap to 28-25.

“I felt good about the playcall we had there,” O’Brien said of the touchdown.

Then again, he says that a lot.

“I just ran an in-cut,” Robinson said. “I saw the middle of the field was open, so I just kept running.”

McGloin said the hole in the coverage was the result of a Northwestern defender rushing to pick up tight end Kyle Carter, who ran a pattern near the goal line. That gave Robinson room behind him to work. And McGloin, Robinson said, “just threw it over there and let me just run and go get it. … I felt like I had a little step on the guy, but Matt threw a good ball, and I was able to come down with it.”

Penn State’s defense got a three-and-out, and this time McGloin started out at his own 15. Again there were some Zwinak runs (one for 15 yards) to complement the passing game. Again there were third-down conversions —two short ones. And again there was a pivotal fourth down, this one a fourth-and-two at the Wildcats’ 19.

McGloin rolled right. He looked. The crowd grew anxious, and screamed for him to take off. Instead he stopped and found Brandon Moseby-Felder for a pickup of 13.

“That was just a busted play,” McGloin said. “There was nobody open initially, and I just started to scramble, and Brandon did a great job of just working himself to get open.”

Two plays later, McGloin lost the ball on a sack by Tyler Scott — “an oh-crap moment,” the QB said — only to fall on it himself. He said he guaranteed the coaches during a subsequent timeout that the Lions would score, and on third-and-goal from the 5 he rolled right, away from the pressure the Wildcats brought up the middle.

And he just kept rolling, capping the run with an awkward half-dive, half-leap into the end zone that saw him land on his knees.

“I was unsure what to do there — run it in or whether I had to dive or not,” he said. “So I just decided to dive, but my knee brace unfortunately got caught in the ground, so I just looked like a complete fool.”

He also said that if the run wasn’t there, he would have just thrown the ball away. That would have enabled the Lions to kick a gimme field goal on fourth down to tie the game.

Or so one would think, anyway. At this point, can anyone really be sure?

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