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More college coaches, including PSU's O'Brien, going for it on 4th

| Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, 11:59 p.m.
Penn State's new head football coach Bill O'Brien (right) and quarterbacks coach Charlie Fisher watch the action during the Blue-White scrimmage at Beaver Stadium in University Park on April 21, 2012. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review

In an unusual display of nerve and verve, college football coaches are going for it (and succeeding) on fourth down more than ever. Finally, it seems, the math geeks are getting through to the jocks.

Exhaustive statistical research has long revealed that it's often wiser to go for it than punt, and not just when trailing by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. But such information was mostly ignored or scorned by coaches and other insiders who dismissed the evidence as the work of egghead academic types, outsiders, in other words. Even Kevin Kelley, the Arkansas high school coach who wins but never punts, was shunned, presumably for being an Arkansas high school coach.

Part of it, too, was the fear factor. Mindful of job security and criticism, some coaches are leery of trying anything more daring than a flanker reverse. The NFL still tilts that way, and pockets of conservatism remain in the college game. But going for it on fourth down has increased 15 percent among FBS teams since 2009, a year in which Penn State ranked last among 120 teams in fourth-down attempts. In 2012, the Nittany Lions are No. 2 out of 124.

“I don't think there's any question you're seeing more and more people going for it and playing the percentages,” said Louisiana-Monroe coach Todd Berry, whose team ranks just behind Penn State in fourth-down tries. “It's like when (teams) started getting into the spread (offense), it was a novelty. Now it's become accepted.”

In a world of intense fan and media scrutiny, withering critiques and win-now mandates, such acceptance helps embolden other coaches. Berry calls it “risk-aversion.”

“If it becomes more of an accepted practice, they won't be ridiculed as much if it doesn't work out,” he said.

As recently as 2009, 13 FBS teams averaged at least two fourth-down attempts per game. So far this year, 35 teams are on pace. Gamblin' Bill O'Brien, Penn State's first-year coach, has gone for it 23 times in seven games (and converted 14). Part of that stems from kicking game issues, but O'Brien also was schooled by Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a rare NFL risk-taker.

“I've researched it quite a bit with my staff,” O'Brien said. “The percentages tell you when to go for it on fourth down. Especially (on the opponent's side of the 50) you have a very good chance of making it. So what the heck. We've got good play calls, we've got players that can execute, let's try to do it.”

No team has gone for it more in the past five years than Air Force, which also has recorded the two highest conversion totals since the NCAA started keeping track in 2007.

“I think it fits at the Academy,” coach Troy Calhoun said. “They like to play aggressively. They're not gonna overwhelm their opponent with sheer size and movement. You have to be willing to try things.”

Players everywhere seem to like it.

“It is an attitude kind of play,” fullback Michael Zordich said after Penn State went 5 for 6 on fourth down during a 39-28 win over Northwestern. “We want touchdowns. That is what this offense is about. ... We love it because it gets your mind right.”

In its season-opener, Louisiana-Monroe went six for seven on fourth down and upset Arkansas, then ranked No. 8. The Warhawks have gone for it 21 times, converting 16 for a 76.2 percent success rate. Berry keeps a fourth-down chart similar in theory to the common two-point conversion chart, breaking down the best times to do it. He said several coaches have inquired. “It's a nice little guide,” he said, adding that he also goes by gut feeling.

Used with common sense and discretion, going for it on fourth down is part of many game plans. Not only do the odds favor it, today's prolific offenses make it less desirable to punt or settle for a field goal.

“If you're having a hard time stopping the other team, a lot of times you don't want to give it back to them,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “As a general rule, we're basically a running offense, and we feel if we have a situation where we need a couple of yards, we have a good chance to pick it up.”

“We practice it a lot,” said Berry, who has studied the studies. “That's critical. Our quarterback can be a little more aggressive with down and distance. ... We're not always trying to convert the third down. There's more to the process than just saying, ‘OK, we're going for it on fourth down.' ”

Berry became coach at Louisiana-Monroe in 2010, vowing to be aggressive and shake things up. At 5-2, the Warhawks are nearing their first winning season since 1980.

“I told the players when I got here I was coming to win,” he said. “The sooner they got into the mentality, the better they would understand that we'd go for it on fourth down. We needed to change the culture.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7810.

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