After six weeks of the 2012 college football season, it is clear that the class of the Big 10 Conference is the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Buckeyes are 6-0, and put up 63 points on the Nebraska Cornhuskers in a beat down on Saturday night. Quarterback Braxton Miller continues to impress, and is quickly entrenching himself as a contender for the Heisman Trophy. The only down side for Ohio State is that they are not bowl-eligible this year, and neither is another squad that just may be the second best team in the Conference – the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Penn State recently took down the undefeated Northwestern Wildcats for their fourth straight victory. Many people would have pegged the Nittany Lions as lucky to win a total of four games in 2012 after heavy reductions in scholarships, with many talented players transferring in the summer stemming from the scandal that shocked the school and the nation earlier this year. A four year bowl ban will make recruiting in the next few years a challenge as well.
Coach Bill O’Brien has his players focused on football, however, and his aggressive play calling has the Nittany Lions believing they can beat anyone. His new offensive system seems to be clicking, and Penn State has tied a school record by running 99 offensive plays against Northwestern. Not only that, but the team has made a living so far this year on fourth down. The Nittany Lions went 5-for-6 on fourth down Saturday, including a six-yard touchdown catch by Allen Robinson in the fourth quarter when Penn State trailed by 11. They went on to outscore the Wildcats 22-0 in the fourth quarter.
In fact, Penn State leads the nation in fourth down conversions, going 13-of-20 so far. Part of that is due to O’Brien’s bold play calling, and the other reason is that kicker Sam Ficken is shakier than a leaf on a late fall day. By all rights Penn State should be 5-1, if not for a devastating week two loss to the Virginia Cavaliers where Ficken missed an extra point and four field goals – including one as time expired – and the Nittany Lions lost by one. The team hasn’t lost since though, and Ficken’s struggles could have been a blessing in disguise.
For instance, if O’Brien was confident in Ficken, Robinson may not have had an opportunity to catch that touchdown on Saturday. The smart play would have been to take the easy three points and cut it to a one possession game with plenty of time left on the clock. Instead a two-point conversion followed and the lead was cut to three. Many statisticians have said for years that more coaches should be going for it on fourth down instead of kicking. O’Brien may have become a trailblazer in that area by necessity.
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