Going forth: Bill O'Brien's fourth down calls a game-changer for Penn State

When Michael Zordich zig-zagged through Northwestern's defense and into the end zone for a two-point conversion in the fourth quarter, Bill O'Brien clinched both of his hands in fists and threw them in the air.

The Nittany Lions, once down 11 points, were now within three of the then-No. 24 Wildcats.

O'Brien looked like a man who knew what he was doing. A man with a plan. A man who knew this would happen.

Rewind a few minute earlier and most fans inside Beaver Stadium probably wouldn't have thought so.

But O'Brien's aggressive playcalling was one of the key reasons Penn State completed a stunning comeback to defeat then-undefeated Northwestern, 39-28, on homecoming weekend. It's the reason those same fans chanted O'Brien's name in the waning seconds of the Nittany Lions' fourth-straight win.

"We look at the fourth down as a 'redeem' play," wide receiver Allen Robinson said. "If we do not get a lot on the first down or the second down, then we can make it up on the fourth." 

Boy did the Nittany Lions make up ground on fourth down on Saturday. Penn State converted 5-of-6 fourth downs, bringing the Nittany Lions to 13-of-20 for the season. That's the most completions and most attempts in the country.

"It's high risk, high reward, and we move the ball because of it," quarterback Matt McGloin said. "Any time your coach has that confidence in you, you get motivated."

The biggest call came with 9:50 remaining in the second half, the Nittany Lions trailing 28-17. Northwestern had scored touchdowns on three of its previous five drives. Penn State, which once held a 10-0 game, now faced a fourth-and-four situation on the Northwestern six yard line.

A field goal would be the safe choice. For most, it would be the logical one. But not for O'Brien, who six games into his tenure as Penn State's coach has cemented a reputation as a gambler.

"I felt good there and didn't think twice about it and just made the play call," O'Brien said. 

What if it didn't work out?

"Then, well, what are you going to do?" O'Brien said. "You got to make the touchdown; you got to execute the play. I mean, what do you want me to say?" 

O'Brien didn't need to say anything. McGloin connected with Allen Robinson for a touchdown, and Zordich converted the two-point attempt.

It's no secret Penn State has kicking woes this season -- sophomore Sam Ficken is just 3-for-9 on the season. Probability says Ficken likely would have made that field goal, which would have been about the same length of an extra point.

But O'Brien came into Saturday's game looking for a win. The Nittany Lions have no postseason to play for this year. Every games means a little more, especially for McGloin and the seasons. That means going for a touchdown, any chance you can.

"That's more about just getting in the right rhythm," O'Brien said about the fourth-down  "We practice those situations, sometimes they work, sometimes they don't work. You have to live with it when they don't work."

On Saturday, it worked. Gambling O'Brien won big.

-Emily Kaplan