Bill O'Brien was a revelation after being tasked to do the impossible last year: Replace Joe Paterno.
That's mainly because he didn't try to replace him at all. He just did his own job, and he did that job amazingly well.
One of the biggest hallmarks of O'Brien's coaching profile—indeed, probably the single defining characteristic—is offensive innovation. What was once a premier "three yards and a cloud of dust" school was all of a sudden using multiple TE packages and turning notorious noodle-armer Matt McGloin into one of the Big Ten's most dangerous passers.
Here's video from a recent O'Brien appearance at a local chamber of commerce, via PennLive.com. He makes a throwaway gag about fourth downs while talking about his son and perspective, but it's actually worth talking about a little more.
For those who can't watch the video, here's what O'Brien said:
I've learned about perspective from my son, what's important in life. Third-and-1, fourth—well, you guys know fourth down means nothing to me. (Audience laughs, applauds.) It really doesn't. As long as we're not on our own 1-yard line or something stupid like that.
Now, O'Brien wasn't there to talk about fourth down all day. Fortunately, that's exactly what we're here to do. Nice job to have, really.
Penn State led the Big Ten in fourth-down attempts by a wide margin. The Nittany Lions were fifth nationally with 34 attempts, and among Big Ten teams only Purdue was even close to PSU at 27.
This isn't to say Penn State was particularly good at these conversions, mind you—PSU converted 19 of those 34 for a 56 percent success rate for fifth best in the Big Ten. Not bad but far from otherworldly.
So why did O'Brien go for it at such a high rate?
Part of it was sheer necessity.
Kicker Sam Ficken had a nightmarish start to his season, missing 13 points' worth of kicks in a 17-16 loss at Virginia and missing two more field goals in a 35-7 romp over Illinois in Week 5. Ficken actually calmed down and became one of the Big Ten's most reliable kickers down the stretch, hitting his last 10 field goals over the last five games. But his leg was never very strong, and for a large part of the season, O'Brien simply couldn't trust him as a reliable option.
Part of O'Brien's impetus was purely strategic, though. A field goal is worth less than half of a touchdown with an extra point. As such, a touchdown is a much more attractive goal for the end of a drive than a field goal (or, heaven forbid, flat-out surrendering possession on a punt).
So, if it's in Penn State's best interests to work toward a touchdown and Penn State was in high-percentage, low-risk situations on its fourth downs, logic would dictate going for it—and more often than coaches usually do.
There is a long, fascinating breakdown on Advanced NFL Stats of going for it on fourth down and when it's more advantageous to do so. Yes, the numbers were crunched for—and thus apply to—the NFL. But remember: Bill O'Brien is an NFL guy. It would be stunning if he had been unfamiliar with this study before he got to State College in 2012.
It takes awhile to get to the conclusion of the study, but it's pretty well laid out and simply written, so it's worth your time to read. And what comes out of the study is this magnificent chart, laying out what to do on fourth down from any spot on the field with any distance to go.
After 11 yards, it's more advantageous to punt or kick a field goal, so the chart stops at 12, but every other situation is there.
The bottom line of the study is this: Even O'Brien was unnecessarily conservative on fourth downs from a purely mathematical perspective. But he's smart enough—and young/fresh-minded enough—to at least get his team closer to where it should be in terms of maximizing its ability to score points.
This isn't all hypothetical nonsense either. For one, the study was derived from actual historical NFL data. Second, we do have a case study.
Kevin Kelley, head coach at Pulaski Academy (Little Rock, AR), almost never punts. And that's not to say he only does it once or twice a game.
Try once or twice a year.
And as a result, his teams routinely challenge for the state championship. He won two such titles since 2008, and his team makes it to the playoffs every year.
Kelley's teams also kick onside kicks all the time, gladly taking a shot at creating a turnover for what he has determined to be an average of 14 yards of field position at the high school level. Thus, you see scenarios like in 2011, when per Sports Illustrated, that strategy helped put his team up 29-0 in one game...before the other team could run a single play.
Here's what Kelley told ESPN.com's Gregg Easterbrook recently:
Everyone says football is a game of field position, but it's not. It's a game of scoring points, which only happens when you possess the ball. If you're not obsessed with field position, then you don't punt. You onside a lot. You don't even try to return punts or to block punts, because getting the ball back is far more important than risking a muff or a roughing-the-kicker flag.
Bill O'Brien isn't nearly as hardcore as Kelley—or if he is, he hasn't had the gumption to let that freak flag fly at Penn State quite yet—but you get the sense that he's cognizant of the same things that Kelley is.
Like he told the crowd, he's not afraid of fourth down. And that's just one of the reasons why he's already got the Penn State offense doing great things.