The way Bill O'Brien sees it, keeping the offense on the field on fourth down isn't so much rolling the dice as it is the next move on the chess board.
Bill O'Brien has gone for it on fourth down more times than any other coach in the Big Ten so far.
"You know, when you go for it on fourth down, you can't just all of a sudden go for it," the Penn State head coach said Tuesday. "So your third-down call is more of a second-down call because you're trying to get half the distance to the first down, so it's a manageable fourth down."
The traces of a grin washed over O'Brien's face, as if it dawned on him that his message might seem a little sacrilegious to fellow members of his coaching fraternity.
"I don't think many coaches have said that in a long time," he added.
No, but not that many coaches -- certainly not any who patrolled the Penn State sideline -- have pulled the trigger on fourth down with the frequency O'Brien has in the Nittany Lions' first two games, either.
During the last five seasons, Penn State teams went for it on fourth down an average of 13.6 times per season, which accounted for 14 percent of the total fourth-down chances it had during that span. Through two games under O'Brien, Penn State has already gone for it on fourth down seven times, one more time than Joe Paterno did during the entire 2009 campaign. Those seven occasions account for 35 percent of the 20 fourth-down opportunities the Nittany Lions have had, and they have successfully converted on five of those seven occasions.
It's a trend that isn't likely to change.
"Once we get really close to the 50, I'm pretty much not going to punt it," O'Brien said. "I'm just going to tell you that. Like we're going to go for it, unless it's fourth and forever -- probably punt it. But if it's a manageable fourth down, we're going to go for it and we have some third down/second down calls on fourth downs depending on the distances that we're prepared for. We prepare the kids for it. The kids know we're going to go for it. So I think it's been okay."
You could argue that the major reasons behind O'Brien's aggressive strategy have to do with his reservations about the kicking game. Sam Ficken's field-goal struggles against Virginia have been well-documented, and punter Alex Butterworth has so far been consistently underwhelming. If O'Brien had more productive and reliable players at either position or both spots (or, well, Anthony Fera), he might have a different approach on fourth down this season.
I think, however, that O'Brien's fourth-down strategy serves as a microcosm for what he is trying to do with his team as a whole this season -- Go for broke. Swing for the chin. Play as if you have nothing to lose. Because, really, what does his team have left to lose? The Nittany Lions aren't playing for a bowl game. They can win the Big Ten's Leaders Division but if they do, they can't play for a conference title.
If O'Brien coaches with a chip on his shoulder, his players will play with chips on their shoulders. And that chip might be what this young, depleted, inconsistent team needs to come together.
If nothing else, it makes the game a whole lot more interesting, for players on both sides of the ball.
"I think that's something that brings confidence," wide receiver Allen Robinson said, "because he knows we can get the first down, and it builds confidence in the defense, because he knows they can get a stop in a short field."
"As a defense, we're always urging them on to go for it," cornerback Stephon Morris said. "Just for him to have faith in us means a lot. When we do go for it in those situations and we don't get it, we have to make sure we get their backs and hold them. In years past, we never went for it on fourth and one."
Well, those days are over. And though fans and critics and opponents are watching him closely for a thousand other reasons right now, O'Brien's fourth-down proclivities could earn him some national fame. Remember the coach who spent all summer saying he wouldn't punt? San Diego State's Rocky Long? Through two games, the Aztecs have gone for it on fourth down three times and punted seven.
The Aztecs' coach might be named Rocky, but Penn State's coach is the one going for the knockout.
"There are four downs for a reason," quarterback Matt McGloin said this week.
O'Brien has play calls ready for each of those downs.