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A Game of Inches: The Good Fourth Downs

Penn State’s defense played better than predicted in a couple of critical situations during the second half against the Buckeyes.

The final offensive play of the game for Penn State, a fourth down attempt that was not converted, has gotten the attention that it deserves following a tough loss to Ohio State. Prior to that play each team had attempted two fourth down conversions and both sides converted once.

We took a look at the two chances that Penn State had on defense to hold against 4th and short and were pleased with the results. Even though the Buckeyes got a first down on its first attempt, by the nose of the football, the play by Brent Pry’s defense was solid.

The First Attempt

Ohio State got the ball after halftime, trailing six points, needing to make a statement to begin the second half. After making a few first downs along the way to the Penn State 35 yard line, a crucial 4th and inches stood between the Buckeyes and the end zone. They would convert and continue on to score a go-ahead touchdown, but the play was a success for the defense.

As you can see in the picture below, the ball is nearly at the line needed to gain for the first down. Penn State only has a matter of inches to defend, without completely selling out and giving away the field behind them. Not in the picture, spread out wide are two receivers and defensive backs. They won’t be a factor since this was a run play.

Safety Garrett Taylor (17) has stepped up to within four yards of the line of scrimmage and is beside Jan Johnson (36) who is lined up at middle linebacker. At the bottom of the formation, with no receivers to defend on his side, Amani Oruwariye (21) has crowded in from his corner back position. At the top of the screen, Cam Brown (6) is on the edge of the line, just outside defensive end Shaka Toney (97). Robert Windsor (54) and Kevin Givens (30) are at tackle with Daniel Joseph (49) at end and Koa Farmer (7) standing up beside him.

It’s a straightforward short-yardage offensive formation, with a tight end to the left, fullback and running back in the backfield along with quarterback Dwayne Haskins, and two receivers split out wide left. This is a situation that some people have worried about for the Penn State defense; when there is no guesswork, just assignment football, big on big, only inches or feet to defend. Would they be able to hold their ground?

In the two situations that the Lions faced fourth and short on Saturday, the team did very well. While the call did not go in favor of Penn State during this first attempt, upon further review, it came down to maybe an inch or two, tops. It was a judgement call by the referee and it could have gone either way, and would have been hard to overturn.

Here is a slow-motion shot of the play.

Notice how the mass of blue bodies at the line almost completely moves forward across the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball. That is a couple of good things rolled into one; they got off the ball well and also got backfield penetration. Now the battle would be fought on Ohio State’s side of the line.

Outside, Koa Farmer must get around the fullback or he is going to be useless. Farmer got off the ball very fast and got around the block just enough to give J.K. Dobbins no choice but to cut it north and head for the line. Oruwariye solidified that by stepping across the line of scrimmage, providing contain and outside support.

That left just one player between the first down line, Jan Johnson. Johnson did what you would ask of any middle linebacker. He kept himself clean and got to the running back behind the line of scrimmage. It was a good hit on a great player in Dobbins, and without a second effort, a slight turn right at the line to make, Dobbins would have been held short. Instead, the Buckeyes gained the few inches needed and continued the drive. The picture used for this article shows the moment the ball reached the line.

Here is the play at full speed. You may want to prepare yourself for the noise, if the sound on your computer or device is on. The fans provided an audible wave of support, billowing down from the stands. The players stepped up and nearly made the play to get a stop.

Take Two

In an even more intense situation later in the game, this time with 10:23 to play and the Lions leading 20-14, Brent Pry’s defense was again asked to hold on a fourth and short, this time the yardage needed was about half of a yard.

The crowd inside Beaver Stadium was once again providing the audible assistance, an aid that cannot be discounted as having an impact.

The offensive formation and play is the same as the first time for Ohio State. This is not a trick play, it is a challenge, team versus team, to execute. As you can see in the shot below, at the snap, the Lions are in close to the same formation. At the top of the screen, cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields is a few yards off the line compared to how Oruwariye lined up on the earlier play. Koa Farmer is aligned at middle linebacker rather then standing on the edge as he was in the earlier play, that was a good adjustment as we will see later. Cam Brown ran in late to line up on the edge of the line and crashes into the running back along with Shareef Miller at the snap of the ball.

The GIF below has a good view of the moment that Miller and Brown converged on Dobbins. It gave Haskins no choice but to keep the ball. Haskins did an admirable job of getting around the mass of bodies, escaping to the right. Koa Farmer, from his middle linebacker spot on the play, had to put his body in the same void that Haskins had found. Farmer did, and was able to make the tackle for the stop.

Castro-Fields and Jan Johnson were there to help if needed at the end of the play. Notice the difference along the line of scrimmage compared to the first fourth down conversion. This time, Ohio State got the better of the Lions, pushing the line back well past the distance needed to gain. Were it not for Miller and Brown getting to Dobbins so quickly, and the fill by Farmer, the drive may have continued.

Here’s the play at full speed.

At the time the play was a momentum-changer. The Lions scored on the next drive to extend the lead, and yes, we know how the rest of the game went from there.

The good news is that Penn State, with its starting linebackers of Koa Farmer, Cam Brown, and Jan Johnson, were able to stand up to a strong Ohio State offense in a situation that some had predicted it would not. There had been questions whether the Lions would be able to hold their ground in such situations, versus larger, more-talented offensive fronts.

This time the defense played well against the run. Match-ups with teams such as Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, all full of big bodies, remain in the future.