STATE COLLEGE - Toss out a couple frisbees and make them one goal line. The driveway on the far end of the yard is the other. The curb and the flower bed are out of bounds.
Goalposts? Who needs them?
Penn State rallied past Northwestern, 39-28 in front of almost 100,000 people Saturday at Beaver Stadium, but its fourth-down conversions gave the homecoming afternoon the carefree spirit of a neighborhood Nerf touch game often missing from big-time college football.
Beyond the fun, there was a strategic advantage to go for it every time. Collectively, the decisions are part of the poise Penn State carries along with its four-game win streak.
"It's high risk, high reward, and we move the ball because of it," said Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin. "Any time your coach has that confidence in you, you get motivated."
Bill O'Brien didn't just bring some of the New England Patriots' fourth-down mentality to Penn State, he expanded it. The Patriots converted 60 of 90 fourth downs during O'Brien's stay there as an assistant from 2007-2011, never attempting more than 22 in a season. After going 5 for 6 on fourth down Saturday, Penn State is 14 of 20 through just six games this season.
The most important fourth-down decision Saturday came on a fourth-and-4 on the Northwestern 6-yard line down 28-17 early in the fourth quarter. The play resulted in a touchdown pass as McGloin led receiver Allen Robinson over the middle, which made it a great call in retrospect.
There were just under 10 minutes to play, seemingly enough time to rally should Penn State kick a field goal, but a field goal was risky apart from Sam Ficken's struggles. Consider that Northwestern had scored touchdowns on three of its previous five drives after Penn State took a 10-0 lead and that the Nittany Lions' defense was reeling a bit, especially after the sideline lull from allowing Venric Mark's punt return for a touchdown.
Penn State had to hold Northwestern scoreless on the next drive whether it made the field goal or missed on fourth down. An ensuing 3-4 minute Northwestern drive that even ended in just a field goal would have given the Lions an 11-point deficit with about 6 minutes to play, hastening the arrival of hurry-up time.
So even if Adam Vinatieri was on the Penn State sidelines, going for a first down there was the right move. As it turned out, the play worked to perfection, Michael Zordich tacked on a two-point conversion, and the deficit was down to a field goal should Penn State want one on the next drive.
The Nittany Lions were nearly forced to kick one then, as McGloin's go-ahead touchdown run was on a third-and-goal from the Northwestern 6. Even McGloin, whose words match O'Brien's actions for pure pluck, said the team should have tried a field goal for the points and an eye on overtime if he didn't score with two minutes to go.
McGloin's touchdown run, of course, came a few plays after he hit Brandon Moseby-Felder for 13 yards on a fourth-and-2 from the Northwestern 19.
"A lot of times it's worked out this year when it's about field position," said O'Brien. "We don't go inside our own 20 or the 50 too often, but when we have the right field position and it's out of Sam's range it's a good play, especially if it's manageable and not hard on the play-caller."
Penn State's other fourth-down tries proved just as manageable. The first one, a fourth-and-4 from the Northwestern 31, resulted in a 12-yard completion from McGloin to Robinson. Zach Zwinak plowed 3 yards up the middle on a fourth-and-1 from the 10 a few plays later, which kept alive a field goal drive, of all things.
In the second quarter, Zwinak gained 2 yards to the Northwestern 14 on a fourth-and-1 on the Lions' first touchdown drive.
The fourth-down try that failed? That was an incomplete from McGloin to Michael Zordich on a fourth-and-4 from the Northwestern 34 with just over two minutes left in the half.
The Wildcats responded to that failure with a quick touchdown drive that gave them a 14-10 halftime lead.
Fourth-down conversions are a risk, after all, and O'Brien kept reminding one reporter of that after the game.
"It's football. I get anal about my kids, my wife. I don't get too anal about football," said O'Brien. "I love this coaching staff, this team, and we practice those situations. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't, but we'll live when they don't work."
Brigandi is sports editor at The Sun-Gazette. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.