Sam Ficken had already missed three field goals and had a PAT attempt blocked. That didn’t matter to head coach Bill O’Brien — he still had faith in his sophomore kicker.
Virginia had just driven down the field and went up 17-16 on the Nittany Lions with less than two minutes to play.
Quarterback Matt McGloin was able to put Penn State in scoring postion on the Cavaliers 25 yard line. With one second left in the game, out trotted Ficken. From 42 yards out he lined up to kick the game winner. The snap, good. The hold, good. The kick?
“You can’t really dwell on that being a kicker,” said Ficken. “You’re going to be the goat sometimes and you’re going to be the hero sometimes. Unfortunately that day I was the goat.”
Ficken’s job was never in question during his struggles. However, his playing time was. As the season progressed O’Brien increasingly went for it on fourth downs. The move led to speculation that O’Brien had lost faith in his kicker.
Ficken again struggled against Illinois, missing on both of his attempts. He failed to connect on a 47 yarder early in the second quarter and had an 18 yarder blocked to end the first half. His two misses dropped him to two for nine on the season.
“I went back to the drawing board and got a lot of help from [former Penn State and current Chicago Bears kicker]Robbie Gould and advice from previous kickers,” said Ficken “It really helped, and I think mentally now I’m a lot stronger kicker. I think I’m a better kicker too so good did come out of that day.”
Ficken’s performance improved gradually. Against Northwestern Ficken nailed a 21 yard field goal — his only attempt of the game. At Iowa, he one hit from 34 yards and was blocked from 43 yards while dealing with a quad injury.
“Over the bye week I was working on my technique and over kicked.” said Ficken. “After the Iowa game I could barely swing my leg. It didn’t really effect early on the season but Ohio State practice week I didn’t kick a ball until the game.”
The weeks rest before the Ohio State game proved beneficial. Ficken converted his only attempt of the game and was good on all his PATs. He connected on his next seven field goals.
Then came overtime against Wisconsin.
Penn State’s offense sputtered at the Wisconsin 19 on its first possession. On fourth down and the game on the line O’Brien again turned to Ficken. From 37 yards out he lined up his kick. The snap, good. The hold, good. The kick, just inside the upright, good. The field goal put Penn State up 24-21.
On Wisconsin’s only possession in overtime they would be forced to attempt a game tying field goal and miss giving Penn State the win.
“I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better ending to that season. Finishing up with 10 straight field goals with the last one in overtime to win the game,” said Ficken. “You really can’t ask for anything else as a kicker. It’s your dream to try and hit those game winning field goals and I pulled it through.”
With the storybook season Penn State has had, perhaps it’s only fitting that Sam Ficken won in the end.