Penn State kicker Ficken trying to bounce back from disastrous Virginia game

Sam Ficken (97): 'Hopefully, the worst is behind me.'
Sam Ficken (97): 'Hopefully, the worst is behind me.' (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: September 28, 2012

STATE COLLEGE - Despite everything, Sam Ficken could have been the hero.

He had missed three field goals and had an extra point blocked already, but on a dreary Sept. 8 in Charlottesville, Va., he had one more shot to propel his Nittany Lions to a win over Virginia.

Never before had the sophomore from Indiana had a game this bad. He said that in his senior year in high school, he missed four kicks the entire season. Now, here he was, Penn State's starting kicker after Anthony Fera transferred to Texas, with the Lions down by one point and all the pressure of clinching the school's first official win since 1997 on his shoulders.

He fires away for a 42-yard try.

Wide left. Time expires. Lions lose, 17-16.

"I mean, there weren't really any words for it," Ficken said of how he felt walking off the field. "Just mainly disappointed. That was the overall sense. A little mad at myself, but, you know, got to move on."

The Twitterverse sent nasty comments to his @sficken1 account following the disaster.

To move on, Ficken would need support. Fortunately for him, there was plenty of that to go around.

No Nittany Lion would blame Ficken for the loss. Not a one. Coach Bill O'Brien reminded the media that kicking is a process, that the snap, hold and protection need to be better, as well. Other things could have decided the game, too.

"If you really look at the game, should it really have come down to that kick? We had four turnovers. We got the ball inside the 15-yard line, I think, three times, inside the 20-yard line once and came away with a field goal," O'Brien said. "Look, we should have scored touchdowns. It's a team sport."

Ficken's misses came from 40, 38, 20, and 42 yards; his one make came from 32 in the fourth quarter after missing three in a row. Following the loss, O'Brien told Ficken, "The sun will come up tomorrow."

"No specific words were said," junior linebacker Glenn Carson said, "but after the game, I gave him a pat on the back to let him know I'm behind him and the rest of the other guys are behind him and that we trust him to bounce back from this to show everybody he's a great kicker."

Carson stands 6-3, 235 pounds; Ficken, 6-2, 172 pounds.

It wasn't just the team that Ficken felt support from in State College. The week after Virginia, Penn State played Navy at Beaver Stadium. During pregame warmups, the stadium erupted every time Ficken made a field goal. When he made extra points during the game itself, the crowd was even more raucous.

Fans have also draped a sign over the railing in front of the student section that read "Stickin' with Ficken."

"He obviously had a tough game, but there's a lot of aspects that go into winning a football game," said Troy Weller, president of the student encampment called Nittanyville. "A lot of kids have stuck behind him, and obviously there's some, I guess you could say, disgust out there from some people. But . . . people realize it's a team game, and not one person wins a game or loses a game."

Ficken's cousin, Dan Hummel, always has played sports with Ficken. The two were born only 4 days apart. Hummel recalled how he and Ficken played tag as kids at the Fickens' farm in Valparaiso, Ind.

Now, Hummel plays wide receiver at Grand Valley State, an elite Division II program.

Hummel texted his cousin after the Virginia game.

"It's not your fault, you guys needed one point. Keep your head up. You're still the best kicker to come out of our high school ever," Hummel said in the text. "Don't let this get to you. Don't let Twitter or ESPN get to you. You don't deserve this. You have four years to redeem yourself as Penn State's kicker, and you are Penn State's kicker."

Hummel told his cousin he loved him, and Ficken responded, "Thanks man, I love you too."

Both Hummel and Ficken went to Valparaiso High School. They played soccer together when they were kids. When they got into high school, they played a bit of basketball and football together.

Hummel could relate to Ficken's anguish. He said he once had a game in which he and his quarterback simply could not hook up, which helped to cost Valparaiso the state championship and an undefeated season.

"I could tell from watching ESPN how upset he was," Hummel said. "I could tell he was hurtin' bad."

Another Hummel who is well-versed in dealing with pressure is Dan's older brother, Robbie. He was a star basketball player at Purdue, played professionally in Spain and was drafted by the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves last June. Like Dan, Robbie could relate to Ficken's bad day. He went 0-for-11 shooting in a blowout loss last season against Michigan State that hurt the Boilermakers' chances for a Big Ten title.

"I just think he had a bad game," Robbie said. "He's always been a cool customer, and pressure has never really rattled him . . . I think he's going to bounce back from it and be a very good kicker for Penn State."

Now, it's up to Ficken to put Virginia behind him.

"Roll with the punches, I guess," Ficken said of the hate he received on Twitter. "I mean, I did miss four kicks, so I understand fans being pretty upset, but you've got to move forward."

Initially, Ficken was worried he'd lose his starting job. After the game, coaches called him in and gave him a vote of confidence.

In the two games since Virginia, Ficken is 7-for-8 on extra points and 1-for-1 on field goals, making a 21-yarder against Temple last week.

"It's a sense of relief to get one through there after the whole mishap at Virginia," Ficken said. "Just try to think of everything as an extra point."

Ficken says he can make the debacle a source of motivation.

"Hopefully, the worst is behind me," Ficken said with a laugh.

AGENDA

Who: Penn State (2-2, 0-0 Big Ten)

at Illinois (2-2, 0-0)

When: Saturday, noon

Where: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.

TV: ESPN

Radio: WFIL (560-AM), WNTP (990-AM)

Three things to watch:

1. The story of Illinois sending coaches to State College this summer to recruit after the NCAA sanctions on the Penn State program has been told many times. Linebacker Michael Mauti was the most vocal Nittany Lion about his distaste for this, even though it was permitted. Mauti also happens to be a candidate for the Bednarik Award, presented to the nation's best defensive player, after amassing 42 tackles and two forced fumbles in four games. Though the Nittany Lions are saying they are drawing motivation from the fact that this is their first Big Ten game, it's hard to believe that Mauti, already having a fantastic season, won't be extra fired up. Stay out of his way.

2. Finally, fans might be able to see what Bill Belton can do for an entire game. After leaving the season opener against Ohio early and missing the next three games with an ankle injury, the running back is ready to go for Illinois. When he did play against Ohio, Belton was effective, gaining 53 yards on 13 rushes. He also caught a touchdown and had 16 receiving yards on three catches. His backup, Derek Day, is also ready to go for Illinois after missing the last two games, as is tackle Donovan Smith.

3. Who would have thought that redshirt sophomore cornerback Jesse Della Valle would emerge as Penn State's punt returner? He's done just that after impressing coach Bill O'Brien and special-teams coach John Butler with his play in the Virginia game. After some initial confusion at the position, with linebacker Gerald Hodges, one of the team's best players, returning punts, Della Valle is the go-to guy. He has returned four punts for 49 yards.

Prediction: Illinois is a one-point favorite, but I can't see the Lions losing their Big Ten opener given the circumstances and how well they have been playing lately. It's starting to look as if the Lions' defense is one of the Big Ten's best units, third in the conference in points allowed per game. Penn State takes it, 20-10, to climb back above .500.

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