Penn State's Ficken turns fortunes around

Sam Ficken says missing four field goals vs. Virginia last season helped him focus on fundamentals. He was3 for 3 last week. ROB CARR / Getty Images
Sam Ficken says missing four field goals vs. Virginia last season helped him focus on fundamentals. He was3 for 3 last week. ROB CARR / Getty Images
Posted: September 06, 2013

It's almost one year ago to the day when Sam Ficken became a household name around the Penn State campus for all the wrong reasons.

The Nittany Lions kicker lived his worst on-field nightmare at Charlottesville, Va., on a sunny second Saturday in September, missing four of his five field-goal attempts against Virginia, including a 42-yarder on the game's final play that would have enabled Penn State to avoid a 0-2 start.

Comments on social media were harsh, even vicious, but they had no long-range effect on him. In fact, in some curious way, the ordeal ended up helping Ficken, who has become a reliable force and will take a string of 13 successful field goals into Saturday's home opener against Eastern Michigan.

Ficken, a junior from Valparaiso, Ind., has turned things around thanks to his own work ethic and help from former Penn State star Robbie Gould, a Pro Bowl kicker for the Chicago Bears, who watches Ficken's tapes and critiques them over the Internet.

"If what happened didn't happen, I don't think I would have worked on my fundamentals as much," Ficken said this week. "Not to say that I was lazy before, but I think working with Robbie, he kind of taught me how to practice, that I should make every situation like a game situation, focusing on every single kick."

Ficken, who turned from soccer to football before his junior year of high school, said Gould's evaluations of the tapes are like kicking with him in person.

"He's really helped me change my fundamentals a little bit and that's added some confidence, and my accuracy has definitely improved," he said.

Judging by his 3-for-3 showing on field goals, including a career-long 46-yarder in Saturday's victory over Syracuse, Ficken dedicated himself to becoming better and more consistent during the offseason. Coach Bill O'Brien said there were times in the summer when he'd look out his office window and see Ficken practicing kicks by himself.

"He's a confident guy and a great guy," O'Brien said. "He's fun to coach, a really smart guy, really understands how to kick the ball and is able to kind of coach himself in some ways. He's a much-improved kicker and a confident kicker right now."

Ficken changed his field-goal approach from 21/2 steps to 2 for more consistency. He also worked out with strength coach Craig Fitzgerald, following the same regimen as the entire team, and that showed in his kickoffs: All six went into the end zone, with four touchbacks.

He said the fact that he lifts with the team has resonated with his teammates.

"With me working out with them, I think that's also like a bonding process," he said. "I don't want to be the kid that says, 'Aw, that looks hard, I'll sit that one out.' I think [Fitzgerald] has really pushed me and that's definitely helped me."

Ficken had an excellent preseason camp, especially responding to pressure situations set up by the coaches at the end of practice. He booted one kick of 57 yards, and said he believes he can make anything from inside 55 "comfortably."

As for what happened last season at Virginia, Ficken said that's far from his thoughts now. While he concedes last year he used the criticism as a form of motivation, he's not doing that anymore.

"I'm just trying to do well for my teammates and help win football games," he said.

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