It had been 280 days since Sam Ficken kicked a game-winning field goal against Wisconsin, plenty of time for him to improve or regress before 2013.
On Penn State’s first potential field goal chance of the season, the Nittany Lions ran a fake. Ficken trotted off the field without touching the football. He was merely a decoy, there to draw the eyes of Syracuse’s blocking unit as holder Ryan Keiser darted another direction for the first down.
Three field goals later, Ficken’s leg had made the difference Saturday in the Lions’ 23-17 win against the Orange at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Before O’Brien highlighted Ficken’s performance in the locker room after the game , before Ficken comfortably nailed a career-long 46-yarder in the fourth quarter, before he even arrived at the stadium, it was clear to the entire football team — especially Ficken himself — that he could do it.
“All of camp, I’ve been hitting the ball really well. This is the best I’ve ever hit it in my life,” Ficken said.
“Going from where I started to where I am now, I couldn’t be more confident in my ability.”
Ficken launched his career as Penn State’s first-choice kicker with an abysmal 1-for-5 outing against Virginia in the Lions’ second game last season. Some Penn State fans unleashed their wrath on the young sophomore via Twitter. Struggling mentally and mechanically, Ficken converted only 3-of-6 attempts over the next five games.
However, Ficken hasn’t missed since Penn State’s win against Iowa on Oct. 20. The junior from Valparaiso, Ind. has drilled 13 straight field goals, carrying over to this season.
“I think [the tribulations] made me a better kicker,” Ficken said. “That [Virginia] game obviously didn’t go the way I wanted it to go. But looking back on that, I probably wouldn’t have worked on my fundamentals as much as I have. Not to say I was lazy, but talking to Robbie Gould, he really taught me how to practice.”
Ficken practiced during practice and outside of practice. In the preseason, O’Brien recalled exercising on a treadmill, looking out a window and spotting Ficken as he kicked field goals alone.
The coach’s confidence in Ficken displayed in his decision-making Saturday. O’Brien likely planned the fake field goal well before the game. He still shows a propensity to go for it on fourth down — at one point, quarterback Christian Hackenberg succeeded in such an endeavor from the Lions’ own 35-yard line — but O’Brien opted for Ficken on a key, fourth-quarter 4th-and-11 at Syracuse’s 29. Last year, O’Brien was more likely to keep his offense on the field in that kind of a situation.
Ficken split the uprights with distance to spare.
“I just said in the locker room, everybody went crazy, I said congratulations to Sam Ficken,” O’Brien said. “He deserves it. He’s worked extremely hard. It’s only the one game, but he should be very proud of the way he kicked the ball for Penn State.”