Sam Ficken hit the easiest game-winning kick he’s ever lined up and then, once the ball sailed through the uprights at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night, he took off running.
The senior outran his teammates who flooded onto the torn up baseball-turned-football field intending to mob him. He took his helmet off and flipped it toward Penn State’s sideline where coaches and players rejoiced after his overtime extra point sealed Penn State’s 31-30 win in the Pinstripe Bowl.
“It was kind of nice,” Ficken said. “Not a whole lot of pressure, which is good.”
It was the first time Ficken had ever won a game for his team with an extra point — a walk-off chip shot that held up as the game-winner after Boston College kicker Mike Knoll missed one to open the Eagles’ first overtime possession.
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But it wasn’t the first time Ficken had delivered in the clutch for the Nittany Lions (7-6, 2-6 Big Ten).
He began the season in Dublin, Ireland, with a game-winning field goal and was assigned Derek Jeter’s old locker at Yankee Stadium prior to Saturday’s game. Ironically, Jeter ended his Yankee career with a walk-off hit just a few months prior to Ficken ending his Penn State career the same way.
Ficken got the chance thanks to a Penn State rally and his own right foot. He drilled a 45-yard field goal with 20 seconds left to tie the game at 24 and send it into overtime.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg completed 34 of 50 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns, one each to Chris Godwin, Geno Lewis, DaeSean Hamilton and Kyle Carter, to lead Penn State’s comeback after the Nittany Lions found themselves down 21-7 with a little over a quarter to play.
The Eagles got a 19-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Murphy to Shakim Phillips, and Murphy took off on a 40-yard touchdown run to give the Eagles a two-touchdown lead late in the third quarter. After Murphy fell into the end zone, the pro-Penn State crowd grew hushed.
After that score, Penn State’s defense tightened up as its offense — and its quarterback — began to heat up. The Nittany Lions stopped the Eagles on their next two drives and Hackenberg hit Lewis from seven yards out, then threw his third touchdown pass of the game to Hamilton from 16 yards away to tie it with 6:48 remaining.
“We knew we had to do something to get our offense the ball,” senior linebacker Mike Hull said. “We had to give them as many opportunities as we could and they’re the ones who picked up the slack this week for us.”
Knoll booted a field goal with 2:10 left to put the Eagles back in front, then Ficken tied the game again to force overtime.
It looked like Penn State’s defense would hold the Eagles to a field goal in overtime too, but Murphy threw to David Dudeck, who slipped two tackles on the way to a 21-yard score on third-and-six. But Knoll pushed the ensuing extra point wide right.
“They made one more play than we did tonight,” Boston College coach Steve Addazio said.
That one play — Ficken’s extra point — came after Hackenberg led a six-play drive that ended when he floated a pass to Carter in the end zone from 10 yards out. Carter outleapt Boston College safety Ty-Meer Brown to tie the game at 30.
“I faked like I was going to block the outside guy, ran straight up the field and Hack put it in the right spot,” Carter said.
Penn State started the scoring when Hackenberg fired a 72-yard pass to Godwin in the first quarter. Running back Bill Belton picked up a blitzer to give Hackenberg time and space to step into his throw. Godwin caught the ball in stride down the sideline, stepped through a Boston College tackler and outran the rest of the Eagles defense to the end zone.
The Eagles came right back.
Jon Hilliman sprinted to the right and found a hole in Penn State’s defense two plays later and raced 49 yards untouched to cap the first-half scoring.
But Penn State capped an up-and-down season in front of 49,012 fans — the second-largest crowd in Yankee Stadium history.
“We have a way of starting the season in a dramatic fashion and ending the season in a dramatic fashion,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “Started in Dublin, Ireland, ended in New York City, who could’ve drew it up better than that? It wasn’t always pretty but we persevered and stuck together and to me that’s who we are.”