Sam Ficken’s struggles were well documented last season.
After all, it’s not often a kicker misses five kicks in one game as Ficken did in Penn State’s loss to Virginia when he flubbed four field goals and an extra point in a 17-16 loss to the Cavaliers.
For his teammates, it was hard to watch. For his detractors, it was the perfect opportunity to pile on Ficken who was then in his sophomore year. The vitriol tweeted his way was pretty harsh. His confidence waned but he eventually recovered. After hitting just four of 11 field goals in the first six games, Ficken finished 2012 by nailing 10 of 10. He got 2013 off to a good start, drilling all three of his field goals and both extra points in Penn State’s 23-17 win over Syracuse on Saturday.
After the game inside Penn State’s locker room at MetLife Stadium, Coach Bill O’Brien singled Ficken out.
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“They went crazy, I said, ‘Congratulations to Sam Ficken.’ Especially to all those tweeters after the Virginia game last year. He’s done a hell of a job and he deserves it. He’s worked extremely hard. It’s only the one game but I said, ‘You should be very proud of the way you kicked the ball today for Penn State.’”
Ficken hit a game-tying kick of 36 yards in the second quarter then added a go-ahead boot of 35 yards later in the half. He added some insurance by nailing a career-long 46-yarder in the fourth. Ficken was mobbed by his teammates and walked off the field with a smile on his face after each kick.
It was a much different scene then last season when Ficken hung his head walking off the field after each miss at Virginia.
“I think that game probably made me a better kicker,” Ficken said. “It obviously didn’t go the way I wanted it to go, but looking back at that, I probably wouldn’t have worked on my fundamentals as much as I have, on my envisioning kicking in the game.”
He sought advice from Chicago Bears kicker Robbie Gould, who also kicked at Penn State. Gould gave Ficken a few pointers on how he could tweak his practice regimen to improve his kicking. And Ficken went to work. He shortened his approach steps and adjusted the placement of his plant foot.
After hitting just four of his first 11 kicks last year, he nailed his final 10.
“Talking to Robbie Gould, he really taught me how to practice. That’s really helped carry over into games,” Ficken said. “My goal is to not miss a kick all season. That might not happen, but to the best of my ability I’m going to do the job I need to do. I think I can make every kick coach O’Brien sends me out for.”
His confidence carried over into the season opener at MetLife Stadium.
Ficken’s first and last kick split the uprights perfectly. The second, the 35-yarder that gave Penn State a 6-3 lead in the second quarter, was a bit rough. Ficken trotted out with the field goal unit and stood in place for 28 seconds before O’Brien took a timeout as Penn State was trying to run time off the clock late in the half. After the inadvertent icing, Ficken didn’t get as much foot under the ball as he wanted and it sprung off his foot on a low trajectory. It was nearly blocked at the line, took a wobbly flight path and just snuck inside the right upright.
Ficken, who said he made two kicks of 47 yards and a 52-yarder during his time at Valparaiso High School in Indiana, grinned when asked about that second kick.
“It wasn’t the best kick in the world. I’ll be the first to admit that,” Ficken said. “But it went in and it’s three points, right?”
Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams did their part in limiting big plays from the Syracuse passing game.
“I was proud of the way those guys played,” O’Brien said. “They stayed on top of routes. I thought they tackled well.
Both sophomores, making their first career starts at the position, were physical and performed well when they found themselves in single coverage with Syracuse wideouts. When Syracuse tried to stretch the field in the second half, Lucas and Williams stopped Drew Allen and his wideouts from doing so.
Allen tried to connect on a deep throw to 6-foot-3 Adrian Flemming in the third but Lucas was all over him, keeping Flemming from reeling in the catch as he fell out of bounds. Later in the third, Flemming lined up against Williams and ran deep again. Allen lobbed a pass up but Williams leapt and knocked it away to bring up third down.
Williams sealed the game when he intercepted a deep throw from Allen along the sideline late in the fourth quarter.
“That interceptions that Trev made at the end of the game, I’ll tell you man, that’s a receiver that switched to corner making that interception,” O’Brien said. “Both guys are team guys. They love being on a team and we’re lucky to have them on the team.”
The two corners combined for six tackles and broke up three passes.
The Nittany Lion running game never developed much forward thrust against the Orange — a defense that gave up 145 yards per game last season and returned just three starters in the front seven.
Penn State managed just 57 yards on 38 carries for an average of only 1.5 yards per carry. Zach Zwinak got the bulk of the work with 24 carries for 61 yards and Bill Belton carried six times for 19 yards. Both players reeled off an 11-yard carry but the Nittany Lion running backs were bottled up for the most part by Syracuse’s aggressive run-stopping schemes.
“I believe Syracuse did a really good job. They pressured it,” O’Brien said. “There were times when they knew we were going to run it. I knew we were going to run it. Everybody in the stadium knew we were going to run it. But the goal was to win the game so I think at the end our defense bailed us out and played a hell of a football game.”
Most troubling for Penn State? Short-yardage situations were futile. While the Nittany Lions grew accustomed to watching Zwinak bowl over opponents in short yardage situations last season, he rushed for no gain or lost yards on four third-and-short situations on Saturday.
O’Brien said his strategy on third-and-longs wasn’t necessarily to run the ball in order to keep true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg from having to do too much in his first start. Instead, O’Brien said he noticed on film how Syracuse backed off on a lot of third-and-longs, expecting opponents to pass.
“On third-and-five-plus, I thought there was going to be a little more space and we had thrown the ball I think almost 85 percent of the time last year on third down so I felt like maybe I’d get two high safeties and stick a run in there and get six yards,” O’Brien said.
But on those third downs over five yards, Penn State averaged just 2.6 yards and didn’t pick up one first down.
“That was more game planning by me and it didn’t work out too good,” O’Brien said.
Penn State began the game with an false start call and incurred three more in the game for a total of 20 penalty yards. Syracuse was far sloppier.
The Orange committed eight penalties including a personal foul and another that was declined. It wasn’t a good start to the season for a team that was guilty of 102 infractions last season. Only four FBS teams were penalized more than Syracuse last season and the Orange are already on their way to being one of the most flagged teams again — having exceeded their per game average of just over seven from last season.
Two hits by Orange defenders — one a shoulder-to-shoulder blast on Matt Zanellato and the second a helmet-to-facemask blow against Jesse James who was already wrapped up and going to the ground — were borderline hits when considering the NCAA’s new targeting rules.
Day to remember
Stephen Obeng-Agyapong made up for a few missed tackles early with a dominant game in the second half.
The Bronx, N.Y. native gave his cheering section of 10 friends and family members plenty to hoot and holler about as he terrorized the Orange offense throughout the game. Obeng-Agyapong, a senior, finished the game with eight tackles, a sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery and an interception.
Day to forget
While Malcolm Willis tied with Obeng-Agyapong with eight tackles with one for a loss, second to DaQuan Jones’ nine stops, the senior safety would probably like a few snaps back.
Willis let a possible interception slip through his hands in the first quarter and it turned into a 13-yard gain and a third-down conversion for the Orange.
The Orange clawed back into the game and sucked the momentum away from Penn State in the third when Jeremiah Kobena ran past Willis and hauled in a 55-yard catch that set up a Jerome Smith touchdown run on the next play.
Key play you already forgot
With 8:30 to play in the first quarter, Syracuse faced third-and-10 from midfield. Quarterback Drew Allen flicked a screen pass to Prince-Tyson Gulley who turned upfield with three blockers in front of him. Penn State’s Lucas recognized the play almost immediately and flew toward the line of scrimmage where Syracuse tackle Ivan Foy was leading the way
Foy’s task was to drive Lucas toward the sideline and provide the speedster Gulley a lane to bounce to the outside. He would’ve had open field with two more blockers to pave the way. But Lucas was too quick. He eluded Foy’s block and threw himself at Gulley’s legs, cutting the Syracuse running back down and turning a potential touchdown into a punting situation for the Orange.
Center Ty Howle was the recipient of a physical hit early in the third quarter. But it didn’t come from a defensive lineman or linebacker.
Instead, Howle — who made his first start at center — was plowed into by Allen Robinson as the latter zigged and zagged his way down the field on his first reception of the half. Robinson caught a screen pass behind the line of scrimmage then took off. He eventually tried to cut left but ran into Howle who went down hard. After the game, Howle — who outweighs Robinson by about 90 pounds, laughed it off.
“He ran me over, man,” Howle said. “I wasn’t expecting it. He cut back and hit me right on the side there. He made a great play.”