Sunday, September 9, 2012

Penn State and Sam Ficken tap into the painful side of kicking

Penn State sophomore kicker Sam Ficken joins a long list of those who play the ultimate all-or-nothing position and suffer for it, missing five kicks in PSU's 17-16 loss at Virginia.

This is how she described it, what every single instance was like, hundreds of them, for years:

She always was sitting in the stands, surrounded by other parents of the football players, as the team lined up for the attempt, either a field goal or extra point. She would lean forward, hands on her knees, bending at the waist ... and keep leaning, keep bending, until her head was down between her calves. And her heart was in her throat.

She was the mom of a kicker. And a very good kicker, a standout for a Penn State rival in the Big Ten.

She never watched. She knew by the crowd reaction. 

On all the good ones, she sat up, exhaled and cheered.

The bad ones? Raw agony.

Somewhere, right now, Mrs. Ficken, Sam's mom, is agonizing.


Obviously, it will be mentioned how PSU's would-be kicker, Anthony Fera, transferred to Texas in early August, when the NCAA legalized the stealing of Penn State players.

Ficken missed four FG attempts Saturday, finishing 1-for-5. Fera missed three last season - the entire season.

Ficken missed an extra point Saturday. Fera was 20-for-20 on PATs in 2011.

(In fairness to Ficken, it appeared bad blocking was the primary culprit on his blocked PAT.)

So, PSU was set at kicker with Fera until early August, when Ficken was thrust into the role.

Last season, when Fera was ineligible early on, Ficken, then a true freshman, made a 43-yard attempt and missed a 49-yarder. He also made his only PAT.

After going 2-for-2 on PATs last week, this week Ficken attempted his first field goals of the season. 

A mistake by QB Matt McGloin made Ficken's first FG attempt more difficult. McGloin - who played well overall in a gutty performance with a banged-up elbow - took a sack on third down instead of throwing it away, pushing the attempt back from 30 to 40 yards.

Ficken already had made a PAT to put the Lions up 7-0, and this kick should have been an easy 30-yarder for a 10-0 PSU lead. But Ficken pulled the 40-yarder to the left.

It was the beginning of his nightmare.


Sometime shortly after we met, and on perhaps 200 occasions since then (no exaggeration), my wife has said "our kid will never be a kicker."

Why? No way would she subject herself or her child to something potentially so cruel and torturous.

An entire football game can be played, some 150 plays, and kicks can have almost nothing to do with anything in the game - until the final and decisive play, when a kick can determine the ultimate outcome.

Did the Ficken's ever have such discussions about the perilous duties of the football kicker? Perhaps.

An aside: Kicking in football is, um, stupid. It has nothing to do with anything else in the game. Special teams, overall, wouldn't be missed if the sport got rid of it. Some slight modifications to the rules could eliminate kickoffs (always just start at 25), PATs (always go for 2) and FGs (if you get inside the 25 you can take 3 points, or continue going for a TD). Punting could remain, though teams should punt less often than they do.

These feelings about kicking in football have nothing to do with Saturday's game in Charlottesville. They just have to do with the bizarre nature of special teams in football. 

In all team sports, you have offense and defense. No sport has anything like special teams. Which doesn't necessarily mean it should be eliminated, and which doesn't mean it isn't currently a vital aspect of the game. But would football really miss kickoffs, PATs and FGs?

Could the game be better with less of the arbitrary nature of kicking, and with some more excitement-adding new rules? Teams going for the touchdown more often, going for it on 4th down more often, and always going for the 2-point conversion? Wouldn't that be better?

Regardless, on Saturday some bad kicking and PSU ineptitude in the red zone created several extremely rare statistical anomalies.
  • PSU had zero turnovers and UVa had 4, an extraordinary occurrence considering the  reverse outcome.
  • PSU ran 85 plays, UVa 61.
  • PSU had 42 rushing attempts, UVa 25.
  • PSU had 121 rushing yards, UVa 32. 

These stats are all, typically, prime indicators of the final outcome, the winner and loser. Saturday, they flip-flopped. Because of these stats:

                         PSU      VA
PAT Kicks      1-2       2-2
Field Goals    1-5       1-1 

(Amazing timing - last week Sports Illustrated wrote a lengthy piece about college kickers who bond over their famous misses:


A very fortuitous and enormously important pass play involving PSU safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong once again figured prominently in the outcome Saturday.

Last week SO-A turned a would-be interception into a game-turning TD for Ohio. This week, he and Jacob Fagnano, on 3rd-and-16 for Virginia from its 22, with PSU up 16-10 with five minutes to go, allowed Cavaliers TE Jake McGee to take the ball away from them.

Virginia QB Michael Rocco scrambled and lofted a long pass downfield, and though both SO-A and Fagnano were rightthere, McGee skillfully turned it into a 44-yard gain. Biggest play of the game. Several plays later, Virginia scored for a 17-16 lead.

Still, PSU had a chance. McGloin, with one timeout and 1:28 remaining, did an excellent job getting the team in FG range, completing 6 of 9 passes (one of the incompletions was a spike) to move the Lions to the UVa 22, setting up what would be a 39-yard FG attempt ...

... Except McGloin had a brain cramp. He stepped backward a few yards while also stepping sideways to center the ball on the field for Ficken's attempt. It was now a 42-yarder.

Back in 2000, Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Shaun King did almost the same exact thing in a vital season finale game at Green Bay. King moved the Bucs into FG range, then took steps back, lengthening the attempt by a couple of yards.

With the division title, first-round bye and home playoff game on the line, kicker Martin Gramatica's 40-yard attempt drifted a little, and a little more, and - clanged off the right upright. The Bucs traveled to Philadelphia the next week to open the playoffs and got whipped.

That memory was front and center as McGloin backed up before falling to the ground.

Oh, and it was starting to rain.

Kicking being all about confidence, and with Ficken's confidence-meter flatlined on Saturday, how might it have impacted Ficken to see his 39-yard attempt become a 42-yard attempt? And did he notice the rain?

Being inside 40 yards might have assisted his psyche. We'll never know, as the attempt hooked wide left, not very close.

The Lions fell to 0-2. And the Ficken family hunkered down for a long night.

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