UNIVERSITY PARK - Sam Ficken has experienced all the highs and lows of being a kicker in just one season.
The sophomore began the season hitting on just 2-of-8 field goals that included four misses, including a game winner, on Sept. 8 against Virginia. Ficken ended his season by making 10 straight kicks, and hitting the game-winning field goal in overtime on Saturday night.
"It's like a fairy-tale ending, really," the soft-spoken kicker said after the game in a crowded media room inside Beaver Stadium.
The Nittany Lion faithful began to doubt Ficken after his forgettable afternoon in early September. Penn State coach Bill O'Brien started to keep his offense on the field in some typical field goal kicking situations in lieu of sending Ficken out to try for the points.
But the rookie head coach said he never lost faith in his kicker. O'Brien said he saw Ficken improve day-by-day and game-by-game.
"I can't be prouder of Sam Ficken," O'Brien said. "To think of where he came from, to where we are tonight with him kicking the winning kick," O'Brien said.
O'Brien joked after the game that although the media may have lost faith in Ficken, those inside the football program never did. Ficken went 3-of-3 on field goals against Wisconsin with his longest kick being the game-winner in overtime.
"I can't say enough about the way he rallied tonight, and he made some big kicks for us tonight," the coach said.
Wisconsin won the overtime coin flip and elected to go on defense first. Quarterback Matt McGloin and the rest of the Penn State offense took to the field to begin its offensive series. Ficken subsequently retreated to the kicking net behind the Lions bench to loosen up his leg.
When McGloin's third-down pass fell incomplete, O'Brien called upon his kicker to give the team the first points of overtime.
"I treated it like another kick," Ficken said. "I just focused on fundamentals and didn't think too much.""
It was the first game-winning kick of Ficken's young career at Penn State. He said when he was in high school he won three games during his senior season with a field goal.
"It feels good to get back to that," the kicker said with a smile after the game.
But Ficken also knew all too well the pain Wisconsin kicker Kyle French was going through when his game tying attempt sailed wide left that sent Penn state charging onto the field in jubilation.
Ficken said he could not bear to watch French's kick, rather he had teammate Derek Day tell him the outcome, which was not needed due to the crowd's thunderous reaction.
"When that guy [Kyle French] missed, I felt bad for him," Ficken said. "That sucks, and it is a terrible feeling."
Ficken said he was all too familiar with the feeling of missing a game-winning kick after the Virginia game. But he said that awful day in early September made him into a better kicker.
"Mentally it definitely made me a stronger kicker," he said. "I've been hopefully through my worst time as a kicker, so it's only up from there."