Lions pull out victory in Ireland in Franklin’s debut

DUBLIN – James Franklin stood at midfield after the game and screamed to his team, “Get Ficken! Where’s Ficken?”

Five seconds later, the kicker started running toward Franklin.

“Ficken!” the coach screamed as he ran over and picked up his player. “I’m so happy for you, buddy!”

For the past seven months, we’ve heard so much about how Franklin cherishes the personal relationships he’s able to establish as a college football coach.

In those few seconds Saturday, more than 3,000 miles away from home on the beautiful Emerald Isle, we got a glimpse of exactly what Franklin has been talking about.

One constant since Franklin took over the Nittany Lion program has been his incredibly positive attitude toward his players, and few have received more praise from him than Sam Ficken, the place-kicker who has had a wild roller coaster of a career at Penn State.

Calling it irony doesn’t do it justice that Ficken, for the wrong reasons, was such a big part of former coach Bill O’Brien’s early tenure at PSU, yet Saturday he helped get the Franklin era off on the right foot.

With his right foot.

Ficken kicked a 36-yard field goal as time expired to give Penn State a 26-24 win over Central Florida in the Croke Park Classic before 53,304 fans. More than 15,000 PSU fans who made the long journey to Ireland erupted when the ball went through the uprights, as did Ficken, who celebrated by taking off and sprinting around the field.

“I’m unbelievably happy for the team,” Ficken said. “It’s a great team win. I was fortunate enough to be able to come through for the guys and knock off a great team.”

Penn State led most of the game before UCF rallied for a go-ahead TD with 1:13 to go. Christian Hackenberg, who threw for a school-record 454 yards, and the Lion offense didn’t panic as they took the field knowing what had to be done in order to win.

They had to get close enough for Ficken’s kickin’, and they did just that as Hackenberg pulled some magic out of his hat to move the Lions down to the UCF 19-yard line with 3 seconds to go.

It was two years ago, in O’Brien’s second game at PSU, that Ficken missed four field goals and an extra point in a 17-16 loss at Virginia. He had a chance to win the game on a 42-yard try as time expired, but he missed.

Ficken has persevered as much as any Penn State player in recent memory, bouncing back from that Virginia fiasco to put together more good kicks than bad ones.

Saturday, he was all good, drilling four field goals, including the game winner.

It was nothing new to Franklin, who has sung Ficken’s praises for months.

“That guy’s had as consistent of a spring and summer as anybody on our team,” the coach said. “He’s been money. And I’m just happy for him because he’s had an interesting career.”

He’s not the same kicker he was two years ago, but then again, Ficken wouldn’t be who he is as a person without those struggles at Virginia and how he overcame them.

“I think I have a little more poise through the trials and tribulations of my career here,” he said. “I’ve been in that situation before. I’ve succeeded, and I’ve failed. To grasp that experience and kind of hone it in and just not worry about what’s around me and focus on the fundamentals (is important).”

Ficken was the hero, but he very nearly was the goat once again. He admitted it wasn’t a great kick, and the ball barely snuck through the goal posts as it tailed right to left.

“I didn’t hit it real good,” Ficken said. “I kind of chopped it a little bit. It kind of went up right at the right pole. I was a little nervous it might clink. The wind pushed it back in. As soon as I saw it go in, I knew it was going to be good. I obviously had a little fun then.”

Hackenberg had fun all day, becoming the first PSU quarterback to throw for 400 yards in a game. He broke the record of 399 set by Zack Mills in 2002 against Iowa.

Two of Penn State’s standout young receivers also enjoyed a huge day. Geno Lewis caught eight passes for 173 yards and a TD, plus a 41-yard circus grab on a tipped pass that led to a key field goal late. Redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton caught 11 passes for 165 yards, both PSU freshman records.

The Lions needed the big day through the air as their ground game struggled against a UCF defense that was stingy up front. Zack Zwinak carried 12 times for 32 yards, while Bill Belton had 10 carries for 16 yards, and PSU netted only 57 yards on the ground.

Central Florida couldn’t run the ball either (29 carries for 24 yards), and for the first half at least it couldn’t throw the ball. Starter Pete DiNovo (3-of-8 for 18 yards) was ineffective, but backup Justin Holman came in and nearly led the Knights to a comeback victory.

Holman completed 9-of-14 passes for 204 yards and a TD, plus he ran for a 6-yard score that gave UCF a 24-23 lead with 1:13 remaining.

That’s when the game turned to winning time, and Franklin got his first chance to see that the players on his new team fight to the end.

Hackenberg led the offense down the field, all the while with Ficken knowing he could get a chance at a winning field goal.

“We had the ball at the 30; that was a lot of distance to cover that quickly,” Ficken said.

The offense did cover it, then Ficken won it with his kick.

“We found a way to win, and that ingredient is what people are searching for all the time,” Franklin said. “We try to instill it in practice, we try to instill it in meetings what it takes to win and what it takes to be successful, not just in football, but in life.

“Everything that we do on the football field has parallels to life. And these guys are winners, they really are.”

The coach used Ficken’s tale of perseverance in his career as a glaring example of that.

“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Franklin said. “And he’s a perfect example in this life, in this program, if you just stay positive and you persevere and you keep working, good things will happen.”