Sam Ficken knows the life of a kicker is filled with ups and downs. By the time the Nittany Lions had arrived at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Ficken had already missed four field goals in a game, had an extra point blocked and spent much of the previous month bothered by a sore right quad.
Sam Ficken has made eight of his last nine field-goal attempts.
But what he had to deal with during the Nebraska game was, well, a different kind of adversity.
During warmups, a gust of wind blew a tiny black rubber bead -- the sort that line most modern artificial playing surfaces by the millions -- into Ficken's eye.
"I tried to rub it around, and it scratched my eye up pretty bad," he said. "I had to wear sunglasses to keep the wind from drying out my eye throughout the game."
Undaunted, Ficken connected on all three of his field goal tries (and both of his extra-point attempts) in Penn State's 32-23 loss, bringing his streak of consecutive field goals made to six.
The slender sophomore from Valparaiso, Ind., had to wear an eye patch to sleep that night but the freak injury isn't bothering him now. Nor are the early-season struggles -- he made just two of his first eight field-goal attempts -- that made some wonder if Ficken would ever mentally recover.
"As a kicker, you try and forget the missed kicks. It is going to be in the back of your head. Sometimes it's how kicking goes," he said. "Making these past few kicks, my confidence is definitely increasing. My goal isn't to miss the rest of the year."
There are a couple of reasons for Ficken's turnaround. From a technical standpoint, he's worked hard to realign his plant foot and to slow his tempo down just a bit (he's gone from hitting the kicks 1.2 seconds after the snap to 1.3, he said), and has also worked on his flight path.
"My ball tended to fade a little bit more than I would like at the start of the season," Ficken said. "It's now a straight line, a little bit more of a draw. I can place it more. That seems to be helping out."
From a mental standpoint, Ficken received advice from a network of former Penn State kickers, including Massimo Manca, Kevin Kelly and Robbie Gould. The latter told Ficken to "slow down and don't think too much."
Ironically, Ficken started to get on track during a time when he was practicing less. He strained his right quadricep by "overkicking," he said, and said he couldn't even kick at all during the week before the Ohio State game. Today, though, his kickoffs are traveling their usual distance, and Ficken says he can't even tell that he had injured the muscle.
A healthy and productive Ficken could be essential for the Nittany Lions as they look to close out an up-and-down season with a pair of home wins.
"When you're kicking better and better, you're gaining more and more confidence," Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien said, "and he's a very, very laid back guy that cares about his teammates, wants to do well. It's nice to see him improve like he has."
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