Lions Kicking Themselves After Loss

A disastrous day by a new specialist costs Penn State dearly in defeat to Virginia. Bill O'Brien's team is now 0-2 on the season.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Penn State lost tailback Silas Redd to USC in the wake of the NCAA sanctions handed down against the school in July, a very big deal.

Almost as big was the loss of kicker/punter Anthony Fera to Texas, which went largely unnoticed.

That changed Saturday, when sophomore Sam Ficken missed four of his five field-goal attempts, the last a 42-yarder at the gun, as the Nittany Lions lost 17-16 to Virginia. Ficken, who did make a 32-yarder in the fourth quarter, also had an extra point blocked.

So now Anthony Fera is on everybody's mind.

Or almost everybody.

“I didn't even think of that, until you brought it up,” quarterback Matt McGloin told a reporter.

Were he to do so, McGloin would recall that Fera went 14-for-17 on his field-goal attempts last year, while also making All-Big Ten as a punter.

But the Lions' new reality is that they are going to have to patch and fill the roster as they go, in the wake of the transfers -- nine guys departed in all -- and the scholarship limits that will take hold in the future.

That means there will likely be some struggles, though it's possible no kicker has ever had as harrowing a day as Ficken had. He hooked a 40-yarder wide left in the first quarter, pushed a 38-yarder wide right in the second, missed a 20-yarder wide right in the third and, finally, missed wide left on his attempt at the end. The last of those came in the rain.

New coach Bill O'Brien, having seen his team fall to 0-2, did what he could to publicly comfort Ficken, reminding reporters it's “not all on the kicker,” that the snapper and holder come into play, too. (And indeed it appeared that the hold by Ryan Keiser on the 20-yard attempt was askew.)

It was the second straight year the Cavaliers survived a last-second field-goal attempt to win a game; it also happened against Florida State in 2011. And the last time an opposing kicker missed four tries against Virginia was 1964.

Cavaliers coach Mike London reminded everyone that things don't happen in a vacuum.

“I understand that there's a lot of pressure on kickers,” he said, “but I also understand the pressure that can be applied on the other side when you can push on the guards and get your hands up, like the (extra point) we blocked. When you start doing that, you kind of create that thing where the kicker knows you're back there. You're close. Maybe we got in his head. Maybe he just missed them. I don't know.”

Ficken was not made available to reporters after the game, but everyone seems to have his back. That includes guard John Urschel, who said he approached Ficken as soon as O'Brien concluded his postgame remarks to the team “just to tell him that this isn't his fault.”

“We win as a team, we lose as a team,” Urschel added, “and one player doesn't make or break the game. One play doesn't make or break a game. We're all responsible as a team for this loss.”

In many respects the Lions played well enough to win. They outgained Virginia, 330-295. They limited the Cavaliers to 32 yards rushing, their fewest in a victory since they had two against Duke in 2002. They forced four turnovers.

But PSU scored just three points off those turnovers, despite gaining possession at the Virginia 17, 19, 29 and 17. And the Lions allowed the Cavs to convert three third-and-longs while driving 86 yards in 12 plays for the winning touchdown, a six-yard pass from Michael Rocco to Jake McGee with 1:28 left in the fourth quarter.

The biggest of those conversions was a third-and-16, on which Rocco found McGee for a gain of 44.

“The kid just made a great catch,” linebacker Gerald Hodges said. “The kid made a great one-handed catch in double coverage (by safeties Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Jake Fagnano). … He made a heck of a play at a time he needed to make it, and we didn't.”

McGloin moved the Lions from their 27 to the Virginia 25 in the closing seconds, to no avail. And afterward, some were left feeling philosophical.

“Football's a game of inches,” Hodges said.

“It's a funny-looking ball, as the quote goes,” linebacker Mike Mauti said.

But mostly, everyone was feeling for Ficken.

“He's hurting, but at the same time we're a team,” Urschel said. “We're all there for him, and we're letting him know this isn't on him. This is on us as a team.”

“There's nothing you can say,” McGloin said. “It happens. … Sam did not lose us the game whatsoever.”

Maybe McGloin really believes that. But it would undoubtedly take some doing to convince Ficken.

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