Unlikely Stars Lead Lions

Underclassmen Ficken, Zwinak come through in the clutch as Penn State pulls out OT victory vs. Wisconsin on Senior Day at Beaver Stadium.

Of course Matt McGloin was still wearing his uniform in the interview room after Penn State ended its season with a 24-21 overtime victory over Wisconsin. Of course the Nittany Lions' senior quarterback said that the equipment manager was going to have to rip it off him.

It had to end like that, because that's how feel-good tales are supposed to end. You half-expected the music to swell in the background, and the credits to roll.

After Jerry Sandusky and Louis Freeh and Mark Emmert and everything else, the Lions closed out an 8-4 campaign with a victory that was in large part due to the efforts of Sam Ficken, who kicked the decisive 37-yard field goal in OT, and tailback Zach Zwinak, who ran for a career-high 179 yards.

“It's like a fairytale end, really,” Ficken said, quite correctly.

Two months ago, Ficken appeared to be a lost cause; he was the guy who missed four field goal attempts, remember, in an inexplicable loss to a poor Virginia team. And Zwinak was lost somewhere on the lower rungs of the depth chart.

But between them, they gift-wrapped a going-away present for the seniors. Ficken, a sophomore, went 3 for 3 on field goals, giving him a season-ending streak of 10 straight makes (and 12 in his last 13 tries). Zwinak, a redshirt sophomore, carried 36 times (also a career high) and raised his season total to exactly 1,000 yards; not bad for a guy who had two yards on three carries after three games and didn't start until the Purdue game, in Week Nine.

It's not that the seniors didn't have a sizable say Saturday. McGloin threw for 200 yards and a touchdown. Defensive tackle Jordan Hill was monstrous, with 12 tackles (one fewer than junior linebacker Glenn Carson), as well as two sacks. And linebacker Gerald Hodges, wearing No. 42 in honor of his injured classmate, Michael Mauti, had seven stops.

The Lions also saluted Mauti, who injured his left knee last Saturday against Indiana, by wearing decals of his number on their helmets. Then again, it was a day for tributes. The seniors all took a customary bow beforehand, and the school will have “2012” emblazoned on the façade of Beaver Stadium's luxury boxes, alongside the school's other great years.

After the victory -- which wasn't assured until Badgers kicker Kyle French hooked a potential game-tying 44-yard field goal wide left in the extra session -- Lions coach Bill O'Brien spoke with reverence about the seniors, as he has all season.

Moreover, he said, “It would have been terrible to come in here and not win that game after that pregame ceremony.”

To him, there is “a huge difference” between 8-4 and 7-5.

“It just sounds better,” he said. “When you've been in a losing locker room at the end of a season, it's a horrible feeling. When you've been in a winning locker room at the end of a season, it's a euphoric feeling.”

Especially a season like this one.

The Badgers, who at 7-5 will represent the Leaders Division in next Saturday's Big Ten championship game, countered the pregame hype by scoring four plays into the game, on a 57-yard pass from quarterback Curt Phillips to running back Melvin Gordon.

The Lions answered with a 15-play, 78-yard march that featured a whole lot of Zwinak. He carried nine times for 41 yards, including the final three.

It was just the start of a busy day.

“Thirty-six carries is a lot; I wasn't really ready for that,” he said, and indeed he cramped up in overtime. “It's a new career high, from youth all the way up 'til now.”

But Wisconsin came back with another lightning drive -- four plays, 53 yards, culminating in a 17-yard run by Montee Ball (27-111 rushing). Neither team scored the rest of the half, and Penn State saw an apparent game-tying six-yard TD pass from McGloin to Brandon Moseby-Felder early in the third quarter taken off the board after a replay review.

It was determined that Moseby-Felder did not maintain control of the ball when he tumbled out the back of the end zone, a decision that sat well with neither O'Brien nor the paying customers.

“You had to ask that question,” O'Brien said when the topic was raised afterward. “I want to know what was said from upstairs to downstairs. I want to know what that conversation entails. I have a right to know as the head football coach, what that conversation was about, and that's what I was asking.”

Ficken then kicked a 23-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-10. He added a 32-yarder later in the period, and Penn State went ahead three plays into the fourth quarter, when on fourth-and-six from the Wisconsin 41 McGloin (19 for 37) hit freshman tight end Jesse James on a crossing route. James managed to tight-rope down the left sideline and into the end zone. Zwinak then ran for the two-pointer, making it 21-14.

That looked like it might stand up, the way the Lions' defense was playing. After allowing 143 yards and 14 points in the first quarter, that unit limited the Badgers to 78 yards while shutting them out in the two middle periods.

But Wisconsin regained possession at its own 34 with 3:51 remaining and assembled a 14-play, 66-yard march that included two third-down conversions. Phillips found Jeff Duckworth from four yards out on fourth down to tie it with 18 seconds left in regulation.

So it came down to Ficken.

“I had a lot of momentum going into that kick,” he said. “I think I had made my last nine field goals, so I was pretty confident. It wasn't a real long field goal. It was just like every other kick. The game was on the line. It went in. It feels good.”

Especially in contrast to that day at Virginia.

“I think it made me a better kicker mentally, absolutely,” he said, looking back. “Physically I was all there. It just didn't happen. But mentally it definitely made me a better kicker. I've been through hopefully my worst time as a kicker, so it's only up from there.”

Everyone on the team can relate, to some degree. Consider Zwinak, who was once the fourth-string tailback. No one, he said, could have envisioned his emergence.

“You never know what happens in football,” he said. “Everything changes, day to day and week to week. I'm fortunate to be here, being able to do it.”

And what of the big picture? What of the distance the entire team has traveled?

“This season means a lot, just because of everything we went through, everything we fought through,” Zwinak said. “The guys who stayed, especially the seniors who stayed, unfortunately all this happened their senior year. They stayed and fought through everything. So did we.”

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