Lions Kicking Themselves After Loss

Ficken’s heroics offset by other special teams’ issues as Penn State drops a close one to Maryland.

Maryland brought a solid special-teams resume into Saturday's game at Penn State. The Nittany Lions? Not so much.

It all came home to roost in the Terps' 20-19 victory, though not in all the ways that might have been expected.

Yes, Maryland kicker Brad Craddock, 14-for-14 on field goals this season, nailed the game-winning 43-yarder with 51 seconds left.

But while the Lions bottled up the Terps' explosive returners -- both of whom began the day atop the Big Ten -- Maryland punter Nathan Renfro provided a critical edge, and one of the day's bigger plays was a fumble by PSU freshman Grant Haley on a fourth-quarter kickoff return.

Haley's fumble led to a go-ahead one-yard touchdown run by Wes Brown with 11:30 left. PSU kicker Sam Ficken gave the Lions the lead on a 48-yard field goal with 6:52 to play -- part of a 4-for-4 day by Ficken -- but Craddock had the final answer.

Ultimately, PSU coach James Franklin said, his team tried to play a field-position game. And, he added, “We're having an issue right now playing field-position games.”

That's because his team, 115th among 125 major-college teams in net punting entering Saturday's action, continues to struggle in that particular phase of the game. On Saturday freshman Daniel Pasquariello averaged 36.8 yards on eight punts, while Renfro, ranked eighth in the conference coming in (41.1), averaged 44.3 on 11.

“Their punter,” Franklin said, “was a weapon.”

More so than Stefon Diggs and William Likely, who began the day leading the conference in kickoff returns and punt returns. Diggs averaged 18.8 yards on four kickoff returns, while Likely had minus-7 on five punt returns.

But Renfro kept the Lions backed up in their own territory, and they seldom climbed out. Maryland, meanwhile, had scoring drives that went 48, 43, 24 and 17 yards. Two of those were a result of short punts by Pasquariello, the other because of Haley's fumble.

Neither Pasquariello nor his predecessor at the position, Chris Gulla, was made available for comment after the game.

“They're not happy with how they've done this season. They'd be the first to tell you that. They want to help the team. That's their mindset. That's their focus.

“They’re not happy with how they’ve done this season,” Ficken said. “They’d be the first to tell you that. They want to help the team. That’s their mindset. That’s their focus. They want to get better every week. They’re keeping a positive attitude through it all.”

Ficken has tried to help them out by putting them in touch with one of his mentors, Chicago Bears kicker Robbie Gould, the former Penn Stater. The punters have reviewed tape with him, tried to iron out their flaws.

“They're using every resource they can,” Ficken said. “They want to get better. They did a little bit better today, and I think it's a step in the right direction.”

If there is anyone who knows how long the road can seem, it is Ficken. Recall his disastrous 2012 opener, when he missed four field goals, one at the gun, and had an extra point blocked. Gould reached out to him (as did other kickers, not all of whom had PSU ties), and has served as a sounding board ever since.

“Obviously (that experience) builds a lot of character,” he said. “It made me focus on my fundamentals, made me a better kicker. And also through gaining that experience I know there's ups and downs in college football. I've kind of seen the downs, I've seen the ups, so I think I can handle anything at this point.”

Saturday offered more than its share of challenges. There was pressure on every kick, given the way Penn State is trying to bleed every point it can out of its anemic offense. And the cold, blustery conditions were far from ideal.

But Ficken's first field goal of the day, a 47-yarder, was his longest of the season to that point, and he exceeded that by a yard on his go-ahead kick in the fourth quarter. His other makes came from 25 and 46 yards, and he is now 17-for-19 this season.

“My mindset is, if they send me out, I'm expected to make it,” he said, “so the score of the game, yeah, it adds a little extra influence on how big the kick is, but in my mind every kick's important, so that's how I take it.”

And, he added, “You've got to execute, no matter the conditions.”

That, of course, holds true for everyone.

Watch James Franklin’s Press Conference

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