Last updated: September 22. 2013 12:49AM - 1506 Views
By - psokoloski@timesleader.com

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STATE COLLEGE — Up, up and away the football sailed into the night, rising above the first level of the stands, cutting through the raindrops and knifing between the uprights.

Sam Ficken never even saw it take this historical flight.

He kicked the ball so hard, Ficken spun himself around trying to drive a 54-yard field goal through a steady rain Saturday. But he didn’t have to watch it to know it was good.

All he had to do was look at the reaction of his holder.

“Alex Butterworth jumped up and spun around,” Ficken said of Penn State’s punter who has been doubling as a holder on the team’s field goal attempts lately. “I had no idea if it went in or not. I could tell from his reaction it went in. It felt pretty good.”

It should have felt like a defining moment in Ficken’s kicking career.

No other kicker in Penn State history ever converted a kick as far as 54 yards at Beaver Stadium.

The last Lions kicker to connect on one of that distance came in a road game more than three decades ago, when Herb Menhardt nailed a 54-yard against North Carolina State in 1979.

Only one other Nittany Lions kicker connected on a longer field goal, and that was Chris Bahr — who made three 55-yarders in 1975.

And just two other kickers hit a 53-yard field goal at home for Penn State, the last coming when Kevin Kelly accomplished the feat in 2007.

The fact that Ficken’s 54-yard field goal came at the very end of Penn State’s 34-0 victory over Kent State didn’t lessen the accomplishment.

“It’s a definite confidence-booster,” said Ficken, a junor who also drilled a 25-yard field goal earlier in the fourth quarter. “My confidence is as high as it could get right now.”

He nearly rose higher than anyone on Penn State’s kicking charts last week, when Ficken’s 57-yard field goal attempt at the end of the first half had the precision but dropped just short of the crossbar.

That miss ended Ficken’s school-record string of 15 consecutive field goals, dating back to last season. It was a Hurculean attempt that Lions coach Bill O’Brien felt bad about asking his red-hot kicker to try, but he was trying to win a game Penn State ultimately lost to Central Florida by three points.

But it was Ficken who felt the need to apologize for that miss.

“Unfortunately, I missed that one a little short,” Ficken said of the only field goal try he didn’t hit in eight attempts this season. “It was still a good kick.”

It was good enough for O’Brien to trust Ficken again Saturday, from a record-setting spot on the field that was just a bit shorter this time.

“Sam, it’s just been fantastic the way he’s kicked the ball,” O’Brien said. “I think that was the longest (Penn State) field goal since the ’70s. That’s a heck of a kick.”

The long shot he made didn’t carry as much impact as the one he missed, Ficken admitted. There is a big difference in trying one in a game your team is scrapping to stay in, and hitting one at the end of a blowout win.

“It’s not a big pressure situation,” Ficken said of Saturday’s record-setter. “There is still pressure, but it’s not the end of the world if you miss it.”

Ironically, his one miss from more than 50 yards this season may have helped him make the next one.

“I’ve made them in practice,” said Ficken, who once drilled a 52-yard field goal at Valparaiso High School in Indiana to set that school’s record. “We always try at least one (long one) in practice. It’s still not a game situation. You want to go out in the game and get that experience.”

Experience played a part in Ficken reaching the record books for Penn State’s longest home field goal.

After struggling mightily at the start of last season, Ficken changed his kicking technique to a two-step approach to the ball. But long-distance attempts require more drive, so Ficken used a 2 1/2-step surge and compensated for any compromised accuracy by changing his aim — almost like a golfer trying to play the right club.

“My ball tends to fade to the left from that distance,” said Ficken, who insisted the rain didn’t pound the turf field hard enough to affect his footing. “I tried 2 1/2 steps instead of two steps, just trying to get a little more power in the ball. The snap was good, hold was good.

“I just followed through and it was good.”

So good, in fact, he didn’t even have to see his record-breaking kick to believe it.

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