Ficken, Hackenberg deliver for Penn State
Placekicker Sam Ficken, quarterback Christian Hackenberg fuel the Nittany Lions bowl win over Boston College.
NEW YORK - Sam Ficken lined up next to his kneeling holder and, with his head down looking at the torn-up field, counted three steps back.
Penn State's senior placekicker picked his head up and stared at the uprights directly in front of him for a brief moment.
The lanky, 6-2, 186-pound Indiana native then took two steps to the left and twisted his shoulders right to left.
He was ready; ready to deliver Penn State its most significant, far-reaching win in years.
The Nittany Lions (7-6) edged Boston College (7-6), 31-30, in Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, and after 4 hours of back-and-forth play - highlighted by stellar quarterbacking by Penn State's Christian Hackenberg - the captivating contest ended on arguably the simplest play in football: an extra point.
"That's a first," Ficken said with a healthy laugh after the game. "I liked it, though . . . Not a whole lot of pressure."
Minutes after watching Boston College kicker Mike Knoll shank an extra point following the Eagles' overtime-opening touchdown, Ficken had to do what Knoll couldn't.
And it was in abnormal circumstances.
Realistically, this was more than just a typical bowl game. For starters, Penn State had been bowl-ineligible since 2012 due to the NCAA's sanctions levied in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal. As a result, a massive Penn State contingent flocked to the Big Apple to give Yankee Stadium the feel of a mini Beaver Stadium.
Penn State, which was sitting at 6-6, hoped to avoid a losing season - something that hasn't happened since 2004 - in coach James Franklin's inaugural year at the helm.
The Lions did that thanks in large part to Ficken. His struggles at Virginia in 2012 (four missed field goals in a one-point loss) and the threats that followed are well-documented.
But for the last two seasons, Ficken has been the Lions' most reliable weapon; that was evident when he kicked a game-winning, last-gasp field goal against Central Florida in Ireland to open the year, and it was clear when he booted a 45-yarder to force overtime, then drilled that extra point into Monument Park to end the season.
He did use Derek Jeter's locker, after all, so a walkoff was in order.
"I couldn't have asked for a better ending to my career," Ficken said.
The reliable righty was the hero, but he had some help along the way.
Hackenberg, the subject of ridicule and criticism for much of the year, took advantage of surprisingly solid pass protection and played like the quarterback everyone was waiting to see.
After winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2013, this campaign hadn't gone his way. He finished the regular season with 15 interceptions to just eight touchdowns.
But with a functional offensive line and separation-creating wideouts, Hackenberg looked at ease, stepping into and making throws he couldn't all year.
"The difference in the game was us being able to stick to our guns and stick to our gameplan and understand that it was working," said a nearly voiceless Hackenberg.
The true sophomore, who was named the game's MVP, finished 34-for-50 with 371 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. That included a pristine touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Carter in overtime to give Ficken the opportunity to win it.
Franklin said that for all the flak Hackenberg has received this year, not much of it was warranted, citing development issues of players around him. On Saturday, those problems were temporarily solved.
"I love Christian Hackenberg. I wouldn't trade him for anybody," Franklin said. "I think he's got a really bright future at Penn State moving forward."
When the infield's grassy dust settled after the postgame celebration, one thing was clear: Saturday couldn't have gone better for the Lions and their program.
First things first, they got the win and earned a winning mark for the season, finishing the sanction period with an unexpected 22-15 record.
Also, the seniors, the guys who stayed at Penn State when the option to transfer penalty-free was on the table in 2012, were sent out on a positive note.
And looking ahead, decisive performances not only from Hackenberg and Carter, but also true freshman wide receiver Chris Godwin and redshirt sophomore tailback Akeel Lynch have generated a buzz around the program for 2015.
"It really spring-boards us into the offseason, next season. The future is very, very bright here," Franklin said. "We've been fractured in the last probably 3 years. But I think experiences and games like this has restored the hope."
As for the Lions' late-game savior, Ficken said he's not sure how the win will affect Penn State long-term.
He's just happy he could make a bowl win a reality.