Touchdown of Takeaways: Ficken comes up clutch

Story posted August 31, 2014 in Sports, CommRadio by Matt Lawrence

He’s been a hero, and he’s been a villain. On Saturday, senior kicker Sam Ficken was once again a hero. The often ridiculed and maligned kicker knocked home four field goals including the game-winner to give the Penn State Nittany Lions (1-0, 0-0 B1G) a 26-24 victory over the UCF Knights (0-1, 0-0 AAC).

With the team now back in State College, let’s take a look back at seven takeaways from James Franklin’s debut.

1) It would be inappropriate to start any sort of analysis of yesterday’s thriller in Ireland, with anyone other than sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He became the first Nittany Lion quarterback to ever throw for 400 yards, completing 32 of 47 pass attempts for 454 yards.

We saw glimpses of stardom in Hackenberg’s freshman campaign, particularly in the season ending upset over Wisconsin. But yesterday’s performance against a solid defense that returned 10 starters was something different.

Outside of two poor decisions leading to interceptions, Hackenberg was as good as advertised. He had incredible pocket presence, demonstrating the ability to avoid the rush and contact much better than last season. He even picked up a critical 4th down conversion to keep alive the game-winning drive.

Bottom line, if Penn State can keep Christian Hackenberg healthy, he’s going to be setting plenty of more records over the next two (maybe three) years.

2) The biggest question mark heading into the season was along the offensive line. Penn State only managed 57 yards on the ground and really struggled to dominate the line of scrimmage. On the plus side, Hackenberg was only sacked twice and the line was pretty solid in pass protection.

It will continue to be a work in progress and guys will have to stay healthy, but it was nice to see some of the younger players, in particularly redshirt freshmen Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson, hold their own.

3) Another question was answered in the form of the wide receiver play. After losing Allen Robinson to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Richy Anderson transferring to Temple, the question remained, who Hackenberg would be throwing the ball to?

In his first collegiate start, redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton caught 11 passes for 165 yards. Not be outdone, Geno Lewis proved himself as a viable number one receiver hauling in eight receptions for 173 yards including a long 79-yard touchdown.

Lewis contributed a tremendous diving catch where he had tipped the ball in the air, kept his balance and reeled in the 43-yard reception. Hamilton was consistent, ran crisp routes and caught everything in reach.

The tight ends will always be a strength, but Lewis and Hamilton certainly proved themselves capable of replacing the production void left by Robinson.

 4) Penn State’s defense has improved from last year, greatly. Whether it’s the year of experience or Bob Shoop’s defensive philosophies, the Nittany Lion defense allowed just 246 yards and forced out UCF’s starting quarterback Pete DiNovo at halftime.

Senior linebacker Mike Hull led the way with 11 tackles and looked to be completely healthy after a shoulder injury hampered him for much of the 2013 season.

The Knights had more success after plugging Justin Holman in at quarterback for the second half. But for the most part, Penn State completely shut down the UCF run game and was in control for much of the game. If it weren’t for a phenomenal 50-yard catch by Breshad Perriman on 4th and 10 leading to the Knights’ go-ahead touchdown, Penn State’s defense would have allowed less than 200 yards for the game.

5) Look for junior defensive tackle Anthony Zettel to follow in the footsteps of Jared Odrick and Devon Still as the next great Penn State interior lineman. A highly recruited guy out of Michigan, Zettel’s position switch from defensive end to defensive tackle was one of the most important moves in the offseason.

He recorded six tackles on the game including a game-high three tackles for loss. At 274 pounds, Zettel has the quickness and strength to dominate the line of scrimmage. He was consistently the best player on defense for the Nittany Lions and the combination of he and fellow defensive tackle Austin Johnson could turn into a real strength on this Penn State team.

6) James Franklin is not and will not be afraid to play freshmen. Five true freshmen appeared in the opener: TE Mike Gesicki, S Marcus Allen, CB Grant Haley, WR Chris Godwin, and WR Saeed Blacknall.

Franklin said repeatedly since taking over as head coach that they will need freshmen to be able to come in and supply needed depth. Those five guys will be important contributors all year. With the season-ending knee injury to Adam Breneman, it made the need for Gesicki (who recorded one catch in his debut) to be ready.

Haley was also very impressive on special teams and the limited action he saw on defense. He was a guy all summer that the coaches spoke highly of, and should only see more time as the season continues.

7) Last but not least, Mr. Sam Ficken. It’s a great story for a senior who has faced so much disappointment and scrutiny throughout his career.

Ficken smoothly stepped up and knocked home a 36-yard field goal as time expired to give the Nittany Lions a win in Franklin’s debut. Hardly two years ago, Ficken missed four field goals, an extra point and a similar game-winner in a devastating 17-16 loss at Virginia.

But, not this time. Ficken connected on all four of his field goal attempts and was the recipient of a big James Franklin bear hug following the game. It’s hard to not feel good for the kid, and Penn State fans can only hope that his confidence follows him for the rest of his final season.

(Photo courtesy: AP Photo/York Daily Record, Jason Plotkin)

Matt Lawrence is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism and economics. To contact him, email mdl030293@gmail.com.