STATE COLLEGE Penn State's next Senior Day will be Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014 vs. Michigan State. When kicker Sam Ficken presumably runs out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel one last time, 370 days from today, will he hear only cheers of gratitude like the rest of his teammates?
Will there be all cheers, but with some fans doing so in a "Don't let the locker room door hit you on your way out" mentality? Will there be a few boos?
Whatever the result, whatever the next 13 games hold in Ficken's college football career, he's found himself as perhaps the only Penn State Nittany Lion not universally admired for sticking with the program during the past two years in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and NCAA sanctions. That's what happens when the scholarships get cut from 85 to 65 and every play becomes that much more important because the margin for error is so thin.
In a game with 16-24 mph winds and gusts up to 30 mph, Ficken missed an early extra-point in Saturday's 23-20 overtime loss to Nebraska, then missed a 37-yarder in overtime that would have given Penn State the lead before Pat Smith won the game for the Cornhuskers with a 42-yarder. It was Penn State's fourth overtime game in Beaver Stadium dating back to last year's season finale vs. Wisconsin, which Ficken happened to win with a field goal.
There were 154 plays on Saturday, and while several featured fumbles and dropped passes, it was Ficken's misses that drew the most ire on Twitter after the game ended.
Many of the tweets on a postgame search again changed one of the vowels in Ficken's last name to go along with one of comedian George Carlin's 7 words you can't say on television, let alone this family newspaper.
But Ficken's teammates knew better, even as they knew full well the public abuse Ficken took last year when he went 1 for 5 in a loss to Virginia. Many of the fans blaming Ficken for their failures Saturday no doubt forgot about that kick vs. Wisconsin, one of a school-record 15 consecutive makes, or his overtime success earlier this year in the quadruple overtime win over Michigan, or his shoulder tackle last week to stop a second Purdue kickoff return for a touchdown.
Heck, Ficken even tried another diving stop on Nebraska's Kenny Bell Saturday, but even he couldn't stop a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
"I didn't even think about that and, to be honest, I didn't even look at Sam in the locker room," said senior guard and captain John Urschel. "This loss is not on Sam in any way, shape or form. We all make mistakes, and there are things that we could have done individually, each of us. I didn't and it starts with me. I look at myself."
Tight end Jesse James, one of Ficken's better friends on the team, didn't doubt Ficken would recover from this day, too.
"You know, he's a tough kid," said James. "We're actually really good friends and he is one of my roommates. But he will bounce back. He has a strong mind. He's been through a lot."
Ficken will likely do what he's done before, try and glean some wisdom and support from other kickers who've been through this, such as Robbie Gould of the Chicago Bears (and Central Mountain High School), and Blair Walsh of the Minnesota Vikings.
While joining those two in the NFL is a longshot - it is for anyone in college football - earning the support of those who enjoy misspelling his name shouldn't be one, too.
Brigandi is sports editor at the Sun-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org