- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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After the worst day of his life as a kicker, Sam Ficken found out how many people were in his corner.
The Penn State sophomore suffered through a nightmarish performance in Week 2 at Virginia, missing four of his five field goal attempts and an extra point attempt in the Nittany Lions' 17-16 loss. He felt awful about it, knowing that just one of those kicks could have made the difference in the game. But he said his teammates and coaches offered nothing but support, publicly backing him in postgame interviews and telling him to keep his head up.
"Obviously, I felt like I had let the team down," he told ESPN.com. "But they had my back, and that felt pretty good."
His parents called shortly after the game to tell him they loved and believed in him.
"They said, 'Hey, we know you're a good kicker, or you wouldn't be in the position you're in,'" Ficken recalled.
Finally, the fraternity of field-goalers mobilized, as former Penn State placekickers like Massimo Manca, Kevin Kelly and Robbie Gould all reached out. Even a non-PSU grad, Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh, called to lend a hand.
Gould, who now plays for the NFL's Chicago Bears, played the biggest role. He watched film of the Virginia game and some of Ficken's practices and offered some advice on his techniques. The two have talked on the phone every week since.
"That was awesome of him to do that," Ficken said.
Not everyone was so supportive. There were the knuckleheads who harassed Ficken on Twitter and Facebook after the Virginia game, lowlifes who consider it good form to call a college kid they don't know names. Ficken said he tried to block most of it out, though it wasn't completely unavoidable.
"Most people who did that stuff -- actually, I think all of them -- had never seen me kick," Ficken said. "I knew I had the ability to do it. I just kept my confidence level up and tried to work hard on my flaws. And it's starting to really pay off."
Ficken has gone from being a liability to proving his reliability for the Nittany Lions, who host Indiana this week. Since that Virginia debacle, he has converted on 9-of-12 field-goal attempts and has made eight of his past nine tries.
Last week at Nebraska, he drilled all three of his field-goal opportunities, which was more difficult than it appears on paper. Wind was gusting at more than 25 mph at Memorial Stadium last week, and during pregame warm-ups, a piece of the the field surface blew into Ficken's eye. It scratched his cornea when he tried to dislodge it, and Ficken had to wear sunglasses on the sidelines. He needed an eye patc this week, but should be fine.
He has shaken off those setbacks -- and a leg muscle strain earlier this season -- to give Penn State a weapon in the kicking game instead of needing to go for it on every fourth down (though head coach Bill O'Brien said he still likes to do that).
"He really worked hard, especially on his plant foot and keeping his head down," O'Brien said Tuesday. " I give him a lot of credit, because he's one of the most improved guys on our team."
Improving the consistency of the placement with his plant foot helped Ficken find his groove. And Gould's best advice was to slow down. Ficken was rushing his leg swing early, but now is concentrating on making good contact with the ball. He noticed the results soon after the Virginia game.
"I know it didn't really show up in games until recently, but I've been doing pretty well in practice pretty much the whole season," he said. "I struggled there for about a week, but other than that, I've pretty much been making everything in practice."
Ficken said teammates haven't treated him any differently all season -- they still call him Kickin' Ficken -- but they know now that they can trust him.
"It feels pretty good, especially after that [Virginia] game," Ficken said. "I'm starting to come around, and I think everyone's confidence in me is building. So it feels good to be, I guess, a reliable part of the team."
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