Overtime field goal provides a fitting end to season for Penn State

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- This week, they talked about finishing the season the right way, the smooth way.

"We felt 8-4 sounds so much smoother than 7-5," center Matt Stankiewitch said.

It's not a typical November conversation for a team that would place second in its conference division and have eight victories, but this season never has followed a standard script. In fact, Saturday as a final chapter was Penn State's only guarantee this year.

The players, the coaches and the fans knew the finale would take place Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Everything else was an at-times frustrating mystery, but one that produced a satisfying conclusion for them.

Penn State defeated Wisconsin, 24-21, in overtime. The season that started with an 0-2 record ended 8-4. Kicker Sam Ficken, who missed four field goals in one of those losses, made three Saturday, including the winner in overtime. The seniors, who stayed and rallied the team to stay, left as winners.

"Those losses we had, we started off strong, but we finished [Saturday]," senior cornerback Stephon Morris said. "We finished the season on a high note."

Morris and the other seniors were emotional Saturday, emotional all week. And emotion had been Penn State's enemy this season. The Nittany Lions had two home games filled with it, the season-opener against Ohio and a sellout against Ohio State.

Here was a game engineered for emotion and then sent over the top. Acting athletic director Dave Joyner surprised the team by choosing to honor it by putting "2012" on the east side of the stadium's façade.

Monday, fullback Mike Zordich and defensive tackle Jordan Hill asked coach Bill O'Brien if they could plan another surprise. They wanted to honor injured linebacker Michael Mauti by sticking the number 42 on everyone's helmet.

"If there's a number that belongs on the helmet, that's the one," Zordich said.

"I'm not dead," Mauti said, "but at the same time I couldn't be more honored to have that."

The buzz in the stadium for the honors and the seniors quickly died as Penn State came out flat. Wisconsin took a 14-7 first-quarter lead and gained 127 yards on its first two drives.

Then the defense started adjusting, stopping the sweeps of Wisconsin's running backs and getting more pressure on quarterback Curt Phillips. Defensive tackle Jordan Hill finished the fourth quarter and overtime alone with eight tackles and three for losses.

The offense never completely clicked, but running back Zach Zwinak rushed for 179 yards. And when it sputtered in Wisconsin territory, Ficken was ready.

He made a 23-yard field goal and a 32-yard field goal in the third quarter. In overtime, he was needed for a 37-yarder.

Ficken made three winning field goals his senior year of high school. His last-second kick he missed against Virginia was his first miss under such circumstances. He drilled the attempt this time.

"You know, I was pretty confident in myself the whole time," Ficken said.

The rest was a blur. Hill had another big tackle, Sean Stanley sacked the quarterback, Glenn Carson broke up a pass, O'Brien prayed a Hail Mary and an Our Father that Wisconsin kicker Kyle French's would miss, the kick did miss, the Penn State players rushed the field, and Mauti and fellow linebacker Glenn Carson embraced for nearly a minute. It was all over.

After the alma mater, flurries of snow were falling and the victory bell kept ringing. Most of the seniors lined up to ring it. Stankiewitch did once, twice and then again and again, like he didn't want the season to stop.

This is not the way 8-4 years have ended for Penn State or the way they end for most teams with winning records, but nobody was complaining Saturday.

"I would love to go out the way we did," Stankiewitch said. "I couldn't even write it up. Like if you said, 'Write up the way you want to go out,' I don't think I could write it up like that."

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Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, Twitter: @mdent05.


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