DUBLIN — The field glimmered every bit as emerald as one would guess a field would on this continent, and, despite the impressive shade of the grass, Sam Ficken had no desire to be dog-piled onto it. So, after making the winning, 36-yard field goal, he ran away from a bunch of oversized offensive linemen as quickly as he could.
It looked like a cartoon, this happy, yet seemingly frightened man running around and around and around. But this was reality: Penn State won a thriller against Central Florida, 26-24, Saturday at Croke Park in front of a crowd of 53,304. A quarterback threw for more than 400 yards. A once-unlucky kicker became the hero. And it all happened in Ireland.
A little more than a minute before Ficken’s celebration, this one had heartbreaker written all over it. Penn State was about to cough up a late lead and lose like it had to Nebraska, Virginia and Ohio the past couple years.
With 1:13 left, quarterback Justin Holman ran 6 yards for Central Florida’s go-ahead touchdown, giving the Knights their first lead. A young quarterback had torched a Nittany Lions defense that gave up just 46 first-half yards. A loss was imminent.
Fortunately, Penn State had Christian Hackenberg, who is apparently the man on any continent (Asia, next year, anyone?). He threw for 454 yards Saturday, breaking Zack Mills’ previous single-game school record of 399. The most important of those yards came in the run-up to Ficken’s winning field goal.
Penn State got the ball back with 1:08 left, and Hackenberg threw a completion for 7 yards and two incompletions. Facing fourth-and-3 from the Penn State 33, he scrambled for a first down. His next three passes were completions to running back Bill Belton and wide receiver Geno Lewis, the third one an 18-yarder to Lewis to put the Nittany Lions in comfortable field-goal range at the 19.
Three years ago, Penn State fans were used to a stale offense that treated passes like black-tie attire — using them only for special occasions. Hackenberg threw it 47 times Saturday. He spread the ball around to seven receivers, and you got the feeling seven more could have caught his passes had Penn State put them on the field.
“The key is not them,” Central Florida coach George O’Leary said about Penn State’s tight ends and wide receivers. “The key is 14. I think everyone in the country would like to have him as far as delivering the ball.”
Ficken said he was just hoping for the opportunity to kick the winner as Penn State made its way down the field. He read some of the emails and Facebook messages he received two years ago after missing four field goals against Virginia, including a possible winner at the very end. Two years ago, though, he said he was a different person. He hadn’t been through all the “trials and tribulations.” In the end, those problems helped him find greater poise.
“Every single day, you can just tell he thinks he’s the man, and that’s the type of attitude you need to have as a kicker,” linebacker Mike Hull said.
“And he is the man,” said center Angelo Mangiro. “He’s going to drill it.”
And he did. Ficken said the kick didn’t feel that solid when it left his foot, but he wasn’t about to argue with the result. Nobody was.
After the game, Penn State coach James Franklin admitted what had seemed obvious the past several days: He hadn’t been particularly excited about having to play a game 3,000 miles from home and go through all the logistical hoops in the run-up and experience the possible fatigue that will come from traveling home and playing another game Saturday against Akron.
But even Franklin had to enjoy these final moments across the pond. His quarterback set a school record, his kicker went a step further in displacing those awful misses from two years ago and his team got a victory in about as thrilling of a way as possible.
Penn State should really come to Ireland more often, don’t you think?
Mark Dent: email@example.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.
First Published August 30, 2014 10:42 AM