Kicking woes underscore a larger problem for Penn State.
Coach Bill O’Brien’s new-fangled offense will need to improve in the red zone if the Nittany Lions plan on making any splash in the Big Ten. It’s getting tough enough after an 0-2 start in nonconference play.
After forcing four turnovers inside Virginia territory in a 17-16 loss last week to the Cavaliers, resilient Penn State came away with just three points off those chances.
”Offensively, we’ve got to do a better job in the red zone. We can’t take four turnovers from our defense and come away with only three points,” O’Brien said. ”That’s ridiculous, and we all know that, and it starts with coaching and we’ve just got to do a better job there.”
Better make it quick if Penn State wants to avoid opening a season with three straight losses for the first time since beginning the 2001 campaign 0-4. Navy (0-1) and its triple-option attack visits Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
Sam Ficken figures to still be attempting the field goals then. The kicker was the obvious player to blame by fickle fans on social media following his dismal outing in last week’s 17-16 loss to Virginia.
The sophomore’s nightmarish afternoon included a blocked extra-point attempt and four missed four field goals, including the potential game-winner from 42 yards in a heavy drizzle. Ficken’s only make Saturday was from 32.
There was no time to sulk Monday.
O’Brien said Ficken was back to work trying to get better. One suggestion for the right-footed Ficken was to concentrate on orienting his left foot so it’s pointed and planted in the direction of where he wants to kick the ball.
O’Brien is sticking by Ficken, the only kicker listed on the depth chart. But when asked later, O’Brien also said the kicking job has been open competition each week this season won by Ficken.
He took over this season only when standout kicker Anthony Fera transferred to Texas after the NCAA’s landmark sanctions on Penn State for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. But Fera has been sidelined with the Longhorns so far this season with a groin injury – so Ficken, who had followed Fera on the depth chart – may have been kicking last week against Virginia regardless.
”Look, we should have scored touchdowns. It’s a team sport,” O’Brien said. ”We talk to our team about that every day, every week, every minute, about playing as a team. So, Sam’s a big part of our team, and I’m glad we have him. And he’s going to try to get better, and we’re all going to try to get better.”
Ficken’s bad day became the subject of rebukes so scornful from a few fans on Twitter that some teammates and other Penn State athletes past and present came to Ficken’s defense.
”Well, obviously I think it’s absolutely ridiculous. Not just because it’s a 19-year-old college kid,” O’Brien said about the cyberspace criticism of Ficken. ”At the end of the day, you know, these guys are really playing hard, giving great effort for us. To go on whatever, `space book’ or `tweeter’ or whatever is put … on there is just absolutely ridiculous to me and very cowardly, to be honest with you. But that’s just my opinion.”
O’Brien said the field-goal unit also needs to get better protection, snaps and holds on kicks.
O’Brien does like the way Penn State showed flashes of improvement in the new offense, including the 17-play, 75-yard drive that ate up 6:27 of the clock in the first quarter, culminating in Matt McGloin’s 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Carter.
The big-play defense stuffed Virginia for 32 rushing yards on 25 carries and had three sacks including two by freshman end Deion Barnes.
It’s just that more success in the red zone would have negated the need to rely so heavily on Ficken in the first place.
”We’ve just got to focus a little bit more in the game,” receiver Allen Robinson said. ”Sometimes, you have to catch a few more balls, make a few better blocks. It’s something that will come along.”
In five trips inside the 20 against Virginia, Penn State came away with just one touchdown and a field goal.
”As an offense, we’ve definitely been able to move the ball,” Robinson said. ”We definitely have to finish drives … We can’t start off with a good drive and not score again until late in the fourth quarter.”
Injury concerns are also piling up on offense.
McGloin didn’t throw Monday at practice to rest his sore right elbow, but O’Brien said the senior should be ready for Navy. The same can’t be said for running backs Bill Belton (left ankle) and Derek Day (left shoulder), so Penn State may have its third starting tailback of the season in 6-foot-1 Curtis Dukes, a bruising, 245-pound junior.
Starting left tackle Donovan Smith (foot) and defensive end Pete Massaro (right shoulder) are also considered day-to-day.