Morelli OnLion: O’Brien faces tough decision

UNIVERSITY PARK — Since Bill O’Brien took over as head coach of the Penn State football team, he’s had to make a ton of tough decisions. Some have been related to football, others not.

Just two weeks into the 2012 season, he’s got to make his toughest decision yet: What in the world does he do with the kicking game?

Look, when it comes to sports, I call them like I see them.

Sam Ficken isn’t just bad, he’s terrible.

In the Nittany Lions’ heartbreaking loss to the University of Virginia on Saturday, Ficken was 1-of-5 on field goal attempts. That means he alone left 12 points on the field. The Lions lost by one. Do the math.

Penn State should be 1-1 heading into this week’s contest with Navy. The Lions outplayed the Cavaliers in every phase of the game on Saturday except one — the kicking game.

When the Lions lost Anthony Fera, who transferred to the University of Texas to be closer to his ill mother, many believed that his loss would be bigger than Silas Redd, who is now toting the ball for USC.

Turns out those folks might be onto something.

Ficken, a sophomore on scholarship, didn’t have a bunch of near-misses against the Cavaliers. The balls weren’t even close. For the record, he missed from 40, 38, 20 and 42 yards. The 20-yard miss was inexcusable. That’s an extra point.

Speaking of extra points, the Lions had one of those blocked as well. A blocked kick isn’t Ficken’s fault, necessarily. Perhaps the Virginia defender got great elevation on the play. Perhaps the kick went in a little low. It’s hard to tell from the replay.

It would be one thing if Ficken was at Penn State as a walk-on. He’s not. He’s a scholarship kicker. With the game on the line, he’s got to perform better.

The Navy game will be Ficken’s shot at redemption. Even with the rash of transfers, Penn State is a better football team than Navy. The Midshipmen lost to Notre Dame, 50-10. The Lions should win handily. However, there are games on the schedule — Temple in Week Four, for example — that could come down to Ficken’s foot.

Sam Ficken had a miserable day against Virginia, missing four field goals and having an extra point blocked.

After the game, O’Brien and his troops said all the right things about the struggling kicker.

“It’s never always about the kicker,” O’Brien said. “(But) the kicker is always the one who gets blamed.”

Quarterback Matt McGloin — who shows me more and more as a leader each and every week — said it wasn’t Ficken’s fault.

“It happens,” McGloin said. “It’s not what won or lost us the game. A couple plays here and there lost it. Sam did not lose us the game whatsoever.”

I have to disagree with the coach and his quarterback.

O’Brien has to replace Ficken sooner rather than later.

He has options. There are two other kickers — Kevin DiSanto and Matt Marcincin — on the roster. Give them a shot. If neither of those two are impressive, then hold open tryouts and try to find a walk-on. Certainly, there is a former kicker somewhere on Penn State’s campus who can kick a 20-yard field goal.

Look, I’m all for loyalty. However, at some point, you’ve got to make a change. Now is the time to pull the trigger.

With a soft non-conference schedule, teams can get away with breakdowns in the kicking game. But the Lions’ non-con slate isn’t easy. Ohio came to play, as did UVA. The Lions are heavy favorites against Navy, but that won’t be the case against Temple.

Once they get into conference play, the stakes are raised. Games have come down to kicks in the past and they most certainly will again.

This is O’Brien’s first really big decision.

Here’s hoping he doesn’t shank it.

This Week: Navy

Penn State should break into the win column against Navy, a team that surrendered 50 points to Notre Dame in its season opener. The Midshipmen run the triple option, which could give the Nittany Lions fits. However, I like Penn State to pick up the first win of the Bill O’Brien Era. prediction: Penn State 21, Navy 13.


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