CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - What a lonely feeling, maybe the loneliest in all of sports.
There's really no gray area in the life of a kicker. It's often hero or goat, with very little or nothing in between.
Sam Ficken took the field with a chance to write a storybook ending to a nightmare day.
Make the kick, he's a hero.
Miss the kick, he's the ultimate goat, leaving many people feeling he single-handedly lost the game for Penn State. He didn't, of course, but Ficken undoubtedly feels that way.
He missed. Not just once. Or twice. Or three times. Or even four.
Ficken missed four field goals and an extra point, costing the Nittany Lions 13 points. His last attempt came from 42 yards out on the game's final play, and when it sailed left, it gave Virginia a 17-16 win before 56,087 fans at Scott Stadium.
"Sam did not lose this game whatsoever," quarterback Matt McGloin said.
"I'm sure he felt bad, heartbroken about it," tight end Kyle Carter said. "But I didn't really see him like that after the game."
"We're all brothers here, so we say it's all of our faults," defensive end Deion Barnes said.
Penn State did have a total team effort in losing.
The defense forced four turnovers and gave the Lions a chance to win, but it also struggled on third down once again and gave up a go-ahead 86-yard TD drive in the closing minutes.
The offense came up with a big touchdown in the fourth quarter to take the lead, but it also fizzled four times - going backwards a combined 14 yards - after the four Cavalier turnovers.
There's blame to go around, to be sure, as Penn State dropped to 0-2 for the first time since starting 0-4 in 2001.
A lot of the mistakes, however, get overshadowed when a kicker endures the kind of disastrous day that Ficken did.
Virginia took a 17-16 lead on a 6-yard TD pass from Michael Rocco to tight end Jake McGee with 1:28 to play. McGloin, who overcame a first-half elbow injury, then marched the offense 47 yards down the field in 80 seconds to give PSU a chance to win.
Ficken trotted onto the field in a steady rain on fourth-and-11 from the Virginia 26 with one second to go. The snap from Emery Etter was a bit low, and holder Ryan Keiser did his best to give the kicker a solid play on the ball.
From the time his foot hit the ball, it was immediately clear Ficken's kick was going left, and the Cavaliers celebrated winning an ugly game and starting 2-0.
"We have to work on that, the whole operation," PSU coach Bill O'Brien said of the field-goal unit. "It's never always about the kicker. The kicker is always the one to get blamed, but it's the whole operation: the snap, the hold, the kick."
O'Brien said the kicking game will be addressed this week but also added, "Sam is our kicker."
The Lions lost standout running back Silas Redd to USC, but many people felt the departure of kicker extraordinaire Anthony Fera to Texas would be a bigger loss. Fera was 14-of-17 on field goals last season and was a bona fide team MVP candidate for his kicking versatility.
Ficken is on scholarship, which is rare for a kicker, and if he's the best the Lions have to offer, it's going to be difficult for the team to win close games unless he improves dramatically.
Ficken missed wide left from 40 yards midway through the first quarter. He missed wide right from 38 yards midway through the second. He missed wide right from 20 yards late in the third. He had a PAT blocked early in the fourth, which turned out to be a huge point.
Ficken delivered on a 32-yard field goal with 10:55 to play, giving Penn State a 16-10 lead. He then missed his fourth and final field goal to finish 1-of-5 for the day and bring his career total to 2-of-7 (he made a 43-yarder last season).
O'Brien and the rest of the team refused to pin the blame on the sophomore from Indiana.
"One player doesn't make or break a game or one play,'' guard John Urschel said. "We're all responsible. He obviously is hurting right now. We all are. He's really an aggressive player. He wants to win. At the same time, we're a team. We're all there for him and this isn't on him.''
Several Penn State players said Ficken has been consistent in practice.
"He does it in practice each and every day," McGloin said. "He's very consistent. ... You just have to remind him of how good of a player he is and he's capable of making big kicks when we need it."
The Lions haven't been listing a backup kicker on the depth chart. Receiver Evan Lewis was the place-kicker early last season when Fera was suspended, but he went just 1-of-5.
For better or worse, Ficken appears to be the Lions' best option.
"We need to see what things we can do to help Sam get better," O'Brien said. "Again, it's not all on the kicker. We had some plays in the red area we could have called better. I could have called better plays. We could have executed better. So it's never always on the kicker. It's a team sport, and we have to figure out other ways to improve."
Penn State 7, Virginia 0: An eventful 17-play, 75-yard drive that lasted 6:27 ended with Matt McGloin hitting tight end Kyle Carter for a score on third-and-goal from the 8 with 8:33 left in the quarter. The Lions converted two fourth-and-1s on the drive, burned two timeouts and got a big personal foul penalty on Virginia defensive end Jake Snyder for continuing to play after his helmet came off. The Lions missed a golden opportunity to stretch the lead minutes later. On Virginia's first play, Michael Mauti forced a fumble by tight end Paul Freedman, and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong picked it up and returned to the Cavalier 17. McGloin was sacked for a 9-yard loss on third-and-5 from the 12, a big play as it pushed back a field-goal attempt, and Sam Ficken missed a 40-yard try wide left.
Penn State 7, Virginia 3: The Lions missed another golden opportunity after defensive tackle Jordan Hill made a terrific play intercepting a pass at the line of scrimmage and getting to the Virginia 19. The drive went nowhere, and Ficken missed wide right from 38 yards. The Cavaliers took over at their 21 and drove 50 yards for a field goal. Michael Rocco had pass plays of 16 and 15 yards to Darius Jennings, and when the drive stalled at the 29, Drew Jarrett made a 46-yard kick with 3:56 left in the half.
Virginia 10, Penn State 7: The Cavaliers got their passing game going and had targets wide open as they drove 77 yards in 12 plays for a go-ahead score. Rocco hit tight end Jeremiah Mathis from a yard out on second-and-goal with 9:22 left in the quarter. Rocco connected with tight end Colter Phillips for 16 yards early in the drive and tight end Jake McGee for 26 yards to the PSU 39, then found receiver Dominique Terrell for 20 yards to set up first-and-goal at the 7. Kevin Parks carried for 6 yards to get the ball to the 1. Penn State countered with an impressive drive, getting to the Virginia 3, but Ficken missed a 20-yard field goal.
Penn State 13, Virginia 10: The Lions got a big play in the passing game as McGloin hit Allen Robinson on a 30-yard TD strike with 13:10 to play. Robinson made a nice diving catch and was shaken up on the play, but he just had the wind knocked out of him and returned to the game. Ficken missed the PAT, which was blocked, and that point turned out to be very costly for the Lions.
Penn State 16, Virginia 10: Defensive end Deion Barnes forced a fumble from backup QB Phillip Sims, and linebacker Michael Mauti recovered at the UVa 26. The Lions initially were going to go for it on fourth-and-7, but they called timeout and decided to try a field goal. Ficken made it from 32 yards out with 10:55 to play.
Virginia 17, Penn State 16: The Cavaliers took over with 8:04 left and drove 86 yards for a winning touchdown. Rocco converted a third-and-16 from his own 22 as he found tight end Jake McGee for 44 yards to the PSU 34. There was pass interference on the play, but McGee came up with the catch anyway. On third-and-8 from the 32, Rocco hit Jennings for 25 yards to the 7. Rocco then found McGee in the end zone on third-and-goal from the 7 with 1:28 left. PSU drove down and had a chance to win, but Ficken missed a 42-yard field goal on the final play.