He has done this by focusing on the little things (which, we were once told, allow the big things to take care of themselves), and by ignoring peripheral negativity (like that which came from Twitter trolls). And he has received support not only from family and friends but the Fraternal Order of Kickers, which has a much larger chapter than he might have realized.
The sophomore from Valparaiso, Ind., is 10-for-17 on field goals now, after a 2-for-8 start. He has made his last 25 extra points, after seeing two go awry in his first three games. He has scored 62 points, tying him for eighth-most among Big Ten kickers.
“It's nice to see him improve like he has,” Coach Bill O'Brien said during his weekly news conference Tuesday.
“The start of the season didn't really go exactly the way I wanted it to,” Ficken said. “It's turned around, and my goal is not to miss another kick the rest of the season.”
If he was shaken by the Virginia debacle -- a 17-16 loss in which he missed four of five field-goal attempts, one at the gun, and had an extra point blocked -- he conceals it well. Asked about the reaction on social media, he said, “Actually, after the Virginia game I received a lot more support than negativity, so that felt really good.”
But later he acknowledged that it was “a little rough” on Twitter back then before adding, “I don't really care what people (think) who have no idea what my ability level is, and who don't really know me. All I need are my teammates, my coaches, my family and friends. I just didn't really pay any attention to it. It was out there, but you can't dwell on any of that.”
Rather, he dwelled on his plant foot. On placing it in the same place, every time. And he focused on slowing himself down. If he was launching in 1.2 seconds at the beginning of the season, he's letting fly in 1.3 now -- which might not sound like a huge difference, but appears to have helped him immeasurably with his accuracy.
“I guess a way to compare it is like a golf swing,” he said. “If you aim wrong and you try and swing toward the hole, usually it's not going to go where you want it to. I think that's the best way to describe it: If you're not aiming toward your target, it's pretty hard to hit your target.”
Along the way he sought out the counsel of former Penn State kicker Robbie Gould, who had problems of his own while on campus but has blossomed as one of the NFL's finest kickers, with the Chicago Bears. Ficken said he has also heard from former Nittany Lions kickers like Kevin Kelly and Massimo Manca, as well as Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh, who has no PSU ties but reached out through punter Alex Butterworth.
“Being a kicker, it's kind of like a club, I guess,” Ficken said. “When things don't go well, people don't know what you're going through, exactly. It's a special position. You're kind of on your own that way, so you try to stick together.”
It is Gould who has helped Ficken most. The two of them text back and forth all the time. Gould has reviewed practice tape, watched Penn State's games on TV and offered tips; Ficken said he helped “fine-tune” the whole plant-foot thing, for instance.
Gould's best advice?
“Slow down and don't think too much,” Ficken said.
There were other unforeseen things that Ficken had to work through on his own. He strained his right quadriceps muscle at one point, and had to decrease his practice workload as a result. And before last Saturday's game against Nebraska a plastic bead from the Cornhuskers' artificial-turf field somehow worked its way into his eye, either because of the wind that day or because somebody churned up the turf near him as he was picking up his kicking tee. When Ficken tried to get the bead out of his eye, he succeeded only in scratching the cornea.
The injury didn't affect him during the game -- he went 3-for-3 on field goals -- and he said he is well on his way to recovery now, after using drops and wearing an eye patch at night.
Everything else seems to be coming together, too.
“As a kicker you try and forget the missed kicks,” he said. “It is going to be in the back of your head sometimes. It's just how it goes. Making these past few kicks, my confidence is definitely increasing, and like I said, my goal is not to miss the rest of the year.”