Penn State has six games left in its 2012 football season.
After a well-timed bye week, the rested, healthy and improving Nittany Lions appear primed for their second-half run, which starts this Saturday night at Iowa.
The Lions are a three-point underdog. The matchup of 4-2 teams is basically a toss-up.
Get used to that.
In each of the six remaining games (at Iowa, at home vs. Ohio State, at Purdue, at Nebraska, at home vs. Indiana and at home vs. Wisconsin) Penn State will likely be a slight favorite or a slight underdog, depending on the team, the venue and future results. There are no "gimmes."
Each of those six contests may well be close games where just a few crucial plays will determine victory or defeat.
The most pivotal player for PSU in several of those games may well be a sophomore who was a nearly anonymous member of the team before September.
His name is Sam Ficken.
There are a few things worth noting about Ficken.
First, he weighs about 175 pounds soaking wet, yet he wears No. 97, a number typically reserved for defensive linemen who are 100 pounds heavier.. Second, he was an all-state high school performer in Indiana, but somehow ended up in Pennsylvania's Nittany Valley. And finally, he's a sophomore kicker who has had serious trouble splitting the uprights.
It's the last issue that most concerns Nittany Nation.
Ficken is a woeful 3-for-9 in field-goal attempts this season. His 1-for-5 effort on field goals against Virginia is the primary reason that the Lions lost to the Cavaliers, 17-16. He also missed an extra point in that game.
If Ficken had just a mediocre game vs. Virginia, Penn State stands at 5-1 right now.
After that game, Ficken was blasted on social media sites, such as Twitter, by some ignorant PSU fans. A few of the comments were downright vicious. Ficken's coach, Bill O'Brien, rightfully called out those Nit-wits and defended his kicker.
Still, the fact remains that Ficken must improve if the Lions want to win the nail-biters that are almost certainly looming in the next six weeks. Making just 33 percent of his field goals and missing key extra points simply won't cut it.
O'Brien has expressed confidence in Ficken, but the coach's on-field decisions seem to indicate otherwise. O'Brien has already attempted 20 fourth-down conversions this season, making 13 of them. In contrast, in 2011, Penn State tried to convert on fourth down just 18 times during the entire season.
Of course, in 2011 Penn State had one of the better kickers in the nation in Anthony Fera, who finished the year 14-for-17 on field goals, including a perfect 11-for-11 inside 40 yards.
Fera was expected to return to the Lions this season, but this summer he bolted for his native Texas to play for the Longhorns when given the opportunity under the NCAA sanctions handed out after the Sandusky scandal.
Another kicker, Matt Marcincin, also left the PSU team, although he's still enrolled at the school.
That left the unheralded Ficken as the only real option at kicker. He was thrust into a job he apparently wasn't ready for.
Maybe the bye week will give Ficken a chance to reboot and regain the form he showed in high school. The Lions certainly hope so.
Penn State doesn't need Ficken to be great, but they do need him to be competent. They need him to make the kicks inside 40 yards that every major college kicker routinely converts.
That's because three points could easily decide several Lion games over the next six weeks. Ficken could realistically end up being the difference between a 7-5 PSU team and a 9-3 PSU team.
That's heavy burden to bear, especially for a 19-year-old who weighs 175 pounds soaking wet. But that's the life of the college football kicker. There's a thin line between hero and goat.
Ficken has already experienced the goat role.
The Blue-and-White faithful can only hope that he turns into a hero between now and December.
Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dis patch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdis patch.com.