Chance to make statement at Penn State motivates Rutgers
From the moment the Rutgers women’s soccer team began its 2014 campaign, the goal was simple.
Despite jumping from the AAC to the Big Ten, along with Mike O’Neill taking over the reins in his first year as a full-time head coach, the Scarlet Knights hoped to conquer the conference atop their competition, hoisting a first-place trophy above their heads.
At 9-1-1 overall and 5-1-1 in the Big Ten, Rutgers is in a good spot.
Midway through their first season in one of the nation’s premier collegiate women’s soccer conferences, the Knights boast a No. 20 ranking in the NSCAA top 25 and No. 10 ranking in Soccer America’s top 25.
Rutgers is in third place in the conference standings. Michigan (10-3, 6-1) sits just one spot ahead in second place, with its lone blemish of the season coming at the hands of the Knights.
Who sits atop the powerhouse and looks down at the rest that trail from behind?
Penn State (12-1, 7-0) has cruised through its first half of the season. The No. 6 Nittany Lions sit in the driver’s seat of the Big Ten, and as far as team statistics go, they should.
PSU leads the conference in points by a wide margin with 102 points in 13 games. The next closest challenger is Michigan, trailing by 20 points with 82 total on the year.
Facing an offense that also leads the Big Ten with 2.85 goals per game, it makes for an intriguing matchup.
Boasting a stout defense that has tallied a shutout in eight of its nine wins on the season, Rutgers ventures out to Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, with aspirations of knocking off the top dogs of the Big Ten.
The marquee matchup, set to air in front of a national audience on the Big Ten Network at 4:30 p.m., presents a golden opportunity for the program to take another huge step.
While O’Neill and the coaching staff emphasized the same approach of taking one game at a time, players admitted it is hard to look past the implications this game can possibly hold to set the landscape for the Knights’ title dreams.
“Once our game ended on Sunday [against Purdue], we knew right then and there that our next focus was Penn State, and we want to conquer that,” said senior backer Tori Leigh. “We want to show everybody we deserve to be where we are, and we’re not just winning games by luck.”
Senior midfielder Cassie Inacio admitted that while Rutgers longs to prove to the rest of the conference they are a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten, the Knights know they have to contain their mental approach.
“I think we definitely want to make a statement, but at the same time, we’re not going to try to do anything out of ourselves,” Inacio said. “We’ve had success because we’ve played the way we wanted to play. … We’re going to play within ourselves and have confidence in what we’ve been doing.”
As constant as the defense has been, it was the offense that sparked Rutgers in its 4-0 win over Purdue at home. In the midst of an offensive outbreak that included a combined three goals from junior forwards Amanda DeVolk and Hayley Katkowski, senior forward Stef Scholz netted a goal for the second consecutive game.
Scholz leads a resurgent Knights offense with five goals on the season and 12 points total.
As threatening as the Nittany Lions may seem on offense, they will have to get through Casey Murphy between the posts.
The freshman goalkeeper was named Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week after tallying 11 saves in Rutgers’ last two games. Starting in all 11 games, Murphy has been a rock for the Knights with 34 saves to go along with a .895 save percentage.
Penn State even has a true freshman of its own to brag about.
In her first year on the playing field, forward Frannie Crouse leads the team with seven goals. She is one of three Nittany Lions with at least five goals on the season.
For Penn State, the record, the ranking and the statistical firepower speak for themselves.
But to O’Neill and all the players that make up this top-20 Rutgers team, so are they.
And to prove it, O’Neill said the Knights would focus on themselves as they have all year.
“We’ll approach the game the same way we approach every other game in the sense [that] we’ll make it about us,” O’Neill said. “We’ll put a game plan together to have success, and then we’ll go out and do our best to execute the game plan and play together for 90 minutes.”
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