Rutgers drops Penn State in shutout victory
As the Rutgers women’s soccer team’s coach bus cruised east on Interstate 80 Saturday night, the general mood surrounding the team could be summed up in one word: happy.
And how could it not be? The Scarlet Knights went into Happy Valley with a big chip on their shoulders. They had the record, the ranking and an eyebrow-raising win over Michigan a couple weeks ago, but nothing was quite like this.
In fact, “happy” probably doesn’t do the description of the win much justice.
After No. 20/10 Rutgers (10-1-1, 6-1-1) knocked off No. 6/7 Penn State (12-2-0, 7-1-0) Saturday afternoon, the atmosphere surrounding the program was difficult to put into words.
The contingent of scarlet faithful gathered by the bus after the 1-0 win illuminated a special feeling for head coach Mike O’Neill and his players.
The Knights’ first win over a top-10 opponent since 2008 wasn’t easy.
Coming into the matchup on its home turf, Penn State boasted the top offense in the Big Ten — at least on paper in terms of goals per game and total points.
But in the game’s opening half, it was Rutgers that trotted out with an up-tempo approach on the offensive side of the ball. The Knights came out firing and beat the Nittany Lions at their own game, outshooting them by a 7-2 margin.
With the amount of opportunities being created, it was only a matter of time before one offensive possession manifested.
That moment came when Madison Tiernan came steaming downfield. The sophomore forward created space by artistically weaving her way through a pair of Penn State defenders before lofting a line drive from 20 yards out over goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom and into the upper right corner of the net.
The majestic move by Tiernan in the 29th minute put the Knights up, 1-0, while the majority of the 1,651 fans clad in blue and white at Jeffrey Field were shocked for the moment.
For Tiernan, her fourth goal of the season was simply an opening she saw and took advantage of.
“Actually, I gave it to [senior backer] Tori [Leigh] and saw the defenders backing off, so I just cut in, and my shot just fell in my favor,” Tiernan said.
As the game went on, though, Penn State’s comeback efforts grew more resilient.
In the second half, its offense regained its rhythm. The Nittany Lions outshot the Knights, 8-3, and registered seven corner kicks, while Rutgers couldn’t manage as much as a sniff of one all game long.
And as the time ticked down and the sense of urgency rose, Penn State went all out. In the final 10 minutes, the Nittany Lions turned their attack up a notch by firing six shots and setting up three corner kicks in hopes of claiming back the game.
But as much as the Nittany Lions, their top-ranked offense and their veteran Big Ten talent continued to fire away, it was a rookie who stopped them in their tracks.
Just as she has all year long, true freshman goalkeeper Casey Murphy made stop after stop. With the help of her stout defensive backline, the reigning Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week only got better down the stretch.
Of the three total saves she made, Murphy punched out a shot on goal in the 81st minute to preserve a key save. Ultimately, she also helped preserve what was described as a total team win.
“Just having my team behind my back, they calm my nerves,” Murphy said. “They really make my job easy, and I have to give them all the credit, especially the backline. They really came up big.”
A few stops later, and when the 90 minutes expired, Rutgers could relish what is going down as arguably one of its biggest wins in program history.
The Knights will take that in and enjoy the accomplishment of dethroning their neighbors in the school out west from the top of the Big Ten standings for the time being.
“We came in being the underdog in the past two weeks,” Tiernan said. “We’ve had the bullet on our backs, so, I mean, coming in, playing on their field, it’s just great to leave knowing we got the win.”
At the same time, though, O’Neill ensured that once the bus reached Rutgers’ campus, the Knights would go right back to work and prepare for their next game on the schedule against Illinois on Friday.
“We talk so much about the next game being the most important game, and that’s what this game was to us,” O’Neill said. “… After any game the mood is, if you get a victory, very good, and coming up [to Penn State], a tough place to win, and getting the win, the mood is good. But [the players] understand they have to enjoy that, and then we get back to business on Tuesday.”
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