Rutgers hosts Big Ten leader No. 18 Ohio State on Senior Day
When all was said and done in 2014, the Rutgers men’s soccer team finished its inaugural season in the nine-team Big Ten Conference in eighth place with a pitiful four points and its only win coming against a winless Wisconsin team that finished in dead-last.
Taking the Scarlet Knights’ less than stellar season into consideration, the preseason Big Ten coaches poll predicted another eighth place finish for Dan Donigan’s troops as they adapted to one of the premier conferences in college soccer.
But the sixth-year head coach isn’t one to take preseason polls into consideration.
“I don’t even know why we do those pre-season polls, to be honest, because nobody really knows how good or how average any particular team is going to be,” Donigan said. “They don’t really mean anything to me, it’s just bulletin board type material.”
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Knights have been proving the polls wrong, sitting tied for second place in the conference with preseason favorites Maryland and just one point below league leaders Ohio State.
Rutgers will have a chance to stand alone at the top of the Big Ten standings for the first time in program history on Sunday when it hosts the No. 18 Buckeyes (9-4-2, 3-1-1) on Senior Day at Yurcak Field.
Ohio State stampedes into Piscataway riding the momentum of a program record eight-game winning streak. Currently on a five-game winning streak themselves, the Knights (9-4-1, 3-3-0) look to end the third longest active winning streak in the country in front of a national audience on the Big Ten Network.
“We’re both coming in feeling good about ourselves. The advantage we have is that it’s at home,” Donigan said. “(People tuning in will see) two good teams that have had a good run right now in the last four, five, six weeks of the season. Hopefully it’ll be a good performance from both teams, hopefully it can be a great game for the fans and hopefully we get a positive result.”
What happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force?
Fans at Yurcak will witness first-hand Sunday afternoon as Rutgers' second ranked offense, paced by sophomore forward Jason Wright — whose 12 goals lead the conference and tie for second nationally — meets an Ohio State defense ranking second in the Big Ten in clean sheets.
The Buckeyes' unit has kept four straight shutouts and six in its past eight games, led by three-time defending Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week Chris Froshauer.
Given the quality of the two sides and the circumstances surrounding the match, this is the most important match in the career of many Knights.
But they are approaching it as just another game on the schedule.
“This is a lot of guys’ biggest game that they’ve played — or one of the biggest games that they’ve played — and you want guys to be excited, but ... this isn’t the national championship game.” said senior center back Mitch Lurie. “This is another game that we need to win in order to give ourselves a chance to be in the national championship game. I think guys need to continue to take it as another game.”
Rutgers hopes to begin the game much differently than their first ever meeting with the Buckeyes. Ohio State took the lead over the Knights in the first minute of the contest at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium exactly a year to the day from Sunday. Wright managed to equalize for Rutgers in the 22nd minute, but the Knights conceded three more goals in a 4-1 loss.
Junior goalkeeper David Greczek, who was in goal in last year's thrashing, won't be expecting to see as many goals get past him this weekend. The Fairfield, New Jersey, native has kept three clean sheets in his past four games.
After hosting the Buckeyes, Rutgers only has one more conference match — against the fellow second place Terrapins. Lurie sees the positive side of his team playing their toughest stretch of games to end the regular season.
“We all know in the back of our minds that it’s huge, but really, the best part about this is we control our own destiny and we don’t have to worry about any other teams,” he said. “So if we just go out and play like we have all season … I don’t see why we can’t come out with a win.”
Defeating their direct rivals for the regular season crown would be historic for the Knights in more ways than one. Aside inching closer to winning the first Big Ten regular season title in program history, it will show the rest of the conference that Rutgers is a game to circle on the schedule for years to come.
“It’s a big game for us because no one really believes in us in the Big Ten besides us,” said sophomore midfielder Brandon Tetro. “No one really gives us the respect we deserve. We’re really the only ones who believed we had a shot, so for us to be near the top, this game is important for us to come out and show that … we’re not just taking wins by luck, we’re a serious team. This is a big game for us to prove it to everyone.”
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