Rutgers upsets defending Big Ten champion Penn State in first round of conference tournament
The Rutgers women’s soccer team put together a complete performance Sunday afternoon at Jeffrey Field in University Park, Pennsylvania, beating defending Big Ten champion Penn State by a score of 2-0.
The victory clinched a spot in the conference tournament semifinals next Friday against Northwestern.
Senior forward Erica Murphy scored her second goal in two matches for the Scarlet Knights in the first half of the game, while leading scorer senior captain Madison Tiernan converted her ninth goal of the season to give Rutgers some insurance with less than 20 minutes remaining.
Senior goalkeeper Alana Jimenez also shined for the Knights, making six saves in her ninth shutout of the year.
The clean sheet was the tenth time this season that Rutgers has kept an opponent off the scoreboard and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“I think it was a big win,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “It was a big team win, and in order for us to compete for the Big Ten Championship, we know the importance of one game at a time.”
The Knights improve to 10-3-6 on the season, earning their third win over a top-25 opponent.
The program has now recorded double-digit victories 22 times in 33 years of soccer.
The seventh-seeded Rutgers will compete in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals for the second consecutive season after making a run to the finals a year ago.
The Knights defeated the No. 21-ranked Nittany Lions, who fell to 11-4-4 with the loss, for the first time in Big Ten Tournament play.
The team was extremely motivated to prove itself in the postseason because Rutgers hasn’t played to its full potential in many outings this year.
“We’ve worked so hard throughout the season and we had a couple of results that didn’t go our way,” Jimenez said. “We really wanted to come out in the Big Ten Tournament and show everyone what we’re made of.”
Despite a lot of draws in games they feel they should have won, the Knights have been extremely successful versus teams who were supposed to be difficult to beat, as they pulled to 3-0-1 on the year against ranked opponents.
Rutgers got there on Sunday via two play sequences in particular, as the team was outnumbered in the major statistical categories.
Penn State had more shots, shots on goal, corners and free kicks, but the Knights’ defense prevailed through determination as well as strategy.
“We had a great game plan and we really stuck to it the whole time,” Jimenez said. “We were super organized and hats off to everyone for sticking to the game plan.”
In addition to excellent defense, Rutgers scored two quality goals that are sending it through to the next round of the Big Ten tournament.
The first occurred in the 28th minute, when junior forward Colby Ciarrocca threaded the ball through to Murphy, who timed her run perfectly and finished to the far post.
Murphy’s approach drew Penn State goalkeeper Amanda Dennis out of the net, giving her a clear lane for her fourth goal of the season and second in the last two matches.
“I knew I was one-on-one with the goalie, so I really didn’t feel any pressure. I just wanted to help our team and slide it to the back post,” Murphy said. “We’re starting new, and it’s a fantastic feeling beating Penn State on their home field.”
Although Murphy’s goal was technically the game-winner, one could argue that Tiernan’s was equally as important, as it gave the Knights the confidence that they could hold off the Nittany Lions’ constant pressure.
In the 72nd minute, the Voorhees, New Jersey, native gathered a deflected shot on a Rutgers short corner, and blasted it at the net.
Dennis was unable to secure the ball and it subsequently trickled across the goal line.
Tiernan increased her team points lead with the score Sunday, improving her total to 24.
With the strike, Tiernan moves to a tie for eighth all-time with 23 goals.
Hopefully she and the Knights can continue the momentum from the victory in Happy Valley and harness it Friday in the Big Ten semifinal.
The match will begin at either 3 or 5:30 p.m. and be televised live nationally on Big Ten Network.
“We won the quarterfinal game and now we’re onto the semis,” O’Neill said. “We’ve done it on the road for the past month, so this is now different. The coaching staff is so proud of the effort that every person on the team gave.”
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