No. 11 Rutgers to square off with No. 3 Maryland in primetime on Sunday
For the Rutgers men's lacrosse team, there truly is no place like home. The No. 11 Scarlet Knights have won 13 straight at High Point Solutions Stadium, dating back to an upset victory over Ohio State in the 2015 season finale.
This season alone, Rutgers (9-2, 11) has beaten four teams that were ranked at one point this season, including a win over then-unranked Army West Point, who now sits at No. 6 in the country.
On Sunday night in Big Ten Network primetime, the Knights will face their toughest test of the season in No. 3 Maryland. The Terrapins (8-2, 2-0) are playing as well as any team in the country, as they knocked off then-No. 1 Penn State last weekend and took down No. 5 Albany on the road on Wednesday. Of their eight wins, six of them have come against ranked teams.
"I think our guys are excited to be at home. I think they're excited to put on those white jerseys," head coach Brian Brecht said. "It's also gonna be our biggest challenge of the year...They're probably the best team in the Big Ten and obviously in Division I right now."
Maryland's greatest strength is its well-established and veteran attack unit. All three starting spots are held by seniors, as Matt Rambo, Colin Heacock and Dylan Maltz make up arguably the best offense in the country.
Rutgers is not deterred, though, as their defense is made up of three juniors and a senior and is one of the best in the nation.
"Its a good matchup for us," said junior goalie Max Edelmann. "They have a fast-paced offense and we have a really strong defense. It's very old. We have a lot of juniors and seniors on it so there's a lot of good leadership and I think we're gonna match up well against them. It should be a fun game."
And in regards to attacking units, the Knights' offense has finally begun to take shape this season. Freshman Kieran Mullins most recently scored 8 goals against Michigan, but in that same game, junior Jules Heningburg dished out five assists and senior Connor Murphy had his second straight hat trick and added an assist for a 4-point effort.
"That's huge for us, I mean we're the leaders down there on the offensive end," Mullins said. "Our job is to create opportunities for our guys and hopefully score as many goals as possible."
One of the biggest reasons for that offensive output was the play of face-off man Joe Francisco. The junior was 19-22 against the Wolverines for a career-high 86 percent win percentage.
Maryland will most likely utilize both preseason All-Big Ten member Austin Henningsen and veteran Jon Garino, Jr. at the "X," who got the nod against Albany in the Terps' last game. He has played in just seven of their 10 games this season, but has won 66 percent of his chances.
Henningsen, meanwhile, has taken the majority of the face-offs for Maryland this year, winning 53 percent of them.
Regardless of who he lines up against, Francisco will have to bring his A-game, as Brecht noted that the quality of face-off opponents is only going to get better in the team's final four games. But he remains confident in Francisco's maturity and ability to step up when needed.
"He (is) a year better not just a year older with his experience from last year. That was obvious on the road on Saturday," Brecht said. "He's pushing 60 percent on face-offs (this season). This is when we need him to be great."
But with the biggest game of the season coming up — the team always recognizes the next game on its schedule as the biggest game of season — Rutgers will not worry as much about the opponent as they will about themselves.
Edelmann noted that the team needs to focus on the little things, while Brecht spoke of the importance of focus and preparation for each opponent. And Mullins, the Knights' budding star, knows where the focus needs to be.
"Right now we're just gonna worry about ourselves," he said. "I know they're one of the best teams in the country but I think it's what we do that determines the outcome at the end of the day."