No. 14 Rutgers seeks to rebound against No. 9 Penn State
Following a physically and emotionally draining triple-overtime loss to No. 2 Maryland on Sunday, the Rutgers men's lacrosse team will need to put that game in the rearview to focus on another Sunday night primetime game — this one on the road against No. 9 Penn State.
The Nittany Lions (10-2, 1-2) had a historic start to their season, going 10-0 and becoming the consensus No. 1 team in the country. They kicked off their Big Ten schedule in impressive fashion, dominating Ohio State defensively en route to a 9-4 victory over the No. 7 Buckeyes. But two straight losses to Maryland and Johns Hopkins have them tied for fourth place in the Big Ten standing with Rutgers.
Meanwhile, the No. 14 Scarlet Knights (9-3, 1-2) have had a very similar season. They began the season 8-0 and had the top ranking in the country. But they have gone 1-3 since then and are now fighting for a spot in the Big Ten Tournament.
And after that loss against Maryland, head coach Brian Brecht said his players have no option but to put it behind them because Penn State is now the biggest test of the season. With only four teams making the Big Ten Tournament and the two facing off on Sunday in a tie for fourth place, if Rutgers wins, it will clinch a berth in the Tournament.
"(We) have to (put the Maryland game behind us)," Brecht said. "It's not an issue. Penn State is gonna be even tougher. It's on the road, it's against a top 10 team."
The Nittany Lions at home are as dangerous as anyone out there, as they boast a 7-0 record on their home turf this season, including ranked wins over Penn and Ohio State.
They boast one of the best freshman players in the country in attacker Mac O'Keefe, who leads the conference with 39 goals. O'Keefe is a pure scorer and is aided by Nick Aponte and Grant Ament, who are first and tied for second in assists in the Big Ten.
Junior defender Michael Rexrode, who leads the conference in caused turnovers per game, is a key cog in a defense that shut out Maryland for a 25-minute span on Sunday. He said that the loss was a painful one, but echoed Brecht's sentiments that there is no option but to keep pushing forward.
"It hurts when it's that close ... but there's a lot of positives to take away from it," he said. "So we just gotta bounce back and take on the next team which is Penn State."
Sunday's game marks the team's penultimate Big Ten game in what was expected to be — and what has been a brutal stretch of games.
After dropping their first conference game to now-No. 8 Johns Hopkins, the Knights went on the road and beat a Michigan team that was ranked the week before, dropped a close one to No. 2 Maryland and will face No. 9 Penn State this week and will cap things off with a home game against No. 7 Ohio State.
There is no shortage of quality in the Big Ten and despite being the second-lowest ranked teams, Rutgers has proven it can play with any team out there.
"I think Penn State's another good team," senior midfielder Jeff George said. "We just gotta keep focusing on the next one. Obviously, take the positives from (the Maryland game). I think just keeping the mentality and just focusing on the next game, that's all we need to do. If we come to play (against Penn State), we'll do alright."
On the brink of the Big Ten Tournament and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament — one they were controversially snubbed from last year — the Knights still control their own destiny, as all they need to do is keep winning games to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
And although a close loss to the Terrapins last week yielded some positives, Brecht was assertive in saying that losing close games is not a way for his team to extend its season.
"You gotta win yourself into the month of May," he said. "Not just play close."