No. 10 Rutgers to host No. 11 Penn State in home finale
With just two more games remaining in the regular season, the pressure is on for the Rutgers men’s lacrosse team.
The No. 10 Scarlet Knights (8-4, 1-2) will host No. 11 Penn State (8-4, 2-1) on Sunday night in their final home game of the year and one that has Big Ten Tournament implications.
Coming off a loss at No. 1 Maryland, which saw Rutgers with a fourth-quarter lead, the Knights will look to rebound and pick up a win that would go a long way for their postseason aspirations.
If there’s one thing consistent about Rutgers losses, it’s that the team has always seemed to bounce back, no matter how emotional the defeat. The Knights are 3-0 after setbacks this season, two of which have been ranked wins.
And head coach Brian Brecht looked no further than the players when asked about the team’s bounce-back ability.
“I attribute our success to our players making plays. We have some talented players, starting with the senior class,” Brecht said. “... It’s all about taking care (of) ourselves. A setback allows us to maybe refocus that and work on what we really need to do to have success on game day.”
The Nittany Lions are coming off a historic win over then-No. 4 Johns Hopkins, their first ever win over the Blue Jays.
They boast a high-scoring offense, one that ranks eighth in the country in goals per game with 13.25.
Mac O’Keefe leads the goal-scoring charge for Penn State with his team-leading 31 goals to go along with 11 assists on the year, while Nick Spillane leads the team with his 44 points on 18 goals and 26 assists.
But the Rutgers defense has been up to the challenge against high-octane offenses this season, and that won’t change on Sunday.
“Defensively, our guys do a great job of preparing, they do a great job of knowing their opponents,” Brecht said. “When we play and take care of ourselves and do our jobs to the best of our ability, we’re a tough out.”
Sophomore attacker Kieran Mullins compared Sunday night to a playoff game, since both teams are in a must-win situation if they want a chance at the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
Last year against the Nittany Lions, the Knights showed up to State College flat and lost by a score of 13-7.
“We’re very motivated. It’s kind of a playoff game for us right now to help us get into the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament,” Mullins said. “We’re very excited right now, especially (for) our last home game.”
A crucial area in Sunday’s game will, as always, be the faceoff X.
Senior faceoff specialist Joe Francisco has been a huge weapon for Rutgers in conference play, as he sits at 61.8 percent through three Big Ten games, a huge improvement after a slow start to the season for him.
But Penn State boasts the best faceoff specialist in the conference in Gerard Arceri, who is facing off at 69.6 percent in Big Ten play.
Despite suffering a bad-looking non-contact injury two weeks ago against Maryland, Arceri returned against John Hopkins and was a dominant 16 of 23 from the X.
Brecht alluded to that being a key area against the Nittany Lions, as it is holds great importance in any game. But he also noted that the Knights play their best when Francisco is at his best, which has been the case as of late.
“The keys are gonna be opportunities, possessions off of faceoffs,” Brecht said. “... If we could have the ball just as much as them, I like where we are offensively … (Francisco’s) play and our success, it goes hand in hand.”
For the seniors of Rutgers, it will be their last regular season game at High Point Solutions Stadium, a place they have played so well at for the last four seasons.
But senior midfielder Christian Mazzone said that they won’t be thinking about that as much as they will Penn State.
He noted it was a good thing the Knights already celebrated Senior Day and got it out the way so they could train all their focus on the opponent ahead of them.
“We’re up to the task. We’re ready for it,” Mazzone said. “We know Penn State’s gonna come in here — it’s always a dog fight, even without the added playoff atmosphere, so we’re ready for it.”
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