Rutgers eyes revenge in first Big Ten contest of season

<p>Sophomore defender Michael Rexrode believes the Knights are ready to handle the No. 9 Blue Jays this weekend, stating the team is "much better" than last season when they lost a tight one in Baltimore.</p>

Sophomore defender Michael Rexrode believes the Knights are ready to handle the No. 9 Blue Jays this weekend, stating the team is "much better" than last season when they lost a tight one in Baltimore.

When the Rutgers men's lacrosse team entered Big Ten play for the first time in program history last year, it brought with them a 4-6 record.

But despite its sub-.500 record, the Scarlet Knights remained competitive en route to a 1-4 finish in one of the toughest conferences in college lacrosse, losing three games by 2 goals or less and even taking down then-No. 10 Ohio State 17-10 for its first Big Ten win to close out its season.

With the same core of players with another year of experience and the addition of first-year players making strong impacts on the field, the Knights will enter conference play this time around standing at 7-2.

With that record came a 5-0 start to the year, a win over 13-11 win over now-No. 15 Army on the road and the program's first national ranking under head coach Brian Brecht, but it also came with losses to stout teams in now-No. 12 Stony Brook and Princeton.

Originally picked to finish last in the conference, Rutgers currently sits atop the Big Ten with the second-highest scoring attack and the second scoring defense among its other five conference foes.

A daunting schedule lies ahead, with 3 of its 5 games left on the slate coming against top-20 opponents, but learning from tough losses that were sandwiched in-between a strong start to the season has the Knights feeling fully equipped as it enters the Big Ten stretch of their schedule.

"I feel great because going (5-0) and then those two hard losses, it helps us build on the mistakes we made not only in the wins that we had, but as well as the losses," said junior midfielder Christian Trasolini. "So I think it really helps us for when we go into Big Ten play with these other top teams that we really feel we could run with."

Rutgers' first of five conference games kicks off this Saturday with a 7 p.m. showdown against No. 9 Johns Hopkins (4-3) at High Point Solutions Stadium. The Knights will have the opportunity to start off Big Ten competition with a statement win over a top-10 opponent, while also getting some revenge on the Blue Hens.

Last season, Rutgers traveled to Baltimore, Maryland, to face then-No. 19 Johns Hopkins in the program's first Big Ten game. The Knights turned a 6-3 halftime deficit into a 7-6 lead entering the final quarter after controlling play in the third quarter.

But the Blue Jays flipped the script in the fourth, finding the back of the net three times in the quarter while shutting out the Rutgers offense en route to a come-from-behind 9-7 win.

"This year, we're a much better team," said sophomore defender Michael Rexrode on how the Knights have grown since that late loss to Hopkins. "We're more organized. I think we have a better game plan, better mindset, better atmosphere all together. So I think this week leading up (to the game against Johns Hopkins) we're definitely gonna be more focused. Focused on what we need to work on, especially go back, watch (the Delaware film), see our weak points, kinda touch up on it."

Saturday night's matchup between Rutgers and Johns Hopkins will feature a battle of two high-octane offenses. The Blue Jays (13 goals per game) and Knights (12.78 goals per game) boast the top two scoring attacks in the Big Ten and sit No. 9 and No. 11 respectively in the NCAA.

A key to the game for the Knights will be to avoid committing penalties, because Hopkins makes teams play, more times than not, with a man advantage. The Blue Jays have the No. 1 success rate in man-up opportunities with a 61.5 scoring rate, while Rutgers' man-down defense is second-to-last in the nation in killing off penalties.

At the forefront of Johns Hopkins lethal offense has been attackers Ryan Brown and Shack Stanwick. 

Brown paces the team with 21 goals and the Knights are more than aware of his goal-scoring abilities after he poured 4 goals into the net in last year's game. 

Stanwick has been the lead set-up man on the Blue Jay's top-10 attack, piling up 26 total assists while also scoring 12 goals.

But at even strength, Rutgers' swarming defense might be enough to contain Hopkins' attack. This season, the Knights are No. 3 in the NCAA in groundballs per game and clear percentage, while also leading the Big Ten in caused turnovers per game.

In net, senior Kris Alleyne and sophomore Max Edelmann have combined to stop over 50 percent of the shots they've faced and have only allowed 8.89 goals per game, which is second in the conference and No. 17 in the nation.

Taking down a top-10 team that has dominated the matchup over time (Hopkins owns a 31-4 advantage in the two program's history with one another) is going to be a tall task for Rutgers.

The Knights are more than aware of the magnitude of Saturday night's matchup, and they are looking forward to having the opportunity to collect a statement win on its home turf.

"It's a big week," said Brecht. "It's nice to have the full week to get healthy physically and mentally. It's going to be a great atmosphere here at High Point Solutions Stadium, got a top-five team coming with Hopkins and a lot of tradition and the start of Big Ten play."

For updates on the Rutgers men's lacrosse team, follow @EricMullin_ and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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