Rutgers hosts Penn State on Senior Night with chance to lock up spot in Big Ten Tournament
The Rutgers men's lacrosse team entered Capital One Field in College Park last Saturday in the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
Through 35 minutes of lacrosse, the Scarlet Knights looked well on their way to their second upset win in conference play, leading then-No. 4 Maryland 6-3.
But after being stymied for most of the afternoon, the Terrapins offense was not only finally able to break out, but controlled the possession battle as well. Maryland scored 7 consecutive goals to take a 10-6 lead with 7:27 remaining and held on to escape with an 11-8 win.
The loss dropped the Knights into the No. 2 spot below the Terrapins in the conference standings and took away their ability to control their own destiny for the top seed in the end-of-season tournament, but Rutgers still has power over clinching a spot of its own.
The No. 19 Knights (9-3, 2-1) can have their ticket to Baltimore punched with a win over No. 17 Penn State (7-5, 1-2) Friday night at High Point Solutions Stadium.
"We're focused and preparing on Penn State. The Maryland game is behind us. I thought the effort was great, the energy was great. We had 40 minutes of good lacrosse, we just didn't finish it," said head coach Brian Brecht after practice Tuesday. "We've had two good days of practice ... If we get a little better each day, Wednesday and Thursday, I'm excited for the opportunity on Friday."
Playing for a chance to appear in the program's first Big Ten Tournament won't be the only storyline going into Friday night's matchup either.
The Nittany Lions and Scarlet Knights will be playing for the "Friendship Cup," which was established in 1998 and has been won by Penn State 11 of 15 times its been fought over, including last year.
Rutgers' loss to the Nittany Lions last season was an outlier compared to its three other Big Ten losses.
Of the Knights' four conference losses in 2015, its only loss that came by more than 2 goals was in Happy Valley against Penn State. The Nittany Lions used a 5-goal stretch in the first half to build a 6-4 lead and a 3-goal run midway through the second half to pull away and hold on for an 11-8 win.
Rutgers will be looking to take back the Friendship Cup for the first time since 2010 on the same night that its senior class will be honored before their final game on the Banks.
"We're just thinking one day at a time, getting better," said sophomore attacker Jules Heningburg. "Setting ourselves up to be in the best position we can and fighting for our seniors on Senior Night."
Penn State will come to Piscataway with the No. 15 scoring offense in the nation at 11.75 goals per game. Its front line is headed by three players that each have over 30 points on the season, with true freshman Grant Ament leading the way with 16 goals and 25 assists.
In last year's game T.J. Saunders burned the Knights for 3 goals and they will have to key on him defensively again, as he leads the Nittany Lions in goals with 23.
But while Penn State has proven it can score with the best of them, it has been its defense that has held it back from having a better season. The Nittany Lions have the 40th ranked scoring defense in the country, allowing 10.33 goals per game as starting goalkeeper Will Schreiner has only stopped 46.8 percent of the shots he's faced this year.
That unbalanced game has been evident in Penn State's finishes in close games against top opponents. The Nittany Lions have taken down then-No. 1 Denver 15-10, then-No. 8 Harvard 13-12 in overtime and then-No. 18 Cornell 8-7, but have fallen in overtime to Johns Hopkins and Maryland by one goal in their last two games.
Rutgers is a perfect 9-0 when it scores at least 12 goals, and with a No. 10 scoring attack in its arsenal, it should be able to reach that magic goal number against an erratic Penn State defense. The key for the Knights will be in their own defensive end, where they will need to continue to be a swarming presence in front of a stout senior goalie Kris Alleyne.
If Rutgers can put together a complete game on both sides of the field, it should be able to secure the Friendship Cup and a spot in the Big Ten Tournament in what will be the final time its seniors play at High Point Solutions Stadium.
"This Friday is a big game for the seniors, just because it's our last home game and for the team it means a lot," said senior defender Branford Rodgers. "This is our first opportunity to get into the Big Ten (Tournament). So playoff game, everything like that. We'll have a lot of focus, a lot of energy. Just really wanna come out on top this Friday."