Rutgers aims to put lackluster start to season behind with Big Ten play beginning
It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
For the Rutgers men’s soccer team, the start has been a little jarring. The Scarlet Knights have been outscored 8-0 in their first three games.
All three games were against top 20 opponents, and the schedule doesn’t get any easier with Michigan State, No. 7 Maryland, Ohio State and No. 5 Indiana as the next obstacles in Rutgers' path to reaching last season's heights.
In order for the Knights change this season's narrative, there must be action.
“I think (we need) a little bit of a change in mentality,” said head coach Dan Donigan. “We just watched the game tape from the other day, and, quite honestly, it was disastrous defensively ... The responsibilities from every single guy across the back line was just not what it needs to be if you're gonna compete against teams like we have on our schedule. So for me, its just a mindset, it’s a mentality, it’s a work ethic, it’s a responsibility that you have to have on both sides of the ball."
The offensive end of Rutgers squad is also responsible for the team's disappointing performances so far this season.
The Knights have attempted 17 shots in three games, six of which were on target, but has yet to get on the score sheet. And none of those shots on goal have come off the feet of reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year recipient Jason Wright.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all his fault and one man doesn't make a team.
“He can’t do it himself,” Donigan said. “We need our flank, our wide midfielders, our attacking mids, even our defensive mids, they need to contribute to the offensive side of the ball ... we're not getting much support for him”.
But Rutgers isn't the only preseason top 25 side struggling at the opening of its campaign.
National Soccer Coaches Association of America No. 1 Akron, who eliminated the Knights from the NCAA Tournament last season, and No. 25 SMU both started the season 2-2.
No. 24 Georgetown and Ohio State, the No.1 seed in last year's Big Ten Tournament that eliminated Rutgers from the Big Ten Tournament in the semifinals, are both winless through four games.
South Carolina, who received seven votes in the poll, is off to a 1-2.
So it's important to remember that it’s still too early to count anyone out this soon, and with the schedule that Donigan has for his team, nothing is out of reach.
“We got Maryland, Indiana, Ohio State and, obviously, Michigan State so it’s like every game is such a great opportunity,” Donigan said. “Our season can turn around in a flash within the next game or two. Unfortunately, you're gonna have those set backs, but you can't let it get you down, you can't frustrate yourself with it, you gotta move on and look at the next challenge and right now the next challenge for us is opening up our Big Ten schedule on the road against Michigan State."
Even if a team's out-of-conference record is below average, it can always make up for it with a solid showing during its conference schedule.
Wins against top Big Ten opponents could potentially even out their out-of-conference losses and help them gain some ground in returning to the level of the top teams in the country.
“Yeah, I do believe (in us), but its gonna be tough," Wright said. "What I can say is that (we're) gonna be different going forward as a team. Everything’s gonna be different, so I do believe that we can get some results with these next three games and possibly turn around the season for the good”.
And not only is coach Donigan excited to get Big Ten play started, his players are too.
“We're obviously not where we want to be, but we got the new season coming up in the Big Ten," junior midfielder Dante Perez said. "I think that there’s some room for improvement ... with the Big Ten season coming in, it’s a whole new schedule for us. I think if we bounce back, get a couple wins, (score a) couple goals, then we'll be alright”
Even with the winless start to the season, Donigan is not discouraged and insists he will continue to schedule games against top ranked out-of-conference opponents.
“Obviously, we knew it was a possibility we could be 0-3 or 3-0,” Donigan said. “But, you know, I will continue to schedule games like this throughout my coaching career because this is who kids want to play against, and this is what helps prepare your team to be battle tested come post season.”
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