Rutgers faces Penn State in final Big Ten game of regular season
All hasn’t gone as planned for the Rutgers men’s soccer team this season.
Last year at this point in the season, the Scarlet Knights (0-11-2) were 8-4-1 and battling for the highest seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Fast forward a year and Rutgers has solidified itself as the ninth seed and is still seeking its first win with three remaining.
With one of the toughest schedules in the country, the Knights have struggled against both ranked conference opponents and in-state rivals Princeton and NJIT alike.
Rutgers has been outscored 10-2 in its last three games, the most recent of which a 4-0 loss to the Highlanders. With an opponent looking for the highest seed possible entering the Big Ten Tournament waiting for them, things won't be getting easier for the Knights.
Penn State hosts Rutgers Friday night at Jeffrey Field looking to keep its confidence rolling after a 2-2 draw against No. 22 Akron Tuesday. The Nittany Lions previously defeated No. 19 Michigan State and Pittsburgh to stop the bleeding of what was once a three-game losing streak.
The Lions also took No. 12 Stanford to the brink, drawing the Cardinals in a scoreless matchup. They lost 3-2 to No. 1 Maryland, they battled No. 7 Indiana before ultimately falling 1-0 and drew with the Zips 2-2 on Tuesday.
While Knights head coach Dan Donigan realizes Penn State has talent, he also is familiar with the coach who will be opposing him.
Nittany Lions' head coach Bob Warming and Donigan crossed paths about a decade ago when they both were coaching at St. Louis. Donigan was Warming’s assistant from 1997 to 2000.
Donigan feels his team needs to regroup physically and mentally in order to prepare for a tough Penn State team, especially because they have something tangible to fight for, unlike Rutgers, which has their pride and hopes of momentum entering the conference tournament to play for.
“A lot of it right now for me is just health, recovery and just a sociological approach to the game. We gotta make sure the guys are feeling as good as they possible can going into that game,” Donigan said of his team's preparation. “It’s gonna be very difficult (and) very hard ... (but) every time you step between those white lines, you have to be able to get something done for yourself. And if you can't find that within yourself, then you shouldn’t be playing.”
Junior defender Brandon Tetro explained after Tuesday’s loss that competing with Penn State is huge for his team in a sense that they want to prove to the rest of the Big Ten that they belong.
“All season, teams kinda marked us down as a team they wanna play,” Tetro said. “We know that we can play with every team, we proved that with Maryland and Indiana that we’re there in every game. So I think right now it's about us finding a way to get 3 points and to just show everyone, ‘Hey, listen, we’re not what our record shows,’ we’re a team that’s been in every game.”
In order for the Knights to escape State College with their first win of the season, a goal must be scored on the Big Ten leader in save percentage and in goals-against-average.
Penn State junior goalkeeper Evan Finney is having a phenomenal year, garnering a GAA of .65 after conceding 6 goals in his nine starts.
Finney also holds a Big Ten best save percentage of .842, a little over .30 points better than Jimmy Hague of Michigan State, who ranks second.
Add the fact that Rutgers has only scored 3 goals in its past five games and Friday night turns into a much greater challenge.
But junior centerback Niel Guzman isn’t worried.
“We have (junior forward) Jason (Wright) (and) I consider him the number one offensive player in the league,” Guzman said. “We’ve been to Penn State before, so we know we what we're gonna expect. We just need to rally together and just pull out a win and we’ll be fine.”
Friday night marks the Knights' last regular season Big Ten contest. After that, the season slate shrinks down to just two games, one at home and one away.
In order for Rutgers to prepare for the postseason, Tetro expressed extra concern for his team’s confidence, stating the team must work on fixing inconsistencies and keeping their head high.
“We just gotta keep working, we can't let our head get down. It's really about working on the inconsistencies,” Tetro said. “We gotta take every game important now. It’s basically win or go home in a few weeks, so we know that we can’t be inconsistent. We just gotta keep working (and) we gotta take every game like it’s gonna be the last game of the season.”
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