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Rutgers to finish season against Michigan State, Purdue

With final seeding for the Big Ten Tournament at stake, the Rutgers women’s soccer team will close out the regular season with matches against the two teams at the bottom of the conference. 

The Scarlet Knights (9-2-5, 5-1-3) will face the last place Michigan State Spartans on the road Thursday night, and will come home to host Purdue in the season finale on Sunday.

Rutgers relinquished first place in the Big Ten last week with a loss to rival Penn State, but is still in contention to retake the top spot before season’s end. Currently trailing the Nittany Lions by 3 points, the Knights would have to win out and would also need some help from some other teams in the Big Ten.

“We’re looking for home field advantage in the Big Ten playoffs for the quarterfinals because the first four teams host, so we talk about playing at home. But these games are also NCAA RPI games, so they have to understand the importance of coming out on the other side with a victory in these next two matches, because it helps us to set up the best opportunity to have success in the postseason,” said head coach Mike O’Neill.

O’Neill and his team will be heading back to the midwest to take on a Michigan State team that is winless in conference play this season. The 0-6-2 Spartans are a long ways from playing for any playoff seeding, although, O’Neill insists that they must approach a winless Big Ten team with the same level of preparation that they would approach any other opponent even with the playoffs coming up.

“We don’t talk about that, what we talk about is us and our expectations and making sure that by the time we hop on the plane tomorrow that we’re a better team than we were when we left the field on Sunday,” O’Neill said.

Rutgers will also be catching Michigan State on its senior night on the heels of a six-game losing streak. The Knights will be looking to break an eight regulation period scoreless streak against a Spartan defense led by goalkeeper Reilley Ott who has six shutouts this season and the fourth best save percentage in the Big Ten.

“We’re just focusing on how to get in the final third and moving the ball in the final third and those forward connection passes just to move the ball,” said sophomore forward Nneka Moneme. “I wouldn’t say that anything has been going wrong, I would say that it's us not seeing the ball as much as we should but we’re just working on that in practice.”

When Rutgers faces a 1-5-3 the Boilermakers team at Yurcak Field on Sunday afternoon, there are a number of possible seeding scenarios that could be at stake depending on what happens over the next three days. Currently there are three teams in the hunt for the No. 1 spot. Penn State is the frontrunner as it controls its own destiny with 21 points, and right behind it are the Knights and Wisconsin with 18 points a piece. If the three teams finished in a tie, then the Badgers would take first place based on having the best overall record.

Of the three teams, Rutgers has the slimmest road to the top but it is not out of the question. If the Knights can close out their season with wins against the two teams at the bottom of the Big Ten and "control what they can control" as coach O’Neill says, then they will finish with 24 points on the season. 

Twenty-four points will be enough to claim first place if Wisconsin either loses or ties in 1 of its last 2 games and Penn State would have to lose or tie in both of its last two matches.

Aspirations of first place are not the only factors that play into the importance of these last two games, as Rutgers has just as much to lose as it does to gain in this final week. The Knights have yet to clinch a top four seed for the tournament and the possibility of having to go on the road for the first round still exists after the one point campaign the team endured last weekend. 

Currently the No. 3 seed, with Ohio State, Nebraska and Illinois behind it in the standings, Rutgers can clinch a top four and first round home game with one win against either of its upcoming opponents.

“Every game is important, the Big Ten is so crazy right now so every game is a big game so we’ll just keep playing our game plan,” said junior backfielder Amanda Visco. “We want the Big Ten championship, we want to be regular season champs so we just try to control what we can control.”

The heated conference race and multitude of theoreticals that the Knights finds themselves in could have been avoided had they come up with a victory against the Lions last Sunday. 

A win at University Park would have all but secured first place, but once again Rutgers came up short against its bitter rival in the latest late season battle between the two programs that have met more times than any two opponents in the Big Ten in the past four seasons.

The Knights and Penn State have met seven times since 2015, with four of those matchups coming in the postseason. 

O’Neill is 1-3 against the Lions in the playoffs, with his only win being in the 2016 Big Ten quarterfinals. Since then, the two have played to a scoreless tie. Penn State ended the Rutgers 2017 tournament campaign on a series of penalty kicks and now this year a loss to the Lions dropped O’Neill’s squad to third place in the conference. 

Will the two meet in the playoffs for the fifth time in the past four years in this year’s tournament? O’Neill is counting on it.

“I think to be able to play Penn State again would be a good thing ... We learned a lot from the match on Sunday, but what we’ve learned we’ll apply in training and if we meet them again then we’ll take a real closer look back at the game and figure out ways that we can be successful but right now the only thing we’re focused on is Michigan State,” O’Neill said.

For updates on the Rutgers women's soccer team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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