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No. 21 Rutgers heads on road for Big Ten weekend

Head coach Mike O’Neill and the Rutgers women's soccer team will go on the road this weekend for the home stretch of the 2018 regular season. Undefeated in conference play and in sole possession of the conference lead, the newly named No. 21 Scarlet Knights (9-1-4, 5-0-2) can all but secure the top seed in the Big Ten in matches against Ohio State, and the team that is currently right behind them in the standings in Penn State.

On Friday, Rutgers will be in Columbus fending off the fifth-place Buckeyes, who will be looking for a home upset to keep their aspirations for first place alive. Ohio State currently trails the Knights by four points with four games left to play.

Rutgers will be carrying its streak of eight straight overtime games into Friday night’s matchup. The streak is the longest streak of consecutive matches to go to overtime in the program’s recent memory. 

Associate head coach Meghan Ryan who has been a part of the program since her time as a player in 2003, believes that the streak and results in those overtime games are a testament to the team’s determination. 

“When their backs are up against a wall, they figure out a way and that shows that they’re a championship team,” Ryan said.

The Knights' production in overtime has been the X factor in nearly all of the overtime matches they’ve gone to over this stretch. It is also a level of production that overshadows their production in regulation. Since Big Ten play began, Rutgers has scored 5 goals in overtime versus only 4 in every 90-minute regulation period combined. 

In the past four games in particular, the Knights have scored only 1 goal in regulation, but is 3-0-1 in those games due in part to a defense that seemingly never lets up any scoring in the later minutes, and a trio of overtime golden goals.

Junior midfielder Nicole Whitley who currently leads the Big Ten in assists, has been a key piece in the option-based offensive scheme her team runs, and believes that the team’s current philosophy of possession of just pushing the field will take the team far.

“Whether it's (sophomore forward) Amirah (Ali) playing to her feet or playing (sophomore forward) Nneka (Moneme) or (junior forward) Tiernny (Wiltshire) over the top because they have pure speed to run onto it, so I kind of just see what my personnel is up there, and who comes in and who comes out. I think everyone makes an impact,” Whitley said. 

Rutgers' offense will take on goalkeeper Devon Kerr and a defense that is 4th in goals allowed this season, and has recorded a total of six shutouts. 

Statistically, the Knights have the higher scoring offense, but that is mostly due to the presence of the Big Ten’s leading goal scorer Ali. The Buckeyes offense, while lower in scoring, is more balanced, as they have seven players with multiple goals scored this season versus Rutgers' 5.

Then on Sunday, the Knights will return to the Northeast to take on the team that they are racing for the top seed in the Big Ten. The matchup against the Nittany Lions will mark the latest in a series of critical late season matchups between the two programs. 

“They know what these next four games mean but we continue to focus on one game at a time,” O’Neill said. “The way we look at it is that we have a rivalry with everybody … we’ll worry about Penn State after the game on Friday. We know the next two games that we have we will be playing against quality opponents.”

When O’Neill turns his attention to Penn State, there will be an added weight of some recent history in preparation for that game. 

From 2015-16 Rutgers faced the Lions three times in the postseason with Penn State ending the Knights’ campaigns through the Big Ten Tournament, as well as their final four campaign in the NCAA Tournament a few weeks later. 

Rutgers got a measure of revenge in the following season, when it ousted the Lions in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on its own field. Last season the two teams played to a scoreless double overtime draw at Yurcak Field in a season when Penn State was ranked No. 13 in the country.

“Every game in the Big Ten is a huge game for us just because the points are so crucial that we need every win, we need those three points … but I think that this is a huge weekend. I think that Ohio State and Penn State are both very good teams, and if we come out and play our game then we’ll put on a good show,” said senior backfielder Kenie Wright.

For Wright, this will be the seventh matchup against the Lions in her career. Wright is 1 of 3 players on the 2018 squad that was part of that 2015 squad that lost to Penn State in the playoffs twice alongside midfielder Adora Moneme and goalkeeper Brianna Scarola.  

This is also the first time she is playing for a team that resides atop the conference, as it is the highest seed the program has reached this late in the season since joining the Big Ten. 

“It’s definetly a lot different. My whole time at Rutgers I’ve never been at the top, I’ve never been No. 1 in the Big Ten so I think that is a little different. I think it’s something special that everyone every day is just thankful that we’re part of this team and a part of this situation but we have four games left that we have to focus on if we’re gonna finish No. 1,” Wright said. 

The Knights' schedule winds down after this weekend, as they will finish their schedule in Michigan State then at home against Purdue — both teams possess the bottom two seeds in the conference. 

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

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