No. 20 Rutgers ends regular season at No. 1 Penn State

From the start of Big Ten play at the end of March, the main focus for the Rutgers men's lacrosse team was clinching a top-four finish and a spot in the conference tournament. After a two-game skid against John's Hopkins and Maryland, the No. 20 Scarlet Knights (7-6, 2-2) booked their tickets to the Big Ten Tournament with a Senior Day win over Michigan. 

With that task taken care of, Rutgers now shifts its focus to a road matchup with No. 1 Penn State in a bid to earn its second top-five upset of the season. The Knights have struggled all season against ranked opponents, going 1-6 against teams in the top 20. 

The Nittany Lions (11-1, 4-0) will be the toughest test of the season, boasting an uptempo offense that leads the nation with an average of 17 goals per game. Spearheading the Penn State attack is Mac O’Keefe, who currently leads the Big Ten with 46 goals. 

While Rutgers will look to contain O’Keefe, the Lions have no shortage of playmakers. Five of their players have scored more than 20 goals on the season.

The mantra when preparing for every opponent this season has been “focus on ourselves.” This week will be no different, and if the Knights want to slow down Penn State, they’ll have to focus on causing turnovers and winning the face-off and ground ball matchups to create opportunities for themselves. 

Despite boasting an elite defensive unit led by senior defensemen Kyle Pless and Garrett Michaeli, Rutgers has struggled to win possession at the X all season, boasting a .434 win percentage on the season. 

Fifth-year senior face-off specialist Alex Schoen is coming off a career game against the Wolverines (3-9, 0-4), in which he won 15 of 19 face-offs and helped the Knights dominate the run of play in the second half.

“It was a great effort by (Schoen) and (fifth-year senior face-off specialist) Connor (Harryman),” said head coach Brian Brecht. “Penn State is the best we’ve faced, so our face-off guys have to compete and our wings will have to compete, and we’ll have to steal possessions and win the ball to be successful.”

With a Big Ten Tournament spot clinched, Rutgers can shift its focus to the postseason. With an RPI ranking of 22, the Knights need to boost their resume if they want to earn an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. 

They got a signature win in late March against Ohio State, but are currently on the wrong side of the bubble.

There are also seeding implications at stake. A win would give Rutgers the third or fourth seed in the tournament, which would set the stage for a semifinal matchup against Maryland or the Lions, depending on how the other games turn out.

If the Knights want to put themselves in a prime position, they’ll have to handle the ultimate test of Penn State on the road.

“Each game has its own challenges,” Brecht said. “But the experience that Penn State has and how they play together will be a challenge for all 60 minutes.”

For updates on the Rutgers men's lacrosse team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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