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COVID-19 Pause, Injuries No Matter For Penn State Men’s Soccer’s Electric Attack

Penn State men’s soccer seemed to be trending in the wrong direction ahead of Monday’s clash with Rutgers.

Following a 2-0 start to the season, the Nittany Lions lost to underdogs Michigan State on February 27 before enduring a 16-day COVID-19-related pause. In the loss to the Spartans, the team lost multiple players to injury, and four key players — Alex Stevenson, Jalen Watson, Callum Pritchatt, and Peter Mangione — were all absent for the clash with the Scarlet Knights.

But none of that mattered Monday afternoon.

Despite missing leading goal-scorer Mangione, Penn State’s attack came out of the gates flying, dispatching Rutgers in a 4-2 rout. The team didn’t look like it had been off for over two weeks, especially when on the front foot.

“From an attacking perspective, that was as dangerous as we’ve looked going forward in recent times,” head coach Jeff Cook said. “It was really disappointing to be more than two weeks without a game. We tried to create very clear themes [in practice].”

In addition to the four goals, the Nittany Lions had 10 shots on target, a stark contrast from 16 days prior when they couldn’t even test Michigan State’s goalkeeper.

The most noticeable improvement on Monday was the fluidity of the Penn State offense.

Players like Seth Kuhn and Pierre Reedy were able to flex their build-up play, and the speed of Ghanaian Danny Bloyou stretched Rutgers’ defense until it broke. While sophomore star Liam Butts didn’t get on the scoresheet, his pestering of the opposing defense fit the mold perfectly.

“We have been working on the final pass and just moving it that one more time,” Kuhn said. “The last two weeks, we’ve had a lot of time to work on stuff like that. [In Monday’s game], you saw a good team play, and I think our chemistry is really getting down.”

With the returning players and exciting new class arriving, it was never in doubt that, on paper, Cook had a lot of depth to work with in 2021.

When put to the test with four of its best players sidelined, Penn State answered the call on both ends of the ball. Offensively, important minutes from Bloyou, Josh Dabora, and Keegan Ness gave the Nittany Lions a boost throughout a game that wasn’t clinched until the 75th minute.

“At any game, we can come up to any of the front four to be our hot hand. We have guys like Josh Dabora, who came in and hit the crossbar himself,” Kuhn said.

The offense is crowded when it comes to the depth chart, and it is comforting for Penn State to have such a diverse set of talents. Penn State’s ability to hurt teams in multiple ways was on full display through Bloyou’s play on Monday.

Bloyou’s two goals weren’t made out of his sheer speed, something he has a lot of. Instead, the Old Dominion transfer was a poacher, terrorizing Oren Asher’s six-yard box with cunning runs. The team has only had him for one season, but Bloyou’s connection with Reedy, Kuhn, and Butts made it seem as if he had been with them for years.

“Danny has done a great job working through adversity and working through not as much playing time as he might want,” Kuhn said. “Then you have a performance like today, and you see yourself right into the lineup. I thought he was brilliant.”

It is no small feat to score four goals after a two-week break. Cook said he and his staff worked long hours to make sure that the team could find manageable goals to hit during the extended period off the field.

“I really compliment the players for overcoming their disappointment [during the two-week hiatus],” Cook said. “It was hard at times to sell it psychologically, that we were even going to play. We have dealt with a lot of challenges, as has every person in this pandemic.”

However, Cook’s team can’t get complacent with at least four scheduled games left on the slate. When so many players remain unavailable for selection, now is the time to keep pushing.

“We always talk about this, even in a normal, non-COVID year, of being durable so you can be available for selection,” Cook continued. “In this COVID era, you also have to be healthy. That is our number one job.”

Without naming individual players, Cook said he’s confident the roster will be rejuvenated for Friday’s game in Evanston.

“We have a lot of guys who are close, guys are coming back. I do expect maybe one or two additions to come back for Northwestern,” Cook said.

The game against Northwestern is set to kick off at 1 p.m. on Friday. Once again, it will be televised nationally on the Big Ten Network.

As it stands, the Nittany Lions are one win away from claiming the top spot in the conference.

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About the Author

Otis Lyons

Otis is a sophomore majoring in print journalism and is one of Onward State's associate editors. He lives just north of San Francisco, and is a diehard San Jose Earthquakes fan. Feel free to send over your soccer hot takes to his twitter @otisnlyons1 and instagram @otislyons

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