Penn State Men’s Soccer Big Ten Tournament Preview
Playoff soccer has arrived, folks.
On Saturday, No. 2 Penn State hosts No. 7 Ohio State in the Big Ten men’s soccer quarterfinal at Jeffrey Field.
After a season that included last-minute winning goals, injuries, and a 16-day COVID-19-related pause, the Nittany Lions find themselves in a good position heading into the postseason. After posting a 6-1-1 regular-season record, Penn State has earned the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten as well as a No. 19 national ranking.
However, being second isn’t enough for this team.
“We definitely have a sour taste in our mouth, coming in second in the regular season,” freshman striker Peter Mangione said. “Overall, [it is important to be] keeping that mindset of having a chip on our shoulder.”
With the Nittany Lions on a collision course to face No. 1 Indiana in the final, the marquee match that was postponed last month, here is what they need to do to get that far.
How Will The Buckeyes Challenge Penn State?
The two rivals faced off just a few weeks ago at Jeffrey Field, and Penn State was able to squeak out a narrow 1-0 win. The game certainly didn’t have the feel of a title-contending team facing a program toward the bottom of the conference.
That isn’t surprising, according to head coach Jeff Cook. In fact, the head coach reiterated that the margins between the first and last team in the conference are very small.
“When you look back at the eight games, it’s human nature to say, ‘Oh, we are 6-1-1, so that was not too hard,'” Cook said. “But you have to dig into the details and remember that it was late goals, overtime wins, key defensive plays that built this platform.”
Ohio State began the season in hot form, going 3-1-1 in its first five games. However, the Buckeyes are on a four-game losing streak heading into the postseason and haven’t scored since March 15.
Nonetheless, Cook is prepared for the opponent to stay true to its dangerous methods of attack.
“Their energy and willingness to attack is going to be a threat. They commit a lot of numbers forward in advanced positions,” Cook said. “And they challenge you to deal with that.”
Ohio State hasn’t been clinical in its last four games, and the Nittany Lions have clamped down on other offenses lately. This should be a good blueprint for Penn State to sucker punch the Buckeyes once they make mistakes in the attacking third.
“They take some risks, so managing the threat they pose and going the other way, trying to turn possession and counter-attacking opportunities into goals or at least goal chances [will be most important],” Cook said.
Ohio State’s best two performers all year have been freshmen midfielders. Laurence Wooton has caught eyes nationally, ranking as the No. 4 freshman in TopDrawerSoccer’s midseason top 100 rankings. Hailing from England, Wooton came stateside after playing for Cardiff City’s under-23 team.
In addition to Wooton, the most potent offensive player for Ohio State is freshman midfielder Parker Grinstead. He may be only 5’9″, but Grinstead is known for his speed and has three goals and two assists thus far.
Tor Penn State to advance calmly, the team will need to jump on the Buckeyes quickly.
“They are a good team, it was a good game the first time,” captain Brandon Hackenberg said. “Looking back on film, there are some things that we still thought we could’ve done better, starting with a strong start and being focused as we can be for 90 minutes.
“If we come out with a lot of energy and use our depth to our advantage, that will really help us get control [of the game].”
Almost half of Penn State’s rotation has been injured at some point this year, which goes to show just how impressive this run has been.
As of the end of the regular season, only two key players remained out — star striker Liam Butts and midfield destroyer Callum Pritchatt. Luckily, both players seem likely to return sooner rather than later.
“We are starting to get guys who are moving closer to match fitness,” Cook said. “Our sports medicine team has been outstanding, and [Butts and Pritchatt] have been working really hard with their rehab. We expect both of them will be available for some minutes heading into the Big Ten Tournament.”
NCAA Tournament Outlook
Nothing is given in this COVID-19 year, and the same is, unfortunately, true for the programs trying to clinch a berth in the national tournament. It was unclear for much of the season whether the effects of the pandemic would shrink the field from 48 teams to either 32 or 36, but it appears 36 participants will make the trip to the North Carolina bubble.
Four extra spots may not seem like too many, but it is absolutely massive for Big Ten teams like Penn State, Michigan, and Maryland. A total of 22 conferences will send an automatic bid, making it an increase of 10 to 14 at-large berths. If each conference is won by the best team, Penn State is roughly the eighth-best at-large team at the moment — in, but not comfortably.
This is TopDrawerSoccer’s current tournament projection, which has Penn State and Michigan in but Maryland out:
If the Nittany Lions fall at the first hurdle to Ohio State, that could push them fully onto the artificially minimized bubble.
The one surefire way to go to North Carolina is by winning the Big Ten Tournament. However, this means more for the five teams involved that are currently on the outside looking in, including Ohio State.
“This is a new lease of life for everyone who is competing in the Big Ten even beyond a normal year,” Cook said. “The Big Ten Tournament champion [receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament] is even more valuable than normal to a reduced field.
“Every one of the eight teams is capable of winning this championship, and we have to respect that. Whatever happened in the regular season is over,” Cook said.
We tried our hand at predicting how the Nittany Lions would do back in the preseason in our season preview. While it is typically a fool’s errand to provide a declaration on three months of soccer before it has begun, our takes surprisingly aged well.
Here is an excerpt from that post, which was published on February 17:
“Cook’s team will travel to Bloomington on March 7 for a critical matchup with Indiana. Penn State must get a result in that fixture to have a chance to win the regular-season title, but we believe that the Hoosiers still remain supreme in the Big Ten.
Penn State plays Maryland, another likely favorite in the conference, twice. It is unlikely the Nittany Lions will be able to sweep the Terrapins, especially considering their first fixture is the season opener. Beyond Indiana and Maryland, Cook’s team will drop points in one or two other games, with tough matches including a March 3 trip to Michigan and an unpredictable away trip to Northwestern (March 19).
Penn State may not win the regular season, but the team is poised for a tournament run.“
We initially predicted the Nittany Lions to finish 6-2-2, not far off from 6-1-1. That also includes projected losses against Indiana and Michigan, the two scheduled games that got canceled due to COVID-19. Let’s count that as a perfect prediction.
Because we expect this prediction to be just as successful, you heard it here first: Penn State will be Big Ten champions.
Indiana has had a long, successful reign at the top of the conference, and is still probably the best team in the Big Ten regardless of what happens over the next 10 days or so. However, playoff soccer can be finicky. As long as the Nittany Lions don’t stumble at the first hurdle, they should be able to pick up steam against Michigan and reach the final.
Then, who knows? Indiana may be a top-six team in the nation, but crazy things happen in playoff soccer.
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Whether Mini is watching football, wrestling, or hockey, this Little Lion is sure to make the game just a little bit more enjoyable.
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