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Know Your Enemy: No. 7 Penn State Men’s Lacrosse vs. No. 1 Duke Blue Devils

Penn State men’s lacrosse has come alive down the stretch and has pulled off thrilling wins over Army and Princeton en route to the NCAA Tournament Final Four weekend in Philadelphia. This is just the second time the program has come this far.

Now, the Nittany Lions will return to Pennsylvania as they face the most feared team in the tournament, the perennial powerhouse that is Duke lacrosse.

Duke Overview

Duke is currently riding a return to glory after missing out on the NCAA Tournament entirely in 2022 and has now made its way back to the Final Four for the 12th time in 16 years. Last season’s 11-6 record is nothing to scoff at but the Duke faithful and NCAA selection committee decided it wasn’t enough. This season has been dedicated to vengeance for the Blue Devils, whose senior class has been silencing just about every doubter and school they’ve faced.

At the helm of the Blue Devils is goalie William Helm, commanding a save percentage of .524 and a goals-against average of 10.58 this campaign. Helm held Michigan to eight goals in last week’s semifinal, the Wolverines’ lowest total of the season. Teams have succeeded against him in the past by staying patient and selecting shots rather than just throwing the kitchen sink at the net. Once he’s cracked though, his save percentage is liable to plummet, as seen in one of the team’s only losses against Notre Dame. Starting off with a .800, a second-quarter surge by the Fighting Irish rattled the netminder, who didn’t post a percentage above .400 in a quarter for the rest of the game.

The Duke defense will be in good health and ready for most of the tricks of Penn State’s offense. It will be important for the Nittany Lions to not get too comfortable near the net, as Duke’s close defense has been a turnover machine when allowed to go one-on-one with short sticks near the goal.

Finally, the national-topping offense of the Blue Devils also deserves a look. Leading the charge is Tewaaraton finalist and ACC Player of the Year Brennan O’Neill, who has an impressive 91 points this season. Playing attack as well are Dyson Williams and Andrew McAdorey. The unit has been incredibly efficient this year, averaging 8.5 goals and 12.4 points per game as a trio and sharing just over 54% of the Blue Devils’ total team points.

Keys To The Game

The Nittany Lions will need to start the game in the driver’s seat. It’s cliche, but the first 15 minutes are some of the most important moments in a game. Penn State can’t afford to fall out of the race early, a fate Michigan faced last week but instead needs to run with Duke like Delaware did in the round of 16. The Blue Hens kept a close game all the way down to the wire and prompted some head-scratching penalties cracks in the armor of a Duke team that doesn’t know how to trail in a game. The Nittany Lions will need to exploit the same poise issues if they want a chance to move on to the championship.

It will also be important for Penn State to help its defensive midfield against cross-cutting attackers. Duke loves to score on the run, usually horizontally across the restraining box.

The Nittany Lions can’t lose their heads, though, as the opportunity for big, and sometimes dirty, hits will be there in this defensive scheme, and Penn State can not afford to give its opponents the ball with an extra attacker. Some good, physical defense will be necessary to control O’Neill and limit his options in and around the net.

One final thing the Nittany Lions will need to win the game is transition goals. Penn State needs to score before Duke settles into its familiar personnel and rotations. We’ve seen the Nittany Lions score on the break before, as defensive midfielder Mark Sickler has been proving to be one of the most underrated shooters in the tournament. Penn State will need to benefit from the added tempo and momentum of a quick, demoralizing goal following a clear.

Prediction

We believe Penn State has a real opportunity to push the tempo of this game and give Duke a serious run for its money. We’ll see early goals from O’Neill and McAdorey but also Kevin Winkoff and Jack Traynor.

The game will remain close until the third quarter when Penn State’s defense will have figured out Duke’s set pieces and adjusted to helping in on O’Neill’s dodges. Jack Fracyon will lock down the net against long shots while Sam Sweeney and Kevin Parnham keep the peace in close. Finally, TJ Malone will rise to the occasion and lead the Nittany Lions to the promised land, either with his deadly shot or precision passing. The final will be 11-10 in favor of the Nittany Lions and send Penn State to its first NCAA Tournament Championship.

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About the Author

Jack Scott

Jack is a junior industrial engineering major from Pittsburgh, PA. Sometimes, he enjoys the misunderstanding of his friends and family that Penn State Club Ski Racing may be a D1 sport and usually won't correct them. Jack is way too into Thundercat for his own good. Follow him on Twitter @joscottIV and Instagram @jackscott._iv

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