Friday, 7:30 PM
(2) Penn State (17-3-0; 1st – Big Ten; WTSR – 1.35, 1st – Big Ten)
Buffalo (16-2-3; 1st – MAC; WTSR – 1.29, Rank – N/A)
Can We Talk About The Job Shawn Burke Has Done At Buffalo?
Yes, let’s. Buffalo had finished out of the RPI Top 200 in seven of the eight seasons before Burke took charge this year. The Bulls had won eleven games combined in 2012 and 2013. All UB did this year was win sixteen matches, win the MAC comfortably, and then win the MAC Tournament title to cap a eight match win streak and fourteen match unbeaten run going into the NCAA Tournament. It’ll never happen, but Burke would be shortlisted for one of the best coaching jobs done in 2014.
So Do They Stand A Chance Of An Upset To Shake The World?
Doubtful. Buffalo didn’t exactly play a brutally difficult non-conference schedule, with the only real test coming against ACC contender Virginia Tech. They got stomped 5-0. This club hasn’t come close to this point previously in its recent history, and the lack of experience at this level is probably going to come back to haunt them against a side of Penn State’s calibre come Friday night.
Still, the Bulls have some talent personnel. Veteran Katie Roberts blossomed as a senior, netting eight goals in MAC action for Buffalo in a breakout season. Running mate Celina Carrero also had four goals and four assists in league play to fuel a dangerous UB attack. The Bulls also boasted the best defense in the league, conceding just four goals in MAC play. Jackie Hall and Sophie Therien both shone on the backline, while Burke benefitted from a real find in goal in the form of rookie Laura Dougall, who already looks like the league’s top goalkeeper, even as a freshman. The good news is that though players like Roberts and Therien are seniors, the likes of Dougall and Hall will be back in 2015, meaning this might not just be a one-off for the Bulls.
OK, Just How Much Faith Do You Have in Penn State?
To win on Friday? A lot. To get more than a few weekends into this tournament? Not nearly as much. Penn State has excelled about ninety percent of the time this year. The problem is, when the wheels come of that other ten percent of the time, they really come off. They may have only lost three matches this season, and they may have lost them all by just one goal, but the club’s performance in the losses to North Carolina and Rutgers was hardly reassuring. How a club as talented as PSU coughed up a match against eighth-seed Northwestern last week is worrying as well.
Three 1-0 Losses? Is The Attack Going To Be PSU’s Downfall?
Perhaps some of the inexperience of the attack. The kids have been alright for most of the season, but with Frannie Crouse still inexperienced in the postseason along with attacking midfielder Emily Ogle, you worry about the consistency of said attack over the course of the next few weeks. Mallory Weber has been purely a provider in the league season, with five assists and just one goal, while Emily Hurd has the same stat line in the league. The good news for PSU is that they’e gotten a lot of mileage out of their midfield in the attack, with Ogle being backed up by Megan Schafer, also with three assists, and Salina Williford, who had four goals and three assists in the league.
Without question though, the key for the attack, and perhaps the entire team, is Raquel Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s absence was keenly felt when she was with the Costa Rica WNT for WWC qualifying, and the international midfielder is the biggest indicator of class on this squad. She can do a little bit of everything, from a deep position in midfield or in a more advance position. She has five goals on the season, but her impact can be felt far beyond the box score. If Rodriguez has a big tournament, PSU has a chance to make a deep run this NCAA Tournament.
The Defense Can Bail The Offense Out Though, Right?
PSU will probably be counting on it. Whitney Church has been her typical outstanding self at the heart of the defense and helped provide some veteran leadership for a group that was starting two rookies this year. Out wide, Kori Chapic has been tremendous at left-back and has been one of the nation’s best full-backs attacking, with four goals and three assists in league play, a fantastic return for a defender. Right-back Maddie Elliston hasn’t been as prolific but has also been extremely impressive in her rookie season out wide. Rookie Elizabeth Ball is probably the weak link on paper, but considering she’s started at center-back for virtually the whole year as a freshman, it’s hard to quibble. The lack of size is a worry against bigger forwards though. The club’s tallest starting defender is Kori Chapic at 5’7″. In the middle, Church is 5’5″, and Ball is 5’6″. That might be a sticking point for an opponent that chooses to bombard PSU from the air. In goal, Britt Eckerstrom is solid and experienced, though she’s probably not going to steal games on her own for PSU.
So, Gut Feeling, How Far Does Penn State Go?
Penn State certainly got drawn in the right quadrant. The other three seeded teams are as capable as PSU are on their day but also vulnerable to crumbling disappointingly at inopportune times. Sealing a #2 seed and getting home advantage for three rounds is big though and may just facilitate the Nittany Lions’ path towards the final few weekends of the tournament. I’m wary of PSU avoiding a meltdown that’s been all-too frequent in this competition over the years though, and it’d hardly be surprising to see the Nittany Lions not live up to their seed. The offense is too streaky for my liking, making a trip to the last four a shaky proposition.